After years of travelling the world, where he was often in the company of the rich and famous, Tommy Kapai Wilson came back to where he started — to Te Puna, in Tauranga. He’s been a columnist (for the Bay of Plenty Times) and children’s book author (of the popular Kapai the Kiwi series) — and, for much of the past decade, he’s been leading Te Tuinga Whānau, an organisation that provides support services for thousands of whānau in the Tauranga area. Here he is talking to Dale about his life and mahi.
Kia ora, Tommy. First, can you tell me about your names and your whānau?
Tommy Kapai Wilson — that’s what it says on my driver’s licence. I wasn’t baptised Tommy Kapai Wilson, but when I went to get my licence renewed, I threw “Kapai” in there and it’s been there ever since. I’m originally Thomas Lindsay Wilson, but that’s a set of very white names, isn’t it, brother?
I know the feeling.
So, yeah, bro. Je suis Monsieur Thomas Kapai tenei. My tribe affiliations are Ngāti “Wiwi”. We come from a little village called Honfleur, on the Normandy coastline of France, which is where Emile Joseph Borel came from after the French revolution in the early 1800s.
He came to Aotearoa as a trader and ended up in Rangiaowhia, with Ngāti Apakura in the Waikato, at the beginning of the Land Wars. He built a church there. And then he married Roha Tangike and came across to Te Pirirakau in Tauranga Moana, to carry on building churches and promoting the Catholic faith.
I come from the beautiful kingdom of Te Puna here in Tauranga Moana, the only French-Māori community, we believe, on the planet.
I grew up in a family of 11 kids. My dad, Herbert Lyndsay Wilson, was a street kid who was brought up by Uncle Scrim, who looked after the lost in Auckland, which probably explains why I’m in the line of work that I do now in the homeless area.
He lived on a little boat in the Waitematā Harbour, and when the war came along, he had the opportunity to lie about his age, and off he went to what he thought was going to be a wonderful adventure.
Well, that didn’t happen, and Dad never got any letters while he was at the war, so he promised himself two things when he came home. One was to never be alone again — and that worked, because he had 11 kids. The other thing was no violence was to happen in his family.
So we were brought up with hard-case humour. Our house was a tourist attraction. Everybody came to our house because there was laughter and song and kai, but no violence. I can never remember Mum or Dad ever laying a hand on us in anger.
I should’ve had my ass kicked a few times — but I’ve never been in a fight, bro. Never hit anyone, and no one’s ever hit me. Though I don’t brag about that because someone might try and bang me just to break that proud tohu that I carry.
Ka pai, sounds good. You are an upbeat sort of guy. Were you a tutu sort of kid who tried a whole lot of different things? Where do you come in the lineup of 11?
I’m the middle son. I was meant to be whāngai’d out because Mum had five daughters straight away, and Aunty Irene said: “If you have another daughter, can I have it?” Mum said: “Yup.” But fortunately she had me and said: “Nah, I’ll keep him and you can have the next one.” Which was my sister Raewyn Mokai who was whangai’d out but remains close-as to all of us.
I’m in the middle, which is a good way to be in a family of 11, because we had two sittings for our kai — and I could stay with the adults and listen to all the gossip, or I could have my kai with the young fullas and get out of doing the dishes and just play.
Was I a tutu? Not really, bro. It wasn’t until I left school and I discovered life in the fast lane, and went for a walk on the wild side, that I became, I guess, not your normal kid. And I’m happy that pathway was chosen. Because normal is one of the only words that I’m scared of.
So, five older sisters. You must have a special spot in their hearts and they in yours.
Yeah, we’re a very close family. Dad was a fisherman, so Mum, Kiritapu Borrel, brought us up and we shared everything. And today we’ve all come home and we’re living on family whenua.
We’ve got some interesting talents in our family. One of my older sisters is a psychotherapist. There are only four Māori psychotherapists in the country.
So, yeah, I’ve been shaped by sisters, and I suppose that’s brought out a softer side, less of a macho, drink-it-up sort of life. That’s probably what steered me into happiness and hippy-ness — my sisters.
I’m picking this is the 1970s or something. You say you went for a walk on the wild side. What do you mean by that?
It started when I was a paperboy at the Ocean Side, which is a pub in Mount Maunganui. I was 11 years old and I got to read the papers all the time on the cold winter nights sitting in the pub doorway. And my uncles would come in, wonderful men, and give me sixpence. The papers were threepence, and the rest I could keep as a tip.
