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The importance of wahakura, or pepi-pod

In the exhibition Rongonui – Taonga mai ngā tāngata, ngā wāhi, me ngā takahanga: Treasured taonga from people, places and events, is a seemingly simple object, a wahakura or pepi-pod, a version of a bassinet for infants to sleep in. The significance of a wahakura, is that it’s designed to enable a baby to safely sleep in the same bed as Mum and Dad.

Wahakura are made from harakeke, flax, which has a long cultural heritage stretching back for centuries and has been used for basket, ropes, sails, bird snares, fishing nets and for clothing. Harakeke was also used for medicinal purposes: the sticky sap or gum was applied to boils and wounds and used on toothache. The matted leaves covered wounds as dressings and were also used to bind broken bones.

Hine Te Iwaiwa is the Māori goddess of weaving and childbirth therefore the cultural practice associated with harvesting and weaving harakeke has continuity with pregnancy and childbirth. Flax has the strength, softness, fibre content and colour to make it an apt material for creating wahakura and thereby protecting pepi. Scraped flax leaves were also adapted to tie the umbilical cord after the birth of a child.

Wahakura are part of a targeted strategy to drop the rates of Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy (SUDI) amongst Māori. Like most statistics, the Māori community is well above the national average, 4-5 times higher, and make up approximately 62% SUDI deaths in Aotearoa. The success of this contemporary innovative development is the reasons a wahakura sits alongside other significant taonga in the Rongonui exhibition.

Ngāti Kahungunu Professor, Dr Tipene-Leach, from Porangahau is a driver behind the significant reduction in SUDI amongst Māori. Working with weavers and midwives, he founded the 'wahakura movement' and promoted wahakura as a way to safely continue the cultural practice of parents sharing a bed with their newborns.

The research and study, done in partnership with Dr Sally Abel, found wahakura reduced infant mortality by 30%within six years, a significant saving of infant lives.

NZ health standards recommend a flax wahakura with a height not exceeding 20cm so parents can see their baby’s face without having to lift their head and no less than 17cm high so baby can’t roll out.

Emily Schuster, a world renowned weaver from Te Arawa, illustrated to me the make-up of the harakeke plant. Each plant has three inner layers which embody a family: the outer layer represents the kaumatua rau, grandparent leaves; the next layer are nga matua rau, parental leaves and nestled in the very centre is the new shoots, rito, baby. The imagery is beautiful with the two parental layers wrapping around and softy protecting the rito. The rito and matua rau of the harakeke are never harvested as they are the well-being and future survival of the harakeke plant.

In its preserving of life, wahakura is indeed an object of rongonui, treasured, status.

4 May 2020

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