As new housing has been attracting thousands of newcomers to settle in and around Pukekohe over the last few years, they’ve had the option of coming to terms with — or ignoring — the ugly elements of the town’s history.
Pukekohe has had the advantage of being at the centre of land fertile enough for dairy and beef cattle farming, for market gardening, and for horticulture. And it’s had the disadvantage of not seeing how wronged the lawful Māori owners have been over the last 150 years.
Or perhaps the Pukekohe citizens have recognised the injustice but then found it really inconvenient to do anything about it.
So the legacy of that unfairness carries on. And, although there’s both a need and ample scope for making amends, there’s not much sign of that.
Meanwhile, Dale has been talking with Phyllis Bhana, a Tainui woman who, especially as a youngster, had first-hand experience of the ill-treatment of Māori by Pākehā.
Kia ora, Phyllis, and thank you for agreeing to tell us about your background as a Pukekohe kid, and the times when that town wasn’t a pleasant spot for Māori families. But first let’s turn to your name.
Tēnā koe, Dale. I was Phyllis Lucy Ngaikiha Andrews until I met my tāne, Babu Lalloo Bhana — and I’ve been Phyllis Lucy Ngaikiha Bhana for the last 57 years.
Your parents weren’t born in Pukekohe, were they?
No. My mum, Kohakore (nee Wiari Rangi), was born in Rangiriri. She was a whāngai to her uncle’s whānau, the Ormsbys in Ōtorohanga. Her family was from Kāwhia originally — and, before they moved to Te Kuiti, they lived in the Mangaora area, about 10 kilometres before the Kāwhia township.
My dad was Tuarohi Wiremu Te Keepa Anaru. He was also known as Tuarohi Wiremu Andrews — or George Andrews among Pākehā. He was Ngāti Paoa (Te Uri Karaka) — and he was born in Kerepeehi in Hauraki, and brought up in Te Huruhi on Waiheke Island.
But you grew up in Pukekohe, didn’t you?
Yes, I was born and raised in Pukekohe. My whānau story began when my father returned from the war. As he was disembarking from his ship in Auckland, he met a man by the name of Mr Moodabe who owned the Civic theatre in Queen St — and he offered my dad a job.
My dad’s parents at the time were working for a Chinese market gardener in Māngere. So, during the week my dad would work for the Moodabe whānau, and in the weekends he worked in the market gardens with his parents.
Then, a Pākehā man (John Bilkey) spotted my dad working in the fields, and after watching him for a while, he asked him if he’d like to work for him on his farm in Pukekohe. He told my father than he’d provide a home for us, and good wages.
Okay, so we’re in Pukekohe now. Were you born there?
Yes, I was. I was born across the road from the Māori cemetery. Well, that’s what my whānau called it, because that’s where all our whānau members were buried. It was in Ward St — and I also heard that it was called “the paupers’ area”.
We lived in a two-storey house with two other whānau. They were Pāpā Monty and Māmā Kiri Edwards, and Uncle Brownie Kingi and Aunty Winika Walker.
And when Mum was pregnant with me, would you believe it, the other two māmās were pregnant too. And then all three māmās went into labour at the same time.
Māmā Kiri delivered her son Scotty first, with the help of Pāpā Monty and my dad. One hour later, Aunty Winika delivered her beautiful daughter June. Then, an hour later, my brother Ngaakete delivered me. Everyone was happy. Three babies delivered in the one household. But I’m afraid the oldest of us — our brother, as our parents called him — passed away the next day. He, too, is buried in an unmarked grave.
I was given to Māmā Kiri to nurture until I was three years old, and then she gave me back to my parents. There were seven of us siblings that I know of when I was growing up. I was told that there were many more of us, but they died before I was born.
As you grew up in Pukekohe, what’s stuck in your memory?
I’ve got some good memories, but then I’ve got some that aren’t so good — those that I’d like to forget. I’ve always encouraged my children to recall the good times rather than the bad ones.
But, oh gosh, some of it was terrible. There were things that I heard about, and incidents that I and whānau members went through. These stories and encounters were from the ‘40s, ‘50s, and even into the ‘60s.
I recall in the late 1950s, that if we walked on the same side of the street as a Pākehā person, we’d get pushed, shoved, or even slapped or punched hard, and told to get on the other side of the road.