I would watch them come in as uncles and leave as drunkles. Not the same fellas — more aggressive, not happy, and I think that’s where I took a turn off alcohol and on to anything else that made me laugh or smile.
To this day, I’ve never been drunk on beer, but I certainly made up for it when the drug scene came along. That was my turning point in life. I started taking acid at 17. Graduated through all of the stimulants, and that’s what I call the wild side, I suppose.
I was a band touring manager in later times with Hello Sailor and I worked overseas as a butler for lots of rich and famous people. George Harrison, Nicole Kidman, John Denver. It all went hand in hand with that wild side.
I lived and worked in 30 countries, going around and around the planet trying to find out where I belonged. And, hey, the answer was right back where I started, where I am now in Te Puna.
I didn’t know you were the manager of Hello Sailor, but I like a lot of their music. You certainly mixed with an interesting crowd. So when you were working with all these people, your mahi was professional butlery?
After leaving school, I realised I didn’t want to be a PE teacher, which was what my mum and dad wanted me to do. I wanted to travel, but I had no qualifications, so I went and worked as a dishwasher at the Chateau, beneath Koro Ruapehu. I worked my way up and, after three or four years, I became a head steward. I then worked overseas as an aide-de-camp, a restaurant manager, and a butler.
As well as looking after the wealthy, I interviewed them, because I’ve always been a writer, and carried around my typewriter when my mates carried their surfboards. I kickstarted my own little magazine on Hamilton Island, in the Great Barrier Reef.
That’s where I started meeting people like George Harrison, Jimmy Buffett, Nicole Kidman, Jimmy Barnes and John English. I started off interviewing them, and that opened up pathways to work for very wealthy people.
I ended up in Zurich working for a guy who was chairman of Glencore, the biggest commodity trading company in the world. There I was, a Māori boy with a bright red Ferrari Testarossa as a company car.
You also teamed up with a comedian at one stage in your life, didn’t you?
I did. I married a comedian, Michele A’Court. She was my first wife. I’ve had two wonderful wives. My hoa rangatira is Hera Tangitu, my Pirirakau princess, and together we have four kids and six mokos.
That’s where my brother Mike King and I became very good friends, when I was up in Tāmaki Makaurau, and stand-up comedy was just kicking off at the Classic.
I’m so pleased you’re a writer, because it’s a very challenging kaupapa, yet it seems to come to you quite easily. What’s your story behind writing? When did you first pen a piece?
I had a wonderful teacher called Mr Gatwood, which was probably in Form One back in those days. He had poetry all around the walls of our classroom, and so I got to immerse myself in words.
Two classrooms later, I wrote a poem about my dad in the war and presented it to the teacher — not Mr Gatwood — and he kicked me out of the class because he said no 10-year-old boy could write that poem. He said I must have cheated or copied it, which I didn’t.
My pen name for the Kapai the Kiwi series was Uncle Anzac. “Anzac” in honour of my dad, and “Uncle” for my Uncle Hene Bluett, who was in the Māori Battalion. He was a bookie, always had a Best Bets in his pocket — a beautiful man who used to look after me when I sold papers outside of the pub. Slim, in Kapai the Kiwi, is named after Uncle Hene.
So that’s how I started my writing career. I was being shown the written word at school, but I failed School C English because I wrote the whole thing in poetry, which probably didn’t go down so well with the people who marked it.
But here I am, 30 books later. I’m about to celebrate having a million words in print, bro. I’m very proud of my latest book. I know we’re not allowed to be proud — sweet kumara and all that. This latest book is called Paperboy Writer.
This is a scoop for you, brother. No one knows about this. We’re just doing the final proof edits and I want it out for Christmas.
Long answer to your question is, someone believed in the written word and bathed me in it, and someone else told me that I couldn’t write, and that’s pretty much been the driver behind being a columnist for 16 years for the Bay of Plenty Times and publishing 30-odd books.
Which isn’t bad for a boy who failed School C, āe bro?
Do you think your enthusiasm for the written word has flown through to others who you’ve been in contact with over the years? Any examples of others following in your footsteps because you gave them the support that your teacher gave you all those years ago?
