Dannevirke's irrepressible Nanny Noa Nicholson will celebrate her 100th birthday over two days this weekend, including a ball in the Town Hall, surrounded by the family she loves so much.

But this won't just be a family occasion. Friends and dignitaries will flock to Dannevirke for the celebrations.

Tararua District mayor Tracey Collis said this coming weekend will be a surprise to many.

"Dannevirke isn't going to know what has hit it," she said.


"Nanny Noa's 100th birthday is significant because very few Māori turn 100. For me, she has always been about whānau, culture and the young ones. Fifty years ago it wasn't the norm to speak te reo, she would have stood out. She is a pioneer."

Tamai Nicholson, left, greets his mother, Nanny Noa Nicholson with a hongi at Makirikiri Marae in Dannevirke in 2016. Photo / Christine McKay
Tamai Nicholson, left, greets his mother, Nanny Noa Nicholson with a hongi at Makirikiri Marae in Dannevirke in 2016. Photo / Christine McKay

Collis said when you talk about a sense of belonging and knowing who you are, Nanny Noa epitomises it all.

"She's everybody's Nanny Noa, no matter who you are," she said. "She has a great love about her."

Born Noa Haerenga Nicholson in Horowhenua, Nanny Noa has always lived life to the full and things aren't about to change.

"I don't feel like I'm 100. I'm still active and if there isn't a car around to take me to town, I walk it," she told the Dannevirke News. "Walking up to town is better than looking at television."

For Nanny Noa, a respected kuia, family is important. Her living room is lined with pictures of family members and ancestors.

"I was brought up with people who were very caring," she said.

"The family I grew up with was very extended and they taught me to care for them and to care for others. I have tried to bring up my own family in the same way, so they can share whatever they feel. I've always been keen to share my knowledge with the young ones."


She now has five generations in her family, but she isn't about to slow down.

"We offered her a mobility scooter for her birthday, but she said, 'no, I can walk'," granddaughter Tracey Nicholson said. Tracey and her two brothers were brought up by Nanny Noa from the age of three.

"I call her mum and she's very, very special. Growing up with Nanny was a blessing," newly engaged Tracey said.

Fluent in te reo, Nanny Noa fiercely defends her language and is respected as the ultimate teacher of Māori language and culture.

"Although I live in the Pākehā world, my language is still with me. I have memories of the old people in the days when children were forced to speak English, but I haven't forgot my language, I was fluent in Māori by the time I was 11. I can talk all day in Māori," she said.

"My grandparents said without the language we wouldn't have the land to stand on.

"I grew up with no money, but I learnt te reo by listening to the old people, so I was rich."

Born on March 13, 1919, Nanny Noa's mother was young and she was raised by her grandparents. She remembers when they would hitch up the horse and cart and ride out to the beach to gather kai.

But the black pipi have gone, along with much of the toheroa.

"You can't get them now, but with paua and kina, crayfish and pigs from the Tararua Ranges, we never went hungry," she said.

Gone too are many of the birds she saw during her younger years.

With the guidance of her ancestors, Nanny Noa discovered New Zealand's rich flora and fauna.

"By boiling flax roots you could extract juice and the wiwi (a native wetland rush), also provided juice, simply by pulling the leaf out," she said. "Those were the things the old people did."

Nanny Noa also spent time at Rātana Pa, immersed in the Lord.

"TW Rātana (founder of the Rātana religion) decided I knew so much through the language he took me on his travels around New Zealand, visiting marae," she said.

At 18 she began working for Woppi Hape in woolsheds and it was there she met her husband-to-be, Rhodes Tiwai Nicholson.

Central to her wonderful 100 years of life has been God.

"I say a prayer for my 10 children and the many, many grandchildren, great grandchildren and great, great grandchildren before I close my eyes at night and I say one for me too. I do it all over again when I wake up. I don't forget the Lord," she said.

In 2007 Nanny Noa was awarded a Queen's Service Medal for a lifetime's public service, which included setting up a Kōhanga Reo on her lawn in Robertshawe Crescent with no outside funding.

She was delighted when REAP delivered a load of toys for the children.

A cook at the old Dannevirke Hospital, Nanny Noa was transferred to the Woodville Maternity Unit when Dannevirke closed.

But, one day she ran into trouble with a traffic officer who pulled her over as smoke poured from her car's exhaust.

"The car had no warrant of fitness and needed two new tyres and he told me I couldn't drive it home after work," she said.

"I told the matron, a Mrs Shannon, I would have to walk back to Dannevirke that night. But she reminded the officer his wife was in the unit having a baby and if I wasn't there she wouldn't get fed. Matron rang the garage and arranged to have two new tyres put on my car so it could get a warrant."

There have been traumatic times too, like when, 35 years ago, Quentin Martin was shot dead on a Christchurch street. It was Nanny Noa who flew to Christchurch by helicopter to bring his body home to Dannevirke.

The son of Nick and Hannah Martin, he had been raised at the family home at Makirikiri.

Nanny Noa had nursed him when he was born and was at his christening.

Bringing his body home was a day she has never forgotten. Martin had been gunned down during a fight between the Devils Henchmen and the Highway 61 gang and is buried at Kaitoke.

"It was hard for our family to come to terms with," Nanny Noa said.

Thirty years after his tangi and funeral, members of the Highway 61 gang visited the grave and left a substantial koha with Nanny Noa, which was used to provide a photograph for Martin's headstone and regular floral tribute.

"It's very emotional every time I see this grave,'' she said.

Nanny Noa had a final message of wisdom to share.

"We must believe in ourselves. We must always remember the Lord, to share with families at all times, be truthful to yourself, and be truthful to others.''

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