Time for a change

After a good life travelling the world, working with the United Nations for the Cook Islands government, Tomoavao Tamanu (Tom) Wichman has found a new mission – helping Pasifika people in Auckland to grow fresh food, cheaply – just like they do in the islands.

"You can still do what you did in the Islands, but you have to do some things differently now."

Tom Wichman

For many years while Tom travelled he stayed in the best hotels and ate plenty of fancy food. His weight crept up, his health deteriorated, and then he developed diabetes, and finally cancer.

As a result Tom changed his diet. These days Tom is a much slimmer and healthier man, and has become an advocate for organic food. Six days a week he is at the Mangere Community Gardens in Mangere Town Centre on land owned by the Mangere Community Health Trust. His diabetes is under control, he has survived the cancer – and Tom is a man with a mission. Get him started on fenugreek and he’ll talk all day!

We have to start thinking differently about the foods we grow and how we grow them.

Tomoavao Tamanu Wichman

In fact, he’s been a man of many missions, working as an anaesthetic technician, then studying medical engineering, before becoming the Cook Island’s first director for renewable engineering. Tom is sure his home country will use only wind and solar power by 2020.

In the sandy outer islands of his homeland he established hydroponic gardens that are now feeding the locals and they are selling the surplus. “All over the world it’s getting harder to grow food,” says Tom. “We’ve got rising sea-levels, water shortages, spreading deserts and more erosion, so we have to start thinking differently about the foods we grow and how we grow them.”

Tom’s now in his mid-70s, but he’s always been a bit of a greenie, and his active mind is usually thinking about ways to do things differently or better. In 2005 he received the British Empire Medal for his work on renewable energy and finding ways to remove pollutants from waste water, waterways and lagoons in the Cook Islands.

Gardening is good for you - it helps remove the body's stresses and also helps keep you active.

Tomoavao Tamanu Wichman

Seeing the health issues facing many Pasifika people, particularly diabetes, Tom says we should all be a lot more careful about what they eat – reducing our carbohydrate intake, and eating low GI foods, “so I always tell people ‘fibre’ and they’ll get that from eating vegetables”.

He also points out that gardening is good for you – preparing the soil, planting, working and weeding, all help remove the body’s stresses and also help keep you active.

Tom reckons more than 100 people have been involved in the Mangere Community Gardens since they opened three years ago and the positive spin-off is that people then go and create their own gardens at home. The gardens are organic, and in a little shed on the property Tom is also trialling aquaculture and hydroponics.

The strawberries are doing just fine. He’s drilled large round holes along bamboo and plastic drain piping, which he’s attached to the wall, and in those can plant tomatoes, capsicum and watermelons (yes, watermelons – but it takes some ingenuity), and the water trickles through and is recycled. “This is a good way to grow food in the city. This type of gardening takes up very little space.” In addition, Tom says buildings all over Auckland should be establishing roof top gardens to grow fruit and vegetables.

“Just because you are living in New Zealand doesn’t mean you have to buy your vegetables from the supermarket. You can still do what you did in the Islands but you have to do some things differently now,” says Tom. “I want Pasifika people to know that when they come to New Zealand they don’t need to stop gardening and growing vegetables – they may be different vegetables, but you can live in the city and still grow your own healthy food.”

Tom continues to watching energy developments in the Pacific with a keen eye, but it’s also remarkable to see the change he has helped bring to his adopted home of Mangere. You almost wonder how he can do it – it may have something to do with fenugreek …

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