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The Road Ahead: Black Power members - 'We want to do the best for our community'

David Fisher

Senior writer, NZ Herald

RoadAhead

From Saturday afternoon rugby to visiting Black Power - reporter David Fisher and visual journalist Mike Scott travel from Napier to Tauranga on a road trip across New Zealand, exploring how we're coping with the Covid-19 pandemic.

The biting southerly howled us out of the hills and into Wairoa. Rain whipped in on the wind. The town shrank against the shadow of a dark grey sky that leaned low into the land.

These aren't fair-weather times and yet, this Saturday afternoon, there were those who shrugged off what was coming to take their sides on the main field at the Wairoa Athletic Rugby Football Club.

It was Athletic versus Ngatapa Rugby and Associated Sports Club, out of Gisborne. Bill Meek, 85, was watching from inside the second-floor clubrooms at the seaward-side of the pitch, peering through binoculars.

Bill Meek is a stalwart of the Wairoa Athletic Rugby Football Club in Wairoa. Photo / Mike Scott
Bill Meek is a stalwart of the Wairoa Athletic Rugby Football Club in Wairoa. Photo / Mike Scott

"The pandemic was trouble, wasn't it? And it's still not finished," says Meek, whose involvement in Athletic goes back decades. His younger face peers out of team photographs from the 1950s and 1960s hanging on the stairwell inside.

This Saturday afternoon game seemed impossible when the season went into Covid-19 lockdown in March. Athletic had gone to Chatham Islands for a pre-season gathering. It returned in time to be benched - like the country - for weeks.

The world wrestled with sport and how to continue. In Australia, fans bought cardboard cutouts to fill seats in empty stadiums. In England, the Premier League played without placards. Hockey was cancelled in Canada, basketball cancelled in the United States. The Olympics were postponed.

"We did nothing. There was just no sport," says Meek. "It can't last forever. You've got to think it will end."

In New Zealand, sport returned at alert level 2 in early May. Since then, seemingly alone in the world, crowds filled stadiums and roared their approval as the new Super Rugby tournament got underway.

The Wairoa Athletic Rugby Football team took on Ngatapa Rugby Club. Photo / Mike Scott
The Wairoa Athletic Rugby Football team took on Ngatapa Rugby Club. Photo / Mike Scott

In Wairoa, like many small towns across the country, the return of rugby did more than simply allow fans weekly worship at the altar of the national religion.

No, that's not what club rugby is. There is no "weekly" about it. It draws a week-long commitment from those who play, those on the sidelines, those in the kitchen, those in the changing rooms urging players on. Each keeps free a corner in their minds as they work on farms, or at the meat works, or in forestry, and they think of all that needs happen for game day.

That commitment builds bonds, becomes a connective tissue that binds all touched by the cumulative effort to get 30 grown men hurtling towards each other this cold, wild, Saturday afternoon.

'I'm jealous'

Meek drops the binoculars. The game is under way and Athletic is leading Ngatapa. "Those were the days," he says, with a sigh. "I'm jealous; all those young people out there running around. I think, 'that was me, a long time ago'. And way back then, we played Ngatapa too."

There's roasting beef scents wafting out of the kitchen beneath the club rooms, the smell of liniment on the sidelines, sweat from players who switched with reserves for a turn watching the game.

Kids' gumboots strewn at the entry to the Wairoa rugby clubrooms. Photo / Mike Scott
Kids' gumboots strewn at the entry to the Wairoa rugby clubrooms. Photo / Mike Scott

Players and spectators mingle, kids hang around fathers waiting for their time on the field. The magnetic pull of the action sees all those on the sidelines drift onto the field as the game moves away and then back as it shifts again.

There's mullets and muscles. Those playing earned their physique working the land. It's not always - and sometimes, not even - the inverted pyramid muscle slab seen covered in All Black regalia. It's real.

There's intense focus on the field, utter commitment as men smash one into another, flesh slamming and slapping. At the sidelines, one player lies flat in the mud to have a dislocated shoulder manipulated into a socket. Another, Kurt Taylor, 27, is off the field and wincing. "I've popped a rib out," says Taylor, who drives almost four hours from Rotorua for game day. "Being able to play like this is awesome. I didn't think it would be happening."

