Of corpses and communities
A couple of weeks ago, some friends in Auckland held a fundraiser. They put on an afternoon outdoor party, with music, food, lots of people from the community, some speeches and of course, buckets to accept people’s donations. It was a pretty standard event, a regular occurrence in communities around New Zealand, totally normal. Normal, except for the object of their fundraising efforts. They were fundraising for a corpse refrigerator.
In Tonga, funerals are a pretty big deal. There are many important customs that are observed when a family member dies, and the most crucial factor is that the whole family comes together to grieve and honour the dead. This becomes a massive undertaking when a huge number of Tongans live overseas, many in New Zealand and Australia.
When someone in a remote village dies, they need to keep the body above ground and cold until the family can arrive for the funeral and burial, a task that becomes difficult when you’re a long way away from the country’s only morgue. To solve the problem, the hospital has one portable refrigerator, which they rent out to families at a pretty high price, at a time when the family is already coping with the cost of a large funeral.
So my friends and their community—ex-pat Tongans from neighbouring villages—banded together to raise money for a fridge, a generator and a trailer. These items combine to create a readily packaged answer to a problem faced by many villages. The unit will be shared around several villages, meaning families suffering tragic loss have one less thing to worry about, and pay for, during an event that will already be a huge hit to their finances.
This kind of fundraiser can seem odd to a New Zealand mindset, as we’re more likely to think of donating food, clothing and other ‘basics’ of life. The reason my friends can fundraise and provide these strategic forms of aid to their families back home is because of their intimate knowledge of what daily life is like in the community. This is their family, their hometown. They know what’s going on and how best to help.
It is this advantage of community knowledge that the Government has recognised with their recent decision to open up the provision of social housing to community providers. Instead of solely funding Housing New Zealand to provide housing for those in need, the Ministry of Social Development will now be able to consider placing state housing clients in privately and community owned houses and subsidise the rent.
This means there will be far more opportunities for people to receive housing assistance without the need for the Government to build and maintain more houses, and crucially, it means that local communities can have a key role in helping their neighbours in a way that can be about so much more than housing.
Rather than just a state house, community groups are uniquely positioned to offer belonging, life skills and friendship. Like my friends and their refrigerator party, these communities can see beyond the basic needs of their neighbours and offer strategic help that will bring long term value.