THE BOY FROM KAITAIA
BY TAMA PHETHEAN
“If you’re lucky enough to marry that man, it’ll be more luck than you deserve.”
These are the words my great grandfather - an old school, hardened south east Londoner - said to my nan about her new Māori boyfriend she’d met on the beach in Cliftonville, Margate.
She didn’t like him much at first; she thought he was showing off with a bar of chocolate - which was still rationed - but little did she know they were celebrating reaching England having been liberated from a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany.
And the rest is history.
My grandad, Himi Wiremu who’s Iwi or tribes were: Ngā Puhi, Te Rarawa, Ngāti Kahu was from Kaitaia in the far north of Aotearoa (New Zealand). Up there, in the north of the north, it’s mainly farmland and bush - it’s said to be where Māori spirits begin their final journey after death.
When he was twenty-seven, a call came for people to join up and fight for the Allies in WWII. There were many reasons for Māori to sign up: some wanted adventure; some for the survival of old warrior spirit; some to gain citizenship. For grandad, it was to prove that Māori were loyal to New Zealand and deserved a better stake in the country’s running than the indigenous were getting at that time. So he set about recruiting for the Māori Battalion. He recalls his experience in the 1990 TVNZ documentary, 28th Māori Battalion March To Victory. Having survived the war he was granted citizenship in the UK and set about a life in Deptford, south east London.
Some of my earliest memories are of going to concerts held by Ngāti Rānana, the London Māori Club, which performs to promote and preserve Māori culture. Grandad was involved in this almost from inception in the 1960s, through to being its Chairman in the 1980s, and as Kaumātua, elder statesman, his importance to the Māori and New Zealand community in London was, and still is, intrinsic to the pride they all share. It was during his time there that he was awarded an MBE for services to his country.
Not bad, for a boy from Kaitaia.
Himi died in 1999 but his legacy is still strong and lives through his work at Ngāti Rānana and us, the whānau (family) he started here.
Now, nearly three decades on, I’m lucky enough to be acting at The National Theatre - a dream I never thought would come true. And I find myself asking: I wonder how many Māori actors have played this prestigious space? And the truth is that there are so few records of Polynesian artists in England, that I may never know for sure. I often find myself asking similar questions about wider Polynesian culture: I wonder how many Polynesian immigrants settled in Europe? I wonder if people know of the rich history of story-telling that these cultures possess?
I suppose, in many ways, this is a call to arms. It would be good to hear of more Polynesian artists in Europe. It would be nice to celebrate their achievements loudly and to alert the western world of their presence. Our ancestors would love it.
I know the boy from Kaitaia looks down on me and smiles. It drives me on, to keep the story-telling alive.
(Ngā Puhi, Te Rarawa, Ngāti Kahu)