And then the fierce southerly picks up afresh, lashing rain across the field. Spectators draw back, partly shielded by a shelter belt. Some bustle together under a small, open-sided shed. No one playing appears to notice, particularly Athletic as its late-game pace helped it end the game 44-13.

Kurt's dad Toby was a linesman throughout the game. The minute the final whistle blew, he raced to the kitchen to pull out the roasts, emptying bags of mixed vegetables into boiling water. On the field, players huddled, shouted, banged elbows with opposing players then headed for the showers. Credence blasted out of the changing rooms.

Wairoa rugby club stalwart Toby Taylor (left) in the kitchen after 80 minutes as a linesman. Photo / Mike Scott
Wairoa rugby club stalwart Toby Taylor (left) in the kitchen after 80 minutes as a linesman. Photo / Mike Scott

Athletic usually fields six teams. After lockdown, it had four teams. Toby Taylor, who has played for Athletic between 1981 and (extraordinarily) 2019, saw similar at Wairoa College where he is sports coordinator. "A lot of kids didn't come back after lockdown. A lot of them have gone to jobs."

Bringing rugby back

"We didn't think there was going to be a competition to play," says Toby Taylor, 56. "This is probably the best team we've had for years and we had nowhere to play. We're just pleased to be back on the field."

It seems sometimes we're a strange country to be so small, so widespread, yet to contain so many small communities of interest. The passion and value of rugby is hard to understand for those not immersed in it; as it is to reach understanding of the tahr hunters of the West Coast who are battling the Department of Conservation cull; or of rodeo lovers assailed by vegan pressure groups.

There's a fragmentation of our communities and a polarisation that makes it harder to have conversations when we differ.

Take wool, which dogged The Road Ahead from Bluff. Farmers talked about the poor returns on selling wool, weavers talked of the expense of buying it, politicians talked about saving the industry by kitting out government buildings with woollen carpets and insulation.

Forestry near Wairoa in northern Hawke's Bay. Photo / Mike Scott
Forestry near Wairoa in northern Hawke's Bay. Photo / Mike Scott

Wool is here again on the outskirts of Gisborne, where Donna Williams is cooking a shearer's breakfast of lamb chops, sausages, bacon, eggs, tomatoes and beans. She helps run the shearing gang named for her husband Kevin, K Williams Shearing, which employs dozens to shear sheep across the East Cape.

"Our industry is a mess," says Williams. She's talking of the turmoil of recent years over the imbalance between what you get paid to shear a sheep in New Zealand versus Australian rates. The shearing industry organisation lobbied farmers as a collective while K Williams Shearing went its own way, negotiating its own rates with its clients.

The million-dollar sheep

"Yes, they needed a pay rise but it seems to have created a generation of people who think they're entitled to a million dollar sheep," says Williams.

And shearing this year is a mess, she says. First Covid-19 created a delay then rain added to it. There's difficulty is sourcing staff, too, as shearers work an international circuit that means foreign labour isn't going to be available.

Williams says K Williams Shearing focuses on hiring locally, so it doesn't expect to be too badly affected. That's not the same across the workforce, although it puzzles Williams.

"Why should we be concerned when the Government is saying there are a lot of people who are going to be unemployed?"

Donna Williams, of Gisborne. Photo / Mike Scott
Donna Williams, of Gisborne. Photo / Mike Scott

Donna Williams is so highly motivated that she doesn't just push herself through any given day but anyone else that comes into her sphere, particularly - it seems - young men in the shearing gang.

"There's going to be shitloads of jobs out there," she says. "They say local people won't get out of bed. Go and pull their arses out of bed."

Our sheep numbers peaked in 1982 when we had 70 million in New Zealand. Today, we have about 30 million.

We had enough people to shear sheep in the 1980s and now we were struggling to find enough workers even before Covid-19. It's not a problem you will hear in urban centres.

It's a rural voice that has dwindled in comparative volume as cattle have increased, particularly dairy cows.

It's sheep farming land as you head into Waioeka Gorge, the highway from Gisborne to Opotiki. There they are on paddocked hills other countries might call mountains; slopes so sheer as to be fatal to any creature higher off the ground than the humble, sure-footed sheep.

