Warwick Godfery has been a Kawerau district councillor since he was first elected in 2013, when he still had the words “Mongrel Mob” tattooed on his forehead. (Photo: Kawerau District Council)

Local governments all through Aotearoa could do with a Warwick Godfery of their own — or borrowing him from the Kawerau District Council. He’s someone who knows first-hand the struggle it can be for those who’ve had rough starts and who’ve picked up unhealthy appetites and habits. Drugs especially.

But that was then. He learned from those tough times, and from the good times too as he became a dad, and as family responsibilities matured him. As a result, he’s brought insights to his council and community work that are sometimes beyond the grasp of others who’ve been leading less adventurous lives. Here, in this chat with Dale, he touches on the paths he’s taken.   

 

Kia ora, Warwick. I understand that your dad is Sāmoan and your mum is a South Island Pālagi. Have I got that right?

Yeah, my pā, Tāuā Latu Lome, is a Sāmoan. And my mum, Norah Dempster, is from Waihola, a little town just outside of Dunedin. Scottish and Irish originally.

My father got a scholarship from Sāmoa to go to Timaru Boys’ High School. During the holidays, he worked at the sawmill in Waihola, and that’s when he met my mother. Funny story — she didn’t realise he was still at school and only 17. I think she was in her early 20s.

There were brief liaisons and, when my mother fell pregnant, my father wanted to marry her. But she said no. He went back to school, and my mother had to go and stay in a nun’s home in Auckland. It was for unmarried women who were pregnant, and that’s where I was born.

My mother was under a lot of pressure — from the nuns, social workers and the police — to have me adopted. And I was taken from her at birth. She was drugged at the time. She didn’t have a choice. So she never laid eyes on me till I was 30 years old. And I never knew my father either till I was in my early 30s.

Where did you grow up?  Who raised you?

I was raised by the Godfery family. My adoptive parents were Mike and Colleen. They were given all this fictitious information about my birth parents — in fact, my whole adoption file was made up. It said my old man was Sāmoan, that he was a rugby player and that he played the guitar. You know, all the stereotypes. And it said my mother was English, that she’d given me up because I was brown, and that she’d gone back to England.

None of it was true.

Anyway, my adoptive father was a tradesman. He was a fitter. I spent my early years in Putaruru where the old man worked, and then we came to Kawerau where he worked in the mills until he retired.

He was also heavily involved in boxing, which is how we found out who my birth father was. He knew heaps of Sāmoans through boxing, and he knew a Sāmoan in Wellington who used to live down south. That guy remembered my birth father, and that’s how we got his name. It was a fluke, really.

In Kawerau and around the Eastern Bay, we had a Sāmoan group. There were heaps of us because they’d brought in Islanders to work at the sawmill. Like me, a lot were disconnected from their families. The Sāmoan group was a little community — it connected us to each other.

There was a fulla there, Ioselani Pouesi, and he was a doctor on the East Coast.

I told the group I knew I was Sāmoan but didn’t know where I was from. I gave them my father’s name, and Ioselani said: “I know who your father is, and I know who your family are.” And that’s how I found him.

I was in my early 30s when I met him.

“My children gave me my sense of identity, and that was enough for me. I stuck with the gangs for a couple more years, and then threw that in, as well.” — Warwick with Jacqueline and Morgan. (Photo supplied)

Can you tell us a bit more about your birth father? What was it like meeting him?

Well, after Timaru Boy’s High, he did a business degree at Otago uni, before going back to Sāmoa.

He went on to become a politician and was one of the original members of the HRPP, the Human Rights Protection Party. He did several terms as an MP and he was also a cabinet minister. But he’s retired now in Lalomanu which is my grandmother’s village in Upolu.

Most of my family live in the village of A’ai o Niue in Apia, but my grandparents are buried in Vailima. That’s where Sonny Bill Williams is from. The Rock as well.

When I found out who my father was, I decided to go to Sāmoa. I wanted to see where I was from. I rang him up, and it turned out he was coming to New Zealand for a hospital procedure. So I met him in Auckland, and he told me where our family lived in Apia and how to get there. I flew out the next day.

When I got to the house, my aunty and one of my cousins were there. My old man hadn’t rung them to tell them I was coming. So the taxi driver helped explain who I was because he was quite good at English. And by the time I came back the next day, my father had called.

You know, it’s hard to describe what it was like. For someone who’s been lost all their life to go home, to walk among my own people for the first time, to see my own flesh and blood and hear my language being spoken for the first time ever, and to be embraced in the way I was . . . it was pretty surreal.

