Adam Gifford, the reo Pākehā news editor at Radio Waatea, first met Dame Georgina Kirby in the 1980s when he was a young reporter for the Auckland Star and she was the president of the Māori Women’s Welfare League. In more recent times, when Georgina lived in a retirement home near Adam, they had a standing date on Thursday afternoons.
A small room with her name misspelled, and with the hard-won honorific missing.
This room in an Auckland retirement home on Pah Rd in Epsom, Auckland, was where Dame Georgina Kirby spent her final years as the world moved on without her.
A small space for a small woman whose ideas and words and vision made such a huge impact on te ao Māori.
“They don’t talk,” she’d say of her fellow ageing residents as she described their incomprehension at the reports she’d give of our weekly rides around the neighbourhood.
Georgie’s world started shrinking a few years earlier, around the time her beloved husband, Brian Kirby, became bedridden with a serious illness and was moved into care.
She’d stepped down from her work at the Māori Women’s Development Incorporation, the microlending institution she’d set up when she was president of the Māori Women’s Welfare League 30-plus years ago, and had retired from other boards and bodies.
I’d sometimes see her at the supermarket waiting for the rain to stop and give her a ride home, as three decades of casual contacts, conversations and the delivery of Christmas cards and newsletters morphed into a kind of neighbourly friendship.
After Brian died in 2014, Georgie tried to move back to Rotorua where some of her siblings still lived — but she was soon back in Auckland and homeless until the room was found at Greenwoods Corner.
On Thursdays, I’d stop by on my way home from Radio Waatea and take her for a drive and a coffee — she never drank tea.
We’d drive through Cornwall Park and up Maungakiekie, while there was still access to the tihi.
“I never knew there was a farm in the city,” she’d say. And then she’d talk about growing up on, and then escaping from, the farm at Horohoro, south of Rotorua, where she was born. She was the oldest of 11 children to Tawhiri and Tuhe Smith, both from Ngāti Kahungunu.
Her father moved over from Nūhaka after winning the lease for a farm in a ballot, part of a plan by Apirana Ngata to bring experienced Māori farmers in to share their knowledge with Te Arawa.
“My father was always telling me what to do,” she’d say. That included becoming a teacher — the path that smart young Māori were directed towards at that time. Never university, though.
She had other plans. Her uncle, Walter Smith, was a musician and the composer of “Beneath the Māori Moon”. And when he came visiting in Rotorua, she invited herself to visit him in Auckland, abandoning her job as a junior assistant teacher at Whakarewarewa School.
She didn’t get into Elam art school as she’d planned but she did take lessons from the painter, Louise Henderson. And that interest in art carried on through her life — as a maker of art, administrator, advocate, and gallerist.
In recent years, we would visit the Pah Homestead where, if a work of contemporary art seemed perplexing, she’d say: “That’s creative.”
Last December, our drive took us as far as the Auckland Art Gallery for the Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art exhibition.
She was thrilled to see the work of friends and contemporaries like Sandy Adsett (“He’s my cousin”) and Selwyn Muru, as well as many of the younger artists she had supported in various roles.
These included serving as the secretary for Ngā Puna Waihanga, the Māori Artists and Writers Society, which was formed at a hui in Te Kaha in 1973.
Georgie, along with Haare Williams (who chaired the society) and Cliff Whiting, went to Wellington after the 1975 