Turbulent river, turbulent times

The land turns from farm to bush, the road following the rambunctious Waioeka River, down which a cluster of kayaks navigates rapids led by James McTavish, 39. The group is training for multisport events although here, too, Covid-19 has caused havoc. Events have been cancelled, others diminished by the lack of international competitors.

Ali Wilson paddles down the Waioeka River in training for the Coast to Coast endurance event in early 2021. Photo / Mike Scott
Ali Wilson paddles down the Waioeka River in training for the Coast to Coast endurance event in early 2021. Photo / Mike Scott

"We can't all be like New Zealand," kayaker Ali Wilson's mother told her from England. Of course, as it turned out, not even New Zealand can.

On beyond Tauranga Bridge is the historic opening of a valley across Waioeka River. It was a spur into the hills to land subdivided and developed by government, where families settled and became shepherds. The grass for the sheep was taken by boat from Gisborne to Auckland, then back to Opotiki by a coastal steamer, before finally being hauled into the gorge.

By the late 1920s, those families began to leave. It is 50 years since the Department of Conservation reclaimed the blocks. Here we are, decades later, woolgathering over the difficulty with sheep.

At the head of the gorge is Opotiki, beneficiary of a $79 million Provincial Growth Fund grant to develop a wharf. That's the fund pushed by NZ First, which also pushed the Billion Trees policy. Along the road from Hawke's Bay, roadside placards have pushed back against mass plantings on former farmland. One read: "You can't feed the hungry with trees. Keep farms for food."

The team of five million has developed a practice of talking past each other. It makes it difficult for us to reach an understanding. Academic John Pratt wrote a paper called The Dark Side of Paradise in which he spoke of New Zealand's elevation of egalitarianism as a national trait, and its celebration of the homogeneous nature of middle New Zealand isolated those who did not conform, or fit in, with society's wider expectations.

The nation of Tūhoe

At Taneatua, the heart of the Tūhoe nation, there's an understanding of this almost two centuries deep. Maori were clustered as one, rather than by hapū or iwi, then marginalised. Here, where Te Urewera touches the world at large, Tuhoe have determinedly rejected this path to forge its own.

In our pandemic world, this doesn't change. "We've lived without the Government for 180 years so we weren't about to throw it all in and wait for Jacinda to tell us what to do," says Tamati Kruger, Ngāi Tūhoe leader and the iwi's chief negotiator with the Crown until settlement in 2013.

Ngai Tuhoe leader Tamati Kruger. Photo / Mike Scott
Ngai Tuhoe leader Tamati Kruger. Photo / Mike Scott

During lockdown, the networks of government creaked into action in a way that slowly extended structure asserted at the centre to its margins. For those on the margins, this meant waiting.

For Tūhoe, though, it highlighted traditional networks. "We were taking a chance - that the iwi-whānau-hapū thing was mythical, or would it come to the fore and work for its primal purposes, which is to bring care and connection.

"And it happened. And we were so happy about it, that the skirmishes and the politics of our community just dissipated. It quickly manifested itself as better than local government or central government."

And the same happened elsewhere, says Kruger. "Every iwi was chancing themselves as to whether they would perform as an iwi."

Ask Kruger how Tūhoe then fits with the rest of New Zealand and he laughs. The question is wrong, as is the thinking behind it. "It's how the country fits into Tūhoe, is our question. We're immune to the idea we have to fit in elsewhere."

Waioeka River in the Waioeka Gorge. Photo / Mike Scott
Waioeka River in the Waioeka Gorge. Photo / Mike Scott

That argues against Pratt's thesis - that those who refuse to conform are pushed to the margins - but in a Covid-19 world, the inability to move as one weakens the whole. Our politics is pulled towards the electorally critical "middle New Zealand" votes. Our small communities - of people, of ideas - need to be heard, need government to be proactive and embracing.

Conspiracies and rumours

There's many communities of the disenfranchised. We met a cranky older man who belongs to another at the Matata Hotel on the road to Tauranga, demanding to know why the media were covering up a certain rumour about the Prime Minister.

Explaining the rumour was false didn't ease his frustration. There's something Trumpian about his tribe of thinkers - thinking the worst of our leaders, angry at a perceived loss of rights, seemingly upset the country is led by a female Prime Minister yet to hit 40. The themes are familiar - loss of guns, 5G conspiracies, 1080 poison drops, rights being taken away.