I’ve been back many times since, and I’m overdue for another visit. It was the old man’s 80th a couple of weeks ago and I haven’t been back since Covid struck.

Tēnā koe. Is your birth mum still alive, too?

Yes. She lives in Australia. When I was born, she had a breakdown, and ended up in a mental health facility where she was given the option to be a patient or to work there. She ended up working as a nurse, before she went to Australia, and met her husband, my stepfather Bruce Kaplan. And they had my brother, Nachum, and my sister, Haya.

My mum got in contact with me when I was about 28. A social worker from Rotorua rang and said she was trying to get hold of me. I went: “Well, guess what? It’s 28 years late.”

But my wife, Tracey, said I should hear her out. When she rang, she told me about the forced stranger adoption, and what happened to her. There was even a letter from her in my file thanking my adoptive parents, and I found out that had been forged too. We’ve been in contact ever since.

Kia ora. How old were you when you realised that those who were caring for you weren’t your birth parents? And did you resent that?

I always knew because they were Pālagi. I grew up with Pālagi parents, knowing that I was a Sāmoan, living in a community that’s mostly Māori. So, I struggled with identity. Wondering who I was. And it caused me a significant amount of anguish, which I self-medicated with drugs. I became a heavy user for many years.

Boxing was a big thing for me. I started boxing when I was at school and fell in love with the sport instantly. It was the first time I’d seen Sāmoan people in a positive light. Because I grew up in the Dawn Raids era, all I knew about being Sāmoan were the negative stereotypes. Overstayers, coconuts, only good for manual labour. But in boxing, we were held in high esteem.

Now, it’s different. We’re everywhere. We’re in the performing arts, the music scene, in combat sports. And so many of the All Blacks are Sāmoans. But in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, we didn’t have positive role models.

Here at E-Tangata, we’ve had quite a bit of contact with your son Morgan Godfery who’s made his mark as a political commentator, writer and academic. And, because of your background, he’s not unfamiliar with the gang worlds. But your links with gangs have been substantial. And that meant mixing with Māori. How did that go? There were some standoffs between Māori and Pasifika people in the 1970s and even in the ‘80s.

Well, most of them didn’t know I was Sāmoan. Everyone just assumed I was Māori. My mates were Māori, so it was all good. As you’re probably aware, Kawerau was attracting all sorts of workers. Pacific Island people. British. American. The mill was a melting pot of different iwi as well. That’s why our marae here in Kawerau is a pan-tribal, urban-style marae.

“I didn’t achieve my full potential because you can’t be a druggie and a boxer at the same time.” — Warwick, pictured on the right.

And boxing was your thing. I hear you had some success.

Yeah, in New Zealand. But I didn’t achieve my full potential because you can’t be a druggie and a boxer at the same time. So, when I met my wife Tracey and had my children, that’s when I went straight. My children (Jacqueline, Morgan and Kataraina) gave me my sense of identity, and that was enough for me. I stuck with the gangs for a couple more years, and then threw that in, as well.

But I still love boxing. If it wasn’t for boxing, I’d be dead or in jail. I run the club in Kawerau now. I was always one of the leaders and helped train the younger ones.

We all know boxing is a metaphor for life. When you get knocked down, you gotta get up again. If you make a mistake, then you get punched in the head. And if you don’t correct that mistake, then guess what? You’re going to get hit again. It’s a brutal way of teaching life lessons, but it’s such a great sport for young people.

And I still train every day. I can’t run anymore but, for probably 30 years, I ran between 100km to 150km each week. Now I go for a bike ride instead.

How old were you when you got involved in the gang culture, Warwick?

I was 20 or 21. I was using very heavily every day. Anything and everything. But when I joined the Mob, that was enough for me to stop drinking and doing the heavier drugs. I kept sort of smoking dope. But as soon as I had children, I gave it all away.

Being in the gang gave me an identity. No one questioned who you were.  No one cared if you’re Māori, Pālagi, or Pacific. You were a Mobster, that’s who you were. You were just one of the bros.

Kia ora. I know that, for a time, even though you don’t wear it now, you did end up having a facial Mob moko. How did that sit with you? And with your parents? It’s one thing to wear the red patch and the like, but the facial tattoos may stay with you for life, although I know you’ve had them removed since. Why did you do that, and how did it affect your life?

I’m not sure how it affected my life, but then, growing up in a place like Kawerau, it’s not out of the ordinary. You’re also an uncle, a father, a brother, and a son before you’re a gang member in this town. People know you as who you are, and then as a gang member second, third, fourth type of thing.

When did you have your facials removed, bro?

A couple of years ago. It was part of a programme on the marae and, while I was training with one of the boys, he said I should put my name down for the tattoo removal programme. So I went along. It’s taken over three or four years, but it’s now almost as good as gone.

