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Honesty, hard work and tikanga

Mereana Waaka-Owen, pictured with husband George, was awarded Life Membership of the Maori Women’s Welfare League. PHOTOS/SUPPLIED

Kai and care for community’s lost souls

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
[email protected]

A daughter of Wairarapa, with a sharp tongue and heart of gold, has been awarded life membership of one of Aotearoa’s most celebrated Maori organisations.

Mereana Waaka-Owen, who grew up east of Masterton, was “absolutely thrilled” to be made a life member of the Maori Women’s Welfare League (MWWL) – though she confessed the honour came as “a bit of a surprise”.

For friends and colleagues at the Kawatiri branch of the WMML – based on the West Coast – Mereana’s life membership is a fitting reward for her two decades of tireless service: whether that was providing meals for “lost souls” in the community, championing Maori talent, doling out tough love, or making sure events ran like clockwork.

The MWWL, founded in 1951, was set up to empower and advocate for wahine Maori throughout Aotearoa – and went on to help thousands of women access healthcare, education and housing.

Mereana with husband George, a honorary member of the MWWL, and members of the Kawatiri branch.

With the Kawatiri branch, Mereana was responsible for helping promote vaccination and breastfeeding support to whanau, assisting with kohanga reo, providing care for the elderly, and organising events to recognise te ao Maori.

To celebrate Mereana’s life membership, the Kawatiri branch hosted a small and intimate celebration in her adopted hometown of Westport and took her and husband George – an “honorary” MWWL member – out for dinner.

Past president and close friend Sharon Marsh said Mereana is beloved in the MWWL not only for her mahi in the community, but for her meticulous organisation, attention to detail, generosity – and sometimes brutal honesty.

“Her life membership award is well-earned and has been a long time coming,” she said.

“Mereana has given so much to our organisation. She has always been there to make sure things get done – and get done properly.

“She’s definitely straight up and has got a pretty sharp tongue! But she’s got a heart of gold and will do anything for anyone.”

“In other words, I’m bossy and have a big waha (mouth)!” Mereana laughed.

“I forget to be polite sometimes! But things always ran smoothly when I was around.”

Mereana, the youngest of 10 siblings, was born in Homewood, in the foothills of the Wairarapa coastline, and attended the nearby Homewood School, and later Whareama School.

As a teenager, much to her chagrin, her mother pulled her out of school to work in the shearing shed.

“I hated that – I hated the smell. Shearing wasn’t for me,” she said.

“So, at 16, I ran away from home.”

Arriving in Wellington, Mereana knew no one and barely knew her way around – but was able to find work at Wellington Hospital, simply by “walking in and asking for a job”.

She was initially employed as a nurse’s aide but, on hearing the staff “had more fun”, moved into the hospital’s domestic services department – washing dishes, cleaning, and serving meals in the cafeteria.

“I didn’t do any cooking though – even my mother couldn’t get me to cook!”

“Mum was very strict on us kids. My brothers and sisters often said I was ‘the lucky one’ for getting out.”

Mereana eventually returned to Wairarapa, where she worked as a nurse aide at the old Pahiatua Hospital, before relocating to Porirua and later to Christchurch with her young children.

It was there she met George, who was living in Westport but would travel to Christchurch to visit family.

In a strange twist of fate, she was introduced to her future husband by her friend Rosie, who happened to be George’s former wife.

“Rosie and I were great mates. I was a solo mum back then – and I met her down at the social welfare department.

“She told me that if I wanted to be with George, I’d need to move to Westport. She started packing my bags for me right then!

“We moved in together – and got married on New Year’s Day at the racecourse.”

Mereana joined the Kawatiri MWWL in 2001 and went on to serve as the branch’s president and vice-president.

She became a well-known fixture in the Westport community – with she and fellow members Nanny McDonald and Huia Taumata dubbed “The Aunties”.

She recalled one of her roles was working with “young single men” to help them find direction in life – which would often involve dishing out some blunt advice.

“We’d go into their flats, and there’d be bottles and cigarettes everywhere,” she said.

“I’d usually be the one telling them they needed to clean up their act. I’d tell them off – but they’d always listen to me.”

One of Mereana’s passions was organising events: particularly afternoon teas for the students at the Westport Deep Sea Fishing School, and “kaumatua dinners” for older people who had been “left behind”.

“The young guys at the fishing school were lost souls – they didn’t know anyone in town, so the afternoon teas helped introduce them to the community,” she said.

“The older people were lovely, but very lonely and isolated. They were stuck in their own little square of the house – the only times you’d see them out and about was at the shops.

“They needed to be around other people.”

Merena’s event planning skills came in handy when it came to MWWL’s fundraisers, Waitangi Day and Matariki celebrations, and exhibitions to champion Westport’s Maori artists.

She joked she was “always good at delegating” – including to George, who could often be found digging hangi, handing out raffle tickets, and making toffee apples for the kids.

She was affectionately known as a “stickler for tikanga” – making sure no one touched the kai until hands were washed, and karakia said.

In 2018, Mereana and George “pulled back” from the organisation – but, the very next year, were helping out at the MWWL’s Te Waipounamu Regional Conference, held in Westport.

Mereana, who has three sons and a daughter, has “lots of nieces and nephews” still living in Wairarapa, and often comes back to the region to visit whanau.

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