Former travel agent Claire Gallagher at the Matata Tavern in the Bay of Plenty. Photo / Mike Scott
Former travel agent Claire Gallagher at the Matata Tavern in the Bay of Plenty. Photo / Mike Scott

This band of disaffected has grown in New Zealand these past three years. It is another chunk of society that believes government does not listen to, or speak for, it. For a team of 5 million, we're a fragmented bunch.

Claire Gallagher, 47, was also drinking at the Matata. Her 28-year run in the travel industry - Hello World in Whakatāne - was brought to an end by Covid-19. "Travel is my passion. Not many people can say they loved their job and I was lucky enough to love my job."

There's a new job now, for which Gallagher is grateful. "You can't keep functioning with no money coming in."

Into Tauranga

The road breaks from the coast at Pāpāmoa, where the endless, sprawling, subdivision hogs the beach. The new bypass funnels travellers through the heart of Tauranga, over bridges and close to its dazzling harbour.

At Kiwi Barbers in central Tauranga, Shane Michie, 31, cut hair like a mad thing after lockdown. He's had hundreds through since then, his barber's patter filtering community concerns. Unsurprisingly, they are of the virus.

Shane Michie, 31, of Kiwi Barbers in Tauranga. Photo / Mike Scott
Shane Michie, 31, of Kiwi Barbers in Tauranga. Photo / Mike Scott

"Everyone seems to know someone in Melbourne, and the UK always gets brought up. Most people are anxious it will come back to New Zealand and cause another lockdown."

This was Monday and the new lockdown would come in fewer than 48 hours. This time, at level 2, Michie would be able to continue cutting hair. There's sanitiser at the door, spacing between chairs.

There's no part of our communities Covid-19 has not threatened. At the harbourside Memorial Park, Black Power Movement Whakatāne members Genesis TK White, 30, and Darren Ohlson, 39, spoke of their community rallying, hunkering down and riding it out.

Ohlson was released from prison after a nine-month stretch. He went from the isolation of 23-hour lockdown to lockdown at home with his partner, five sons and a daughter. "They all missed me," he says, adding with a smile, "but that wore off in about three days."

The pair are watchful, because their world includes threats that come in different colours, or carry different patches. It's a world that runs parallel to most of our worlds yet with little crossover, and little understanding.

When it came to dealing with an invisible threat - the virus - those different worlds drifted close together.

Whakatāne Black Power members Darren Ohlson, left, and Genesis TK White. Photo / Mike Scott
Whakatāne Black Power members Darren Ohlson, left, and Genesis TK White. Photo / Mike Scott

White talks only of Poroporo, the village where he lives, and is clear he is not speaking as Black Power Whakatāne, or on behalf of other chapters. Having set the ground, he then describes actions by himself and others in Black Power patches during lockdown.

Life and death governed life, as it did for all. For life, they needed to work out how to support their community with food packages. For death, it meant holding tangi in a way that embraced health advice and tikanga.

Doing so required working out how to meet cultural and personal needs while observing the rules for life under level 4. It meant careful, considered engagement with authorities. For a community that sets its own rules, it's a dramatic shift.

"For us, it's not about conforming. I struggle with that word 'conformity'. It's about being able to flex and change," says White.

"Our people knew us and know what we do. They knew - at the end of the day - we want to do the best for our little community when things like this happen. We grew in our space, we grew up on our marae. It just so happens we are Black Power."

White's father Paora White was president of Black Power Whakatāne for decades. White recalls his father, who died in October, urging a different path for the young men coming into Black Power.

Black Power Whakatāne member Genesis TK White. Photo / Mike Scott
Black Power Whakatāne member Genesis TK White. Photo / Mike Scott

He saw a path guided by tikanga, one that prized combined action and thought. "Everyone is their own rangatira," says White. "He actually stepped out of the mundane."

It means White seeks out new pathways, stays light on his feet.

"Being Māori, to me, means being who I have to be, when I have to be, to ensure the survival of our people.

"Adapt and you evolve or you die like the motherf***ing dinosaurs."

• The Road Ahead leads next from Tauranga through Auckland amid a new lockdown