Taking the First Step

OMAKA MARAE MĀori women's welfare league pink ribbon breakfast.

8am Monday 30 May 2016; Omaka Marae

Helen Leahy, Pouarahi / Chief Executive, 

Te Pūtahitanga o te Waipounamu


I want to firstly acknowledge the significance of being here today, as a representative of your Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency, Te Pūtahitanga o Te Waipounamu.

In doing so I pay my tribute to the traditions and vision of the eight iwi of Te Tau Ihu who join Ngāi Tahu on our foundation board, Te Taumata.

I am indeed proud to acknowledge you all for taking the first step, in coming together to cherish and acclaim the concept of Whānau Ora:

  • Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō
  • Ngāti Kuia
  • Rangitāne o Wairau
  • Te Ātiawa o Te Waka-a-Māui
  • Ngāti Rārua
  • Ngāti Toa Rangatira
  • Ngāti Koata
  • Ngāti Tama ki Te Tau Ihu

Taking the first step is essentially what this breakfast is all about.

It is wonderful to see such a glorious representation of your whānau gathered here today – your kuia, your mamas, and of course the princesses in pink as well as the pastel-shirted brothers who are serving us.

And it is important in coming here to Omaka Marae, to recognise the first step taken back in September 1951 when some ninety women delegates assembled at Ngāti Pōneke Hall in Wellington to form the inaugural conference of Te Rōpū Wahine Māori Toko i te Ora.

At the other end of that decade, in 1959 the Marlborough Māori Community Club was formed to provide for the social and cultural needs of tangata whenua in Blenheim.   In 1976 you were granted the use of the airforce buildings at Omaka and from that a thirst and a passion for your own marae grew with vigour.

The first patron of the Māori Women’s Welfare League – Princess Te Puea Herangi –had a vision that has endured the generations.

Ko te puāwaitanga o ngā moemoeā, me whakamahi

Dreams become reality when we take action.

And so today, is about taking the first step; taking action.   Taking action to raise funds for the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation.  

Taking action to encourage our sisters, mothers, aunties, cousins to get regular check ups.   Taking action to speak up and raise our collective awareness.

I’d have to say that the colour pink is not a staple item in my wardrobe.

And so I started today trying to get inspired by the connection between Māori and the colour pink. 


I found a Māori inspired sarong; the latest fashion at Thomas dresswear; a hot pink lamp for your desk; even pink jandels with an indigenous flair.

But then I thought perhaps I was being too literal.  

And that pink is not so much a colour as an attitude. 


The meaning of the colour pink is unconditional love and nurturing.   It is feminine and romantic, gentle, affectionate and caring.  It is the sweet innocence of the baby girl; the nurturing embrace of your nanny.

Pink is about showing tenderness, giving and also being able to receive.

There is no accident that some institutions of the state use the colour pink to provide a space of calm; time out from situations of conflict.

Pink is also the colour of hope – the fresh inspiration of a new dawn, the reassuring comfort of a warm sunset.    

The kaupapa of this Pink Ribbon breakfast today, draws on all of these meanings to reflect and respect the wonder of wahine toa  - those of your wāhine that have survived cancer but also all of the wāhine that have lead the way – the invincible kuia Kath Hemi, Aunty Peggie, Aunty Kate, Aunty Rosie – the  aunts, the mothers, the grandmothers who have paved the way.

Kath Hemi.jpg

Taking the first step – was something that this kuia lived by.  It was no doubt part of her plan that the matriarch of Omaka was the first to be buried in your urupā.

At the time of her passing she was described in a multitude of ways – 

  • she was referred to as exceptional,
  • Mayor Alistair Sowman called her "tough and persistent",
  • She was the Helen Clark and the Hillary Clinton of Rangitane
  • Sir Doug Graham called her a modern day Biblical Moses who had glimpsed the promised land;
  • A pocket battleship who fought for her people for decades
  • determined and tenacious and not to be underestimated
  • a woman of great character and great strength

But hold on – this photo is also a woman in pink…..so perhaps the kuia Kath Hemi has opened up another meaning to this colour which is more than the soft fluffy sweetness of the pretty pastels on display.

And that’s its original source as a merger of white and red.

White – te tohu o nga rangi – the colour of purity, the entry into Te Ao Marama; the realm of being and light; 

And Red - tohu rangatira – dignity, leadership, Manakura, the warmth of ochre, Papatūānuku, earth mother, the sustainer of all living things.


Whānau Ora reminds us that the source of our strength, the foundation of our earthly wisdom lies all around us – in the colour of our world, our connections to the whenua, ngā awa, maunga, marae; the mauri of the living environment.

For Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō, the land and water, the rituals and stories that come from here are all you need to reinforce identity, connection, belonging, across generations.

It was the love for her whenua and her whānau that drove Aunty Kath to fight for the generations that would flow.

And it was the respect, indeed reverence that she earned from that journey which drew the Crown to her hospital bed to sign the Deed of Settlement, just weeks before she left this world.

The combination of red and white – the action of the red, the insight of the white, bring out that sense of passion which we can also draw upon to address the impact that breast cancer continues to have on our whānau.

And if there’s one action that you might take from this breakfast today, it would be to enrol for a mammogram.  And why?   The research tells us:

“Maori have a 50% greater risk of dying from breast cancer than non-Maori; one important reason for this is they are presenting with breast cancer at a later stage of disease.   The reasons for their presenting late are complex, but are shown by the low rate of attendance by Maori women for screening mammograms”.

Far be it from me to suggest a reason for this – particularly when you have the expertise of Dr Peter Meihana to draw on – not just in your rohe – but today even serving your tables! 

Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō historian and academic Dr Peter Meihana undertook his doctorate research on deconstructing over one hundred years of myth-making around the concept of ‘Māori Privilege’ – I am sure he would be able to provide us with a robust answer to this question ‘why’?. 

The first goal in our sight has to be the mammogram.   Give yourself the best chance.

We sometimes hear whānau say, ‘Everyone knows about mammograms.’ But the fact is, 30% of eligible women aren’t enrolled with the free screening programme, and every year another 30,000 women turn 45.   (incidentally that’s as big as the population of Blenheim).

But what’s even more important is that there is significantly greater breast cancer survival for women within the free screening age group (45-69 years) when their tumour is found on a mammogram. 

Of women aged 45-69 whose cancer was found on a screening mammogram, 94% were alive five years after diagnosis, and 86% ten years after diagnosis. 

For those women who found their cancer through a lump or other symptom, five-year survival was 80%, and ten-year survival just 68%. 

Putting these numbers into our memory calculator, we find all the reason we need to invest in more years of life right here.

The great thing is that all of us can be a champion for change, an ambassador of hope –like the beautiful Stacey Morrison or our equally beautiful Dame Tariana – who resolutely has taught us to place our faith in whānau; to cherish their desire to be restored to the essence of who they are.  That desire led to Whānau Ora – our greatest opportunity in believing in our own capacity to create the change we need in our world; to be the architects of our own enduring transformation.

From the coral pink of a fresh new dawn, to the rich crimson of our twilight days, transformation will come when we focus on health and wellbeing as the greatest action plan of our marae.   Whether that be regular exercise, being alcohol free and auahi kore, screening mammograms or being breast-aware, the answers are with us: Watch out.  Take Care.  Be alert – young or old – and be proactive.

It is so heartening to come here to Omaka – where in so many areas you are out in front, taking the first step of faith.

Just six weeks ago, the Māori Women’s Welfare League took on new challenges through the Maorithon which motivated members to get fit and speak te reo – taking a hīkoi while communicating entirely in te reo.

Then earlier this month you launched TOA FIT – the marae gym.   What I love about that kaupapa is how right from your marae chairperson, Margaret Bond, to the league members, to your Pa Kids you are taking on the challenge to be the very best you can possibly be – fit in all elements of your wairua, hauora, hinengaro, tīnana.   And how inspiring it is to have within your midst the energy of Ron and Margy Crosby counting down the days till they compete in the Berlin Marathon.

And just days ago the marae launched Apa TV in your determination to find new ways of connecting to one another ….

So here, in the apt named, Te Aroha O Te Waipounamu, it is entirely appropriate that today’s invitation was extended to all local iwi, marae and Māori organisations to come and join the campaign; to support us all to support and celebrate our Mums, Aunties, the nannies, and sisters that are here – and those who are no longer with us.

Contrary to Kiley’s point of view, it wasn’t his offer to be my personal man slave for today that brought me along.

What particularly appealed to me about today was two things – the Māori inspired menu – and the active enlisting of the brothers alongside of all our wahine toa gathered here today.  

That to me is the very essence of Whānau Ora. This breakfast is about a local solution, an idea that flows across the generations, a collective commitment, a strengths based approach.  And importantly – it brings together the red, the white, the pink – the passion, the principles and the aroha  - to honour the wahine toa who are so integral to this marae; the wahine toa who make all our lives better.

Thank you again, for a great start to the day – and an even better start to a new focus for us all; to take the first step in our plan to be well, to live long and strong, and to enjoy the fullness of life that all our mokopuna deserve.