I hope so, bro. I used to be involved with Books in Homes, and then realised I don’t write stories for kids who can read. My stories have always been what I call “locool” language — backyard stories. Because if you want to grow free-range kids you have to feed them backyard stories.
My conclusion after seeing the world and experiencing what I have is that there’s only one way to help the planet, and that’s through the taiaha of knowledge. And whatever way we shape that taiaha, it has to be in a language that can connect with those who need to read and write and understand.
Especially our Māori people, because if you’re an eight-year-old Māori boy who can’t read and write, the stats of you ending up in prison are just sad-as.
For me, it’s always about presenting knowledge in an understanding way, and I’ve taught creative writing in over 200 schools. I guess we find out when we get to the next journey if what we’ve done has helped sprinkle a little bit of joy.
It’s all about the written word, bro. It’s all about the transfer of knowledge, which is what you do, too, brother. I don’t see how else we can help this ailing planet without transferring good knowledge to people, and that’s the game plan.
That’s the game plan. I read somewhere about a young girl in a kura who told you that you helped her father to learn to read, and I wonder if you’d repeat the gist of it for our readers.
Yeah, that’s a blast from the past! I was just doing one of my classes in a primary school, and a little Māori girl in the back started waving her hand, saying: “Please sir, please sir.”
I was trying to get through my lesson, but she couldn’t help herself. She said: “You taught my dad to read.” And I said: “Oh, who’s your dad, darling?” And she goes: “Yeah, you know, you know my dad. When you came here last time, you gave me a Kapai the Kiwi book and I took it to my dad in jail, and my dad learned to read, and now he reads me stories.”
So, you just never know where the koha that you can give will end up. That’s the beauty of this life, bro. Whatever you put out there, if it’s done with love, who knows where it ends up?
You’ve got a whakataukī that resonates with me: “Life’s about mana, not money.” Can you share your kōrero about that?
I’ve seen what money can and can’t do. As I wrote to my mum as I was about to leave the high life in Zurich to come home: “I’m coming home coz these people who I’ve been working for have everything, yet they’ve got not much. Back home we’ve got not much, but we have everything.”
To this day, I live in a little whare on the shores of Te Puna. Life is all about mana, because money, you can’t take with you, but mana is what you’re remembered for, āe?
And the only way to get mana is by giving, so the more you give, the more credit you get on your mana-joy chip.
Good on you, mate. You’ve given a lot of yourself to the kaupapa of helping the homeless, helping inmates, helping people with addictions. Tell us about Te Tuinga and the satisfaction of working in this space, Tommy?
“Te Tuinga” means to weave the community together, and I’ve been the Chief Imagination Officer here for 10 years. I chose the title. It was a condition of my job.
Really, it’s the same set of problems and the same set of answers, whether it’s addiction, homelessness, gang, suicide or pandemic. It’s all about the knowledge. How do we share that knowledge to understand?
I learned from an old Aboriginal elder, Monty Pryor, who said: “We fear most, what we understand least.”
What I’ve learned in my life, I’ve applied here to Te Tuinga, to take away the fear of homelessness, addiction, gang life, suicide and now pandemics, by getting good knowledge to the people who need to understand, in a language that they understand.
Let’s talk about poverty. People in Aotearoa need to understand what pōhara actually looks like. We assume that homelessness is the street people who walk around our streets with layers and layers of mental health issues.
Those are not the people we’re looking after. We are looking after the mums and the kids who live on noodles to survive. We’re looking after old people who are coming to us in their dressing gowns from the outpatients’ ward of Tauranga Hospital because they have no hope, because there is no infrastructure for them.
Ninety-five percent are Māori. But a big percentage of those Māori, possibly 80 percent, are not from Tauranga Bay. So they don’t have the support networks of whānau, hapū, iwi, all of that — because, a lot of the time, they’ve ended up coming here to get away from a lifestyle that has not been of their choosing. I’m talking about domestic violence, gang life and so on.
We’re like jumper leads. We just reconnect the lost and the lonely and the broke and the broken-hearted.
And it’s the best buds, bro. This is better than anything you’ll chop up on a line with Jimmy Barnes, or a joint you’ll roll with George Harrison.
This is the real deal, because you get to be part of the movie, not sitting on a couch watching it. You get to celebrate the successes while others may choose to drown in the war stories, or become part of a blame game. That doesn’t do nothing, Dale. All it does is exacerbate the problem.