As a little child, I couldn’t fathom this kind of behaviour. I couldn’t understand. Why was this happening to us? And I always wondered: Why can’t we walk in the sun too? Why do we always have to walk in the shade?
Who’d punch you?
Any Pākehā man, woman or child who didn’t want us walking on the same side of the street as them.
I remember my mum once saying to me in Māori: “We’re not going to town on Thursday to do the shopping with Miss Milner.” Joan Milner was my Bible study teacher, and she’d help Mum do the shopping. I asked why, and she said it was because that was the day when all the Pākehā farmers would be in town at the sales yard.
And I didn’t understand until the day we did go to town, and we got seriously abused and beaten. Yeah, and I’ve still got the scar on my face from a kick to the head from a Pākehā man’s boot.
We’ll come back to that ugly incident in a minute, but meanwhile, there were whānau Māori coming into the area looking for work and finding it in the spud and onion and cabbage paddocks. But also, so the story goes, because of poor housing and sub-standard sanitation, they were having to cope with a great number of baby deaths. Is that how you remember the situation?
No. That’s not how it was. The babies weren’t dying because of poor sanitation. A lot of them were dying because of the flu, and poor medical help. I lost three baby nephews and a niece through the flu, or what they called cot death. All of them had wonderful care from my sister and our mum — actually, the whole whānau.
Two years later, my sister had another son. Same thing. The district nurse came up that day, and said: “Oh, he’s got a bit of a flu, a cough — maybe phlegm on his chest.” So, my mum gave him a steam bath, gave him his kai, had him smiling, and put him down. But same thing. Found him dead in the morning. Same with my brother’s son.
It wasn’t through what the Pākehā called a lack of sanitation. No, it wasn’t. It was an illness, the flu — the disease that they brought here.
Tēnā koe, Phyllis. We know that there were other ways in which some Pukekohe Pākehā, not recognising the racism in their actions, got things wrong in their dealings with Māori. And we know that goes back to the big takeover, the theft, when most of the land south of Auckland was taken simply by an edict from Governor Grey, in 1863. And that led to the Pākehā dominance and “the colour bar” at the local theatre, at a swimming pool, at a barber shop. And there were many other examples of racism there, right into the 1960s.
Absolutely. You couldn’t avoid the prejudice. No Māori were allowed upstairs in the theatre. Swimming time for us Māori children was on a Friday when the water was dirty and needed changing.
And the barber shop. When my dad went to town for a haircut, along with my two brothers and an uncle, they were told to get out. In fact, the barber pushed my dad out and locked the door.
My dad said: “What’s the problem? We’ve got money. We just want a haircut.” While my dad was talking through the window to the barber, my oldest brother, Tom, was stripping off his shirt, and getting down into a haka stance, and then doing the haka.
Next minute, my other brother and my uncle started stripping. So, my dad joined them, too. They all stripped off their shirts, and they did the haka outside the barber shop in Pukekohe’s main street.
It wasn’t a second-rate haka either. At that time, my dad and his sister Paerau, and my cousins and brothers, were in the kapa haka group called Te Pou o Mangataawhiri with Princess Te Puea. But the barber took offence and called the police.
And my dad, my uncle, my brothers and my cousins were arrested and charged with indecent exposure and disturbing the peace. And, not long after, that barber became Pukekohe’s mayor. For 15 years.
I imagine that there was plenty of whakawhanaungatanga among the families who came from all directions to live and work in the Puke market gardens.
Absolutely. And all the Māori whānau looked after one another. Houses were left open so that the tamariki had somewhere to go if the adults were out working. Regardless of which part of New Zealand you came from, you were an aunty or an uncle or a cousin. Or a brother or a sister. A nana or a koro. We were all one whānau, and we were all called Te Whānau o Ngā Hau E Whā.
And the growers were good. In fact, they were wonderful, because they gave Māori families like ours a place to live. They made sure that we had access to water for cooking and washing and bathing, and they’d provide tanks if need be. Yeah, there was never a lack of anything.
The only part that I didn’t like was when it was time to pick the spuds or onions — or cutting the cabbages in the rain.
And we’d break our backs picking 100 bags of spuds a day — and we’d get how much? Thruppence a bag. That’s the equivalent of two cents these days. That’s where the slavery was — in how little the workers were paid for such a hard job. The growers were Chinese, Indian and Pākehā, as they still are.
As we’ve been reminded by Robert Bartholomew’s book No Māori Allowed, and the recent TV documentary, Pukekohe’s history hasn’t been all that savoury. What did you take from the doco, Phyllis?
