Body & Fitness

Aroha Rawson’s horror injury saw her turn to Māori medicine

When depression hit, the Mean Mums’ star turned to Māori medicine

Mean Mums actor Aroha Rawson’s lifepath forever changed after falling through a skylight, leaving her with a head injury and a broken back.

Then 27 years old, the terrifying near-death experience began a lifelong healing journey into rongoā (Māori healing).

“I had the whole out-of-body experience,” recalls Aroha of the 2002 accident. “I saw myself lying on the ground and had a light to my right. I couldn’t see him, but Dad, who died when I was nearly three, was there. The message was I could come to him, but I didn’t have to. I thought of Mum and went back.”

Initially, treatment was in the public health system with many specialist appointments.

Bringing the laughs in Mean Mums.

“There was a clinical psychologist, musculoskeletal specialist, occupational and physiotherapists – multiple people working on one body,” says Aroha, now 47. “I had the same conversation repeatedly. It was my untrained responsibility to decipher and weave the information from one specialist to the next.

“The head injury was a huge challenge and triggered depression.”

A resilient Aroha persevered with her recovery while starting to reconnect with her Māori heritage.

Raised in north Canterbury by her Scots/Irish mum after her Māori father passed away, reclaiming her culture was initially a distant hope.

“Growing up, it was te ao Pākeha – I didn’t have Māori references around me. I was the only brown thing in my world,” tells Aroha, who’s quick to add her childhood was full of love and support from her mother Mary, a nurse, and aunties who were also integral in growing her appreciation of the outdoors, nature and home remedies.

“They used lemon, honey, inhalations and brought us up eating from the garden, bush walking and playing in the sea,” says Aroha fondly.

“I remember school camp at Arthur’s Pass. They taught us about horopito [pepper tree]. I tasted it and asked, ‘Can you use it instead of chilli?’ That was 35 years ago and I got looked at like I was mad. But it was one of the first connections I made between forest and body.

Screen-favourite Aroha has a rich portfolio of roles including Lee Tamahori’s film Mahana, about a clan feud in 1970’s New Zealand.

“I was the family and friends’ back massager. They lined up for massages from me. But it wasn’t until two years after the accident, on a roadie visiting whānau I hadn’t seen since childhood, that I learned about Māori massage and the world of rongoā began to bloom before me.”

Learning about the holistic approach of rongoā, the stars and Maōri lunar calendar has helped Aroha overcome the darkest of times.

“In my thirties, the depression got worse. Getting through that took every tool in the basket. With my new and on-going learnings of rongoā, time in nature and some of the tools learned from the specialists, I began to truly heal.”

For Aroha, there’s a deep peace and sense of belonging when she’s in nature – whether the bush or ocean.

“I spent lockdowns in Akaroa with Mum,” she shares. “On my walks, I’d see tūī, fantails and dolphins. For me, that’s affirmation. Those signs tell you if you’re on the right track or not!

“One day in particular, a fantail came to meet me at the edge of the forest and I followed it way into the bush. We came to an area thick with kawakawa. Three more fantails met us there, fluttering within 20cm of me. There was so much stress about the pandemic, but I sat there feeling assured and in complete peace.”

Learning to become a rongoā practitioner herself, Aroha makes sure to add, it’s a life-long process and no one can know it all!

These days, her Māori, Scots and Irish heritage benefit Aroha in her many varied roles. She’s an actor, creative producer, Matariki programming specialist, Māori arts advocate and activist – all kaupapa (topics) which bring contentment

and joy to her life.

Her work has taken her to Guatemala to share the meaning of Matariki and learn about other cultures’ cosmologies, and has seen her produce events on Auckland’s waterfront for tens of thousands.

Aroha was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the New Zealand Television Awards in 2020 for her role as Hine in Mean Mums, and Rūrangi, a ground-breaking queer-focused series Aroha features in just scooped up an International Emmy.

In Rūrangi.

“My first experience of acting at 11 showed me the relationship between wellbeing and creativity,” she muses. “I auditioned for the lead role in the school play. I didn’t get the part, but I did get this huge buzz. I remember being filled with excitement and energy for days, and to this day, there’s not a more content place for me than being an actor.

“Healing through how I live and amplifying individual or collective wellness through storytelling is healing in its fullness for me,” enthuses Aroha.

Season two of Rūrangi is available on Neon.

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