All about whanau and mussels in Mitimiti

By Peter de Graaf

You know a festival is something special when people travel hundreds - and in some cases thousands - of kilometres to get there.<inline type="photogallery" id="15823" align="outside" embed="no" />

Last Saturday's Kutai Festival at Mitimiti, on the Far North's west coast, wasn't big even by Northland standards, but one busload of festival-goers came up from Wellington. Another lot drove up from Wairoa and a couple of families flew over from Australia.

They were in Mitimiti to celebrate Mitimiti's famously sweet kutai (mussels) and, more importantly, to reconnect with whanau.

The delicacies on offer ranged from kutai wontons, spring rolls and sushi to kutai sausages and the famous taniwha burger, a day's worth of food in one sitting. Those who'd eaten their fill could test their strength in the tug-of-war and the Humvee-pulling competition, show off their skills in the kutai-shelling contest, take in the chainsaw carving or relax with a mirimiri (massage).

The MC was comedian Pio Terei, who makes the trek north each year to lend a hand in the settlement where his mum, Gemma Leef, still lives. The festival is a lot more than a fundraiser for Matihetihe School, he said.

"It's about whanaungatanga (relationships) ... It's an opportunity to give my time back to this community, and reconnect with whanau. This place is a jewel. It's the beautiful beach, the kai in the water, the hospitality."

Mr Terei said the west coast mussels were renowned for their flavour. "Whanau who go to Australia always crave the Mitimiti kutai," he said.

One of the organisers, Ani Leef, said the event had raised about $14,000 to upgrade IT equipment at Matihetihe School. It would also help pay for a fibre-optic cable to replace the school's sluggish internet connection. Most years proceeds go to the school; every fourth year the cash goes to another community cause, such as a set of life-saving defibrillators bought two years ago.

The festival was a chance to bring a stretched-out community together, Mrs Leef said.

"It's a good get-together for the whole North Hokianga and way for whanau who live out of the area to touch base. They all come back and lend a hand."

Matihetihe School principal Katarina Manuel, whose last job was at Kamo Intermediate, said five generations of Mitimiti families had gone through the school. It had a hugely supportive community and a strong connection to the marae.

"Every child in the school belongs to everyone in the community and it's a lovely place to live out here."

It was isolated but that had its advantages, she said.

"When people come here, they're here to see us. They're not passing through."

Matihetihe School is a bilingual Year 1-8 school with a roll of 26 drawn from Mitimiti, Waihou and Panguru.

- Northern Advocate

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