Whānau heroes. Tainui’s cousin Sonia with her husband Dennis Key, after he suffered a stroke 21 years ago. (Photo supplied)

Not all heroes are national or international figures. Some of the most inspirational are within our own whānau, as Tainui Stephens writes here. 


When I was 15, I discovered the thrill of hard rock music. I haunted the record stores of 1970s Christchurch, like EMI, The Mouse Trap, and the gloriously hippy Renaissance Records. My bedroom wall was plastered with posters of bands, and guitar gods in ecstatic poses. They were my heroes. 

And then I realised they weren’t heroes at all. They were just people I admired, or envied.

In comics and books, I met other sorts of heroes. Each of them was the figment of a writer’s imagination but, by God, they were real to me. And none more so than a drunken English lawyer called Sydney Carton.

Sydney appears in a Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities. Much of the story is set in Paris during the French Revolution in the late 1700s, when rebels were in the habit of sending their enemies to the guillotine for a public beheading. 

Sydney had fallen in love with Lucie, but she married Charles, one of his clients, a rich man who happened to resemble Sydney. Nearly twins. 

Then Charles is declared an enemy of France and is sentenced to death. Just before the execution, Sydney visits him in prison. He slips Charles a drug to knock him out and swaps their clothes. 

The guards believe Sydney is Charles and Charles is Sydney. They carry Charles out of the prison to Lucie, and then take Sydney to join 52 other prisoners soon to lose their heads.

The adolescent me knew right away that Sydney was a hero: someone willing to save another at immense personal cost. As I left my teen years and grew up to see things as they are, I was in a better position to appreciate the heroism in real people, especially those who sacrificed their own needs to nurture mine. I realised my mother was a hero.

Aunty Aloma and Uncle Graham. (Photo supplied)

As I learned more about world history, te ao Māori and life, I discovered every era gifts us individuals whose acts of heroism turn conflict into peace, shame into pride, or ignorance into knowledge. All of them inspired to take action and having the courage to carry on, whatever the odds. To persist. Despite it all.

Aunty Aloma today.

I often think about that as I see the private heroism of ordinary people everywhere. I see members of my own whānau handle the difficulties that life has dealt them — and I have a growing appreciation of their special heroism as they cope with a world that, for them, is shrinking.

My dad’s sister, Aloma Munce, is the senior aunty on one side of the family, but she has claimed the right to be nosy about every side. She is a keeper of whānau stories which she collected over many decades as she housed and fed so many of us.

Her Pākehā hubby, Graham, was a chronic man’s man until his wife made him see the light and settle his demons. He loved her for it. We all loved Uncle Graham, his humour and his heart. 

Sometimes, there’s no one funnier than a recovering alcoholic who delights in pointing out bad behaviour because he’s been there, done that. “Maaaate! Don’t give me that crap! You can’t bullshit an old drunk!” 

Unx and Aunty were a team through the thickest of thick and the slimmest of thin.

When Graham had an aortic aneurysm and passed away a few years ago, we were devastated. Especially for Aloma. Her world shrank right away. With whānau support, she worked her way through the sadness and got to a place of peace. 

One day I saw that her hip was giving her gyp, and it hurt to spend time standing in the kitchen. She could no longer be the cook she loved to be. We miss her baking, but she came to terms with it and reluctantly let others command that realm. 

Later, there were signs of dementia. For a while she lost track of whether she was in Australia or New Zealand. But, as her world has become smaller, she has found bravery in her essence as a daughter, sister, wife and mother.

She lives all the memories of her long life in the present tense. All the people she has loved and who have loved her, are with her now, in real time. She laughs a lot at the absurdity of life. But she’s not one to wilt. Bless her.

Aloma’s youngest sister is Susan. Susan’s daughter is Stephanie, and her grandson is Nate. He’s 11 now. A few years ago, I noticed him walking in an odd way. 

At the time, he was upset about being denied his computer game. Steph was patient but insistent. Nate wasn’t impressed. I thought his unusual gait was just the way he stamped his feet when he was grumpy. 

Nate in hospital (above), and with his sister Ella at home. (Photo supplied)

I learned later that he suffers from a form of muscular dystrophy called Duchenne which affects one in every 3600 boys in New Zealand. Nate is missing a protein in one of his genes that’s responsible for stabilising and repairing muscle tissue. Over time, the muscles waste away. And, because a human body is effectively one big muscle, the impact of disability and treatment is sadly apparent.

Nate is a smart, charming, boisterous and brave young fulla in a world that’s shrinking before he gets to experience much of it.  

He watches his friends grow up and do stuff that he can’t. But, thanks to devoted whānau, medical specialists and teachers, he’s excited by activities within his grasp.

Technology is a special friend, and he controls his personal devices with ease. Like his electric wheelchair which he mastered in only one day. He’s a very happy chappy doing donuts when he and his dad, Doug, go on their morning walks.

Nate’s wide-open face is a canvas where honest emotions shine forth. His bravery comes from his gratitude for the things he can do, and in his acceptance of the things he can’t.

Aloma’s mother Millie had a sister called Clare whose daughter, Sonia, married Dennis Key. Den is Te Arawa tūturu with healthy amounts of Sāmoa flowing through his veins. 

When he married into the family, he brought a huge personality — a reputation as a hard worker (as a crane engineer), a twinkle-toed rugby league wing (good enough to play for the Kiwis), and a guitar-playing, hard-case party boy (generous with a beer and a bud). Full of laughs and pride.

Dennis Key, playing league in the 1970s. (Photo supplied)

He reckons that when he met my cousin Sonia, he was attracted by the enthusiastic way she ate pork bones. When he saw watercress dangling from her lips, it was love at first sight. “Boy, I knew she was the wahine for me!” 

And so she was. Especially 21 years ago when Den had a stroke. Sonia pulled together the family resources to ensure his transition to a new way of life was the best it could be. And, in the process, her beloved husband helped her become a stronger woman.

Den went through his own deep grief and long periods of reflection as he worked to accept a world that was so much smaller. 

But he carries on upholding the mana of his whānau. At any hui, he will declare: “Tihei Mauriora!”, and make his way slowly to the best place to be seen. Every eye watches him and wills him on. He’ll start with a self-aware joke about “Koro Bodgie and his broken arse”. The crowd will laugh, and then hang on his every word.

The private heroes among our friends and family won’t save the world by their personal courage but their presence in our lives give us the chance to save our humanity. Ehara taku toa i te toa takitahi engari ia, he toa takimano. 

Heroes need other heroes to support them, clean up after them, and challenge them. Most of all they need someone to tell their story.

Dennis and Sonia today. (Photo supplied)

When Sydney Carton went to his death so that another might live, he may have known, as all heroes must, that whether they win or lose, they did the best that was humanly possible. 

His last thoughts are among the most famous in literature and reflect the heroic power of a clear conscience.

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.”

Everyone has the hero gene. It’s in the DNA and expressed in the extraordinary stories behind the men, women and children of our whakapapa. They teach us that heroism dwells in each of us. All it needs is another hero to unlock it.


Tainui Stephens, of Te Rarawa, has been fully engaged in the film and television industry since 1984, working with a range of genre and content. He is particularly attracted to compelling indigenous stories that critique and celebrate the human condition. Tainui lives in Ōtaki with his wife and fellow filmmaker Libby Hakaraia. Together they and a small whānau team run the Māoriland Film Festival.

© E-Tangata, 2021

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