In Sāmoa with his children and mokopuna. From right, Tyrenzo Tuitama, Warwick, Lauriegh Tuitama, Morgan, Kataraina, and Jacqueline. (Photo supplied)

In Kawerau, the Mongrel Mob is part of that community, and you’re seen as a grandfather or an uncle before you’re seen as a gang member.

Well, the gangs have become intergenerational. And a young fulla who joins the gangs now would be doing it for a different reason from what the original members had. There are three generations, coming up four, of gang membership.

The original membership, you can track that back to state abuse. That tells you where the gangs originated. They began in the boys’ homes — in the corrective training institutions, and in places like that. Now it’s become intergenerational and the gang membership is changing.

There’s a bit of a move these days where those who are still in there are wanting better for their children and grandchildren. And the older ones are trying to lead that change. Some successful, some not so successful. I know there’s gang captains that are drug-testing members now — things like that.

So, yeah there is a change. And good luck to those trying to lead that change. It’s a big mahi.

Tēnā koe. We know there used to be a lot of weed around. But this meth epidemic that’s taking over globally is having a huge impact. As we know, Warwick, when people are fried, they make dumb choices. I can sense that there are many within the gang culture who want to keep a lid on how crazy people can go if they’re wired on meth. That’s a positive sign.

As I’ve said, that change is coming from the older members. But getting a grip on the younger ones is always difficult. You’re going to lose some along the way, and that’s what’s happening. Everyone wants something better for their own kids, and there’s only one way to lead — that’s by example.

Many of our older members who are trying to lead their team will have struggled with that, because some of their younger ones may say: “Hang on. I remember you did this, this, and this. Now you’re telling me that.” So, that’s a struggle. It’s a hard mahi.

I’ve worked in the health, social and education sectors for 30 years. And I’ve been a youth worker too. Now, I do my work in schools in the mornings. I do fitness-based programmes and teacher-aiding with some of the high-needs kids. Then I run the boxing club at night. I also have my council responsibilities as well. I’m on the Kawerau District Council.

It’s very difficult now for young people to navigate their way through life. So many distractions. You know, Kawerau’s consistently in the top three for meth readings in our wastewater, and those are the kids I see at school — they come from those homes. We’re also one of the lowest income towns in New Zealand. It ain’t easy for our young people.

Warwick and his mokopuna Lauriegh Tuitama. (Photo supplied)

I want to touch on the Ōpōtiki situation of recent weeks. The media had a field day there, didn’t they? They wanted photographs of burnouts, and they focused on school closures and other disruptions. Coming from Kawerau, and mixing no doubt with the brothers from Ōpōtiki, you’d know better than most, what was going on there.

It was a tangi, and heaps of people gather for a tangi. That’s not unusual. They always close streets for tangi, because there’s going to be parade. But the community leaders and the mayor and some of the gang leaders there had it under control.

The media took the opportunity to display what was filmed, and then the National politicians took that as an opportunity for an anti-gang message. It was clearly a dog-whistle to a certain section of the population. But it wasn’t helpful. It wasn’t good. With the election coming up in October, it appears that this kind of political response will be the nature of the beast this year.

But there are some strong leaders working with the police in Ōpōtiki and they have pretty good control of things. I believe the police did a great job alongside those community leaders and the mayor. It was a good outcome, and there’s been no kickback since. The community has kept on working together. Let’s hope that continues.

Thank you. I saw it the same way, too. I think the police showed good restraint. I have to admit I’ve not been a big fan of the coppers for the way they’ve treated our people historically, but I think that just being there, somewhat at a distance, was the right thing to do in that situation.

We’ve just had the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care. What do you make of what it has unearthed about the harrowing experiences of some of these guys who were put into care under dubious circumstances? Do you think it’s going to serve a useful purpose?

I hope so. Our fear is, of course, that their report is going to sit on a shelf. But someone needs to show some leadership and acknowledge what happened. And there should be an apology from the prime minister for all those wrongdoings years ago.

That’s not even looking at the compensation that many are due. I mean, that regime stuffed up a great many lives, didn’t it? 

There won’t be any compensation. But an apology would count for a helluva lot.

Tēnā koe. Nice talking with you, Warwick. And learning more of your commitment to your community and some of the realities of your life, especially your efforts to help young people.

This kōrero has been a privilege. Thank you very much. Kia ora, bro. Fa’afetai, mālō ma soifua.

It’s been my privilege to have a kōrero with you. Much love to you and to the whānau.

 

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

With additional reporting by Teuila Fuatai, made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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