Inmates at Ngawha prison's whakairo workshop have earned a national reputation for the quality of their work, and have undertaken numerous commissions, but perhaps nothing they have done in the past would surpass the replica of one of the amo (front post) of Manawanui Marae in Auckland, which the carvers handed over recently.

The new amo was formally blessed at a ceremony at Ngawha, and given into the care of the kaumātua of Manawanui Marae, Kohi Henare, before being transported to Auckland.

Manawanui Marae is part of Māori Mental Health Services, which operate under the umbrella of the Auckland District Health Board and the Waitematā District Health Boar.

The marae originally stood adjacent to the Mason Clinic, in Point Chevalier, Auckland, but was moved to its current site, opposite the Unitec Institute of Technology, in the early 2000s.

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The carving of the replica amo was commissioned thanks to a long-standing relationship between Ngawha and the two DHBs' chief adviser tikanga, Dame Naida Glavish, as well as the kaumātua of the two DHBs.

The original right-hand amo of Manawanui Marae's front A-frame structure had been damaged, "presumably by rot and white ants", said kaumātua Henare, adding that when he first noticed the damage he was disappointed it had got into that state. He was happy, however, when he saw what the carvers at Ngawha had achieved with the replica.

"I am overwhelmed by it. I am so proud of the mahi these boys have done," he said.

The amo had been carved from a totara tree donated by Ngati Whatua, which had been delivered to the prison some six weeks earlier, Mr Henare having taken photos of the original so the carvers could see what was needed of them. The new amo would be safely stored until its damaged predecessor had been buried alongside the whare, and the other exterior carvings had been painted. It would then be erected and blessed.

Colin Thompson, manager of industries at the prison, said many requests for carving were received. When a commission was accepted, the inmates created a design to tell the required story, the unit's master carver then working with other inmates in the whakairo workshop to complete the piece.

"They really enjoy the challenge," he said.

Work from the whakairo workshop had been, and continued to be, exhibited far and wide, all proceeds being donated to charitable causes. Many pieces were on permanent display in Te Tai Tokerau, including at a number of schools and on the Paihia waterfront.

"Not only do the men learn and refine new skills, but a number of them become mentors for tane who have never carved before," Mr Thompson said.

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"Through their carving work the men are able to reconnect with their cultural roots, identity and history. They also have the opportunity to work towards a formal whakairo qualification, which they can combine with a programme in small business skills to enable them to start their own enterprises on their release from prison."