The delight from the tamariki as they dig their hands deep into the dirt to pull out kūmara is infectious.

“Ohhhh!” a young boy gasps as he pulls out a particularly large one. 

Pointing to several freshly harvested kūmara, another boy says: “This one looks like a fat potato and this one just looks like a ball”.

The group of students from Selwyn School in Rotorua are on a field trip to Te Puea Orchard in Tikitere, a 15 minute drive east from the city. 

When Re:’s reo Māori series Ohinga visited last month, the group were harvesting hutihuti kūmara they had planted last year. 

Within minutes, the students dug up large stacks of kūmara - with looks of genuine awe as they pull each one of the humble vegetables from the earth. 

“If we grow kūmara at my house I would know how to do it and teach my nan,” one student says. 

This reconnection with both Papatūānuku and kai is what it’s all about for Kai Rotorua - the non-profit group that now manages Te Puea Orchard.

Each year, hundreds - both old and young - volunteer at the orchard which produces nourishing, sustainably produced food. Kai Rotorua also delivers a Māori cultural education programme through the cultivation of the whenua. 

Project manager Te Rangikaheke Kiripatea (Te Arawa, Ngāti Uenuku Kōpako) says it’s all about reconnecting to the past.

“Our people went around the globe back in the day to bring the kūmara back to Hawaiki and then from Hawaiki they brought it over to Aotearoa,” he says. 

“The relationship that Māori have had with the kūmara goes back a long way and these are the things that I’m talking to (the tamariki) about - for them to hold on to and to nurture.”

“And the way that we do that is to actually get them to physically hold the kūmara … plant the  kūmara, harvest the kūmara and share the kūmara out amongst whānau.”

The nutritional value of kūmara was so important that the vegetable was carried on the first waka voyages to Aotearoa. The first waka to arrive in Aotearoa collectively carried around 800 varieties of kūmara onboard. 

Now, just a fraction of these have survived. Ensuring their survival is a big part of Kai Rotorua’s mahi. 

“The kūmara is in our DNA, it’s in our whakapapa… it’s a natural, integral part of us and its own whakapapa comes all the way down to us.”

Te Rangikaheke says his years at Te Puea Orchard have also helped him recconnect. 

“It’s not so much a joy aye - it's a passion actually,” he says. 

“I’ve actually reconnected because my dad was born on Mokoia Island and they grew kūmara all year round so that cycle of the kūmara vine comes around to revisit us at odd times in our lives.”

And he says a big part of it is about kai sovereignty - helping people to learn to grow their own kai.  

“You can not connect a Māori to a carrot, it doesn’t work. But by crickey you put the kūmara in front of them - you saw what happened with the boys today - it just gives that connection aye, reconnects them.”

This is part of our reo Māori series, Ohinga, created by Mahi Tahi Media, with funding from Te Māngai Pāho and the NZ on Air Public Interest Journalism Fund.

Stay tuned for a new episode every week.

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