You’ve just got to get in there to understand why people are flying solo, whether it’s young kids, old people, mothers with five kids, or fullas who are wondering: “Shall I take the jab or not?”
It’s all about the source of the knowledge they get, and hopefully we’ll see the taiaha of knowledge of Pfizer offered to whānau in a language that our people can understand.
That wasn’t even the answer to the question, was it, bro?
It was right on the mark. Mike King, too, a guy who was flamboyant, funny and x-rated, turned his back on all of that stuff, to find his truer heart. He says everyone’s trying to get their shit together but no one’s got their shit together. What do you make of Mike’s efforts and, at times, the lack of support for what he’s doing?
I’m looking at a picture of the brother as we talk right now, on my wall. Our friendship bonded when we both got straight together, though it took Mike a little longer. He’s 12 years clean, I’m 16 years clean. The brother carries a huge load. You can’t just go home and say, “I’ll have the night off,” or go on holiday. There is no holiday because it’s always there.
He has a thousand letters from kids who’ve written what they have written before they’ve taken their life, and that’s a hell of a burden to carry. Mine’s easier. I look after 200 families. Every night I go home and I’m okay because I know they’re warm and they have kai.
But the brother, if he don’t get up and try his hardest the next day, lives will be lost. Imagine carrying that! I look at the latest interviews and I feel: “Brother, you’re tired, but I understand why you’re tired, and I know you can’t stop.”
What is the answer for brother Mike?
Yeah, it’s Whānau Ora and our Māori organisations — and that’s my challenge, too. There’s not a lot of support comes from Māori organisations, like the kiwifruit trusts, those who are doing well. When do you put your hands into your own pockets to help the pōhara?
And I think Mike might ask the same question. Where I am, we have 4000 interventions a year. That’s 80 a week, and I’ve been here 10 years, so that’s 40,000. And of all those 40,000 who walk through this door, we ask them what has happened — and they say they’ve been bashed, they’ve been beaten, they’ve got this habit.
Not one person has said: “I’ve been colonised.” And that’s why I’m saying that it’s too easy for Māori to blame the Pākehā colonisers. Of course, we know it’s colonisation. That’s a given. But we can’t just invoice it all to the Pākehā. It’s just too easy to do that, and I’m sure that brother Mike would agree with me.
Let’s step up ourselves as Māori, and ask what we can do.
I always ask people when they come in here: “What have you done for a poor person?” Not, what has the dole office done, or what has Oranga Tamariki done. What have you done? And then if you tell me you’ve done something, you’ve got a right to comment about how bad the situation is. But don’t moan if you ain’t doing the mahi, āe bro?
Tautoko. But to add a little layer to it, what can we all do to make our communities better?
Kindness is the korowai that we need to put over this long white cloud. It’s almost cheesy but people don’t understand that their random acts of kindness are what we can all do. And it doesn’t quantify into money, it doesn’t quantify into assets — it’s time. Time is a precious commodity, and that’s something we can all be part of. Just giving.
I tell people that I had a degree in drug taking in the first half of my life, and I’ve got a master’s in manaakitanga in the second half.
Giving is everything, bro. Give till it hurts. Make a start in your own backyard. Find someone who deserves a random act of kindness, and do it, and don’t tell anyone you’re doing it. Just do it.
Anything else you would like to add? The space is yours. Kōrero mai, brother.
Many people ask me: “Why don’t you kōrero Māori more?” And my answer to that is that we all have x-amount of time in our lives to do what we believe is best for the planet, and I would have loved to have gone and done a te reo Māori course, you know?
My wife is a tutor in raranga. Her mother had a master’s in tutoring raranga, and our daughter has a degree in raranga. She teaches at kura kaupapa Māori and we have the reo and raranga at home.
I’m a marae widower, bro, but I’ve chosen purposefully to do the mahi that I do because, if I was to speak the reo as fluently as I want to, I’d be handcuffed to a paepae every time there’s a tangi — and I’ve got to put my homeless people first.
It’s naïve to think that the reo is the panacea that will solve all the problems for us Māori. The planet is in trouble and, for me, Covid is the curtain-raiser for climate change.
For me, it’s all about the taiaha of knowledge. When we’ve looked after our environment, our whenua and our whānau, then we can enjoy the luxury of having time to upskill everybody in the reo. Awhi up, Aotearoa.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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