Well, two days after that documentary was on TV, I was shopping in Pukekohe with my little great-granddaughter, and Pākehā people were coming over and hugging me. An Indian lady too, but mostly middle-aged Pākehā women. They’d come over and hug me, and they’d tell me: “Oh, you had us in tears. We didn’t know that was going on.”
I asked how long they’d been in Pukekohe, to not know what had been going on. They had various explanations like: “Look, we were living in Puke East — on the other side of Pukekohe. And we stuck to ourselves.”
Every shop I went into, there were people shaking my hand.
My Māori whānau say I’ve opened up a hornet’s nest. They’re glad that now everyone will hear the truth of what really happened in Pukekohe — and now perhaps more people will be brave and come forward with their stories.
And I’ve been invited along with Robert Bartholomew to talk to teachers about what was referred to as “the colour bar” in Pukekohe. That’s what we called the segregation and racial discrimination back then.
Another term from those times was “pepper-potting”. That was where they’d put a Māori family or two in a street where otherwise there’s all Pākehā. And the idea was that it would help Māori to become Pākehā. That was pepper-potting — putting Māori houses here and there. Have you heard of it, Dale?
Yeah, I have. They did it in Ōtara, as well, Phyllis. And when you spell out the regretful Pākehā responses to the doco, it’s a good bet that some of the older Pākehā residents don’t accept the claims made in the documentary as being authentic. They’re probably clinging to their doubts, even to this day, about Māori having had to do it tough.
You’re so right, Dale. Some of the older Pākehā residents didn’t take it very well. They still don’t accept that it happened. Well, too bad for them. It did happen. It’s not just me or my whānau saying this. There are many references to Pukekohe’s racism in books written by Pākehā authors. Remember, this was where the White New Zealand League was set up in 1926.
But do you think the younger generation is more accepting of the realities of Pukekohe’s racist past?
Yes, I think young people are more accepting of the realities. They’re not ignorant about what’s going on in today’s society.
And what happened in the past is still happening today to our children. A student of mine told me about her experience of shopping for her koro’s 80th birthday. Of being followed around in the shop. Being first at the counter to pay for her purchase only to be served last. Then having her bag and pockets searched.
Our moko can understand now what we went through, the horrendous abuse we suffered, and the harm that’s been carried and passed on. One moko has said to me: “Nan, I was very emotional. I cried watching the documentary. And now I understand why my dad and uncles were so angry.”
There’s a quote by Whina Cooper that I truly love, and which helped me when I was teaching. Take care of the children. Take care of what they hear. Take care of what they see. Take care of what they feel. For how the children grow. So will be the shape of Aotearoa.
And when my tamariki started school, the first thing I told them was to get a Pākehā friend.
“Oh, but I’ve got a lot of Māori friends,” they said.
“No, they’re not your friends. They’re your family. They’re your cousins. I want you to go and get a Pākehā friend. Then, once you’ve got a good Pākehā friend, then you can go out and get a Hindu friend or a Chinese friend.”
And, you know what, Dale? That’s what they did.
Phyllis, you’ve mentioned that your mum suffered serious injury after a beating from a Pākehā man in a Pukekohe shop. And you were with her when it happened. How old were you?
I was six years old, a month away from my seventh birthday.
Mum and I went into a store down towards the bottom of the main street to do our shopping. It was called the Beehive Store. The Pākehā lady who normally did our shopping for us wasn’t available, so Mum decided that we would do it ourselves.
When we walked into the shop, there was a Pākehā guy standing near the counter. My mum gave the shopkeeper the list of what she wanted. At first, the Pākehā man just looked at the two of us. Then he started abusing us. Yelling at us, and swearing at us: “What the fuck are you doing in here, you black bitch? Get your fucken black arse out of this shop now!”
My mum just stood there, not understanding what he was saying. I said: “Come on, Mum. Let’s go. Let’s go.”
But it was too late. He’d already come over, punched her in the head and in the side. She fell down, and he started kicking her. On the third kick, I jumped on top of her to protect her, and his boot caught me in the head and split my forehead open.
That’s when the taxi driver arrived. He’d come in for some cigarettes and saw what was going on — and he yelled at the guy to lay off, to stop kicking us. He’d started kicking my mum in the stomach.
In those days, Puke taxis weren’t allowed to have us as passengers, apart from just one taxi for Māori. But this driver said: “Nah, I’m taking them out of here. I don’t care what you fullas think.” His name was Jack Abraham, and he took us to my mum’s sister, Aunty Rangimaahora (Mary).
Was there any official action?
The taxi driver reported it to the police. And the police came about two and a half hours later. He saw the condition we were in and asked if the doctor had been called. Yes, about three hours earlier. So the policeman called the doctor and that’s when he came. But he didn’t really treat Mum. He said just to bind her waist up. And he stuck tape on my forehead and said there wasn’t much more he could do for me because my head was already swollen.
What riled my two aunties up was what the doctor said: “Don’t say the waipiro (alcohol) got the better of you people.”
The man who’d beaten us was never arrested. The shopkeeper said he didn’t know him, that he wasn’t a local, so he was never identified. My dad kept going down to the police station to ask what was happening, and they’d say they were still investigating but nothing ever happened. My father and my brothers were so angry — especially Tom, my oldest brother. It hit him very hard.
This happened in December 1956, and my mum died in 1960.
Mum never really recovered from that bashing. She couldn’t go back to work in the market gardens because she couldn’t bend over. She couldn’t stand up straight. At first, my brothers had to carry her around when she needed to go to the toilet. My dad would bathe her. And later, she could move, but only by holding on to the back of a chair, like a walker.
So sad to hear that, Phyllis. No one would blame you for being angry, but instead you chose to show manaakitanga and kindness. You spent nearly 50 years doing volunteer work. Fifty years of helping people who’ve needed a hand, including being a Māori Warden. How come?
Well, my mum had always told us never to have hate in your heart. She said love will get you everywhere, but hate won’t.
Wow. I acknowledge your commitment to helping others, over so many decades, Phyllis. Let’s focus on our reo for a moment. You’ve been a reo teacher among a host of other roles. And one of the satisfactions, I suspect, is that you’ve seen some huge flow-on effects.
Yes, I have. Among the kōhanga kids are those who’ve become academics, professors, writers, opera singers, artists, lawyers, and a judge. But I’ve been drawn into other work like nursing, Meals on Wheels, and I’ve also been a social welfare worker and a volunteer at the hospital in Pukekohe.
I spent some time as well at the Māori Affairs office in Pukekohe, and that’s where I linked up with Bea Kerr, Hare Tawhai, Sam Davis, Eric Beatridge, Ray Cooper and Bub Wehi. We started Rapu Mahi for students who’d finished school and were looking for jobs. And we ran kokiri programmes for mums and dads, and kōhanga reo programmes. One was in Ōtara with Zena Tamanui. Then I came back to Pukekohe and opened another one at the Māori Affairs office, and two years later another one opened at the new Ngā Hau E Whā marae site.
And so it went, with more kōhanga openings in Tuakau, Papakura, Paerata and Meremere. And we put kaiako in there with our kuia who had fluency in the reo.
Your reality, I know, has been even busier and more varied because that’s how you’ve operated. You’ve been living a very positive life, and there are scores of people who love you greatly. And high on that list must be your tāne.
Yes. That’s Babu, although Pākehā know him as Bob. We met at a dance at the Paerata hall where he’d brought a niece of mine. She said later that I had stolen him from her. He said no. He’d been waiting for me, and he was glad I came over to talk to him because he didn’t have the nerve to approach me.
What did his people think of him marrying a Māori girl?
Well, there were other Māori-Indian relationships. So we weren’t all that unusual. And his father, Lallo, had married a Māori woman, Kui Pua Te Anau Rawiri — or Mary, as she was also known.
So he’s a Māori-Indian. A Mindian. And were the Bhana family market gardeners?
Absolutely. And the distant cousins are still doing that today.
Are you still gardening?
No. Babu is 78 now and we just have our little house gardens.
We have six tamariki — three boys and three girls.
I’ve enjoyed so much of my time. Especially my high school years at Pukekohe High School. And I’ve enjoyed my nursing career, my sporting life, working in the community, and, of course, my teaching career. And along the way, in all those areas, I’ve made many Pākehā friends.
Even though you’d been treated so poorly by some Pākehā?
Yes. But, like they say, it takes only a few to spoil it for the rest.
Tēnā koe. Thank you, Phyllis, for sharing such rich kōrero with us. We can all learn from your attitude to life.
Ngā mihi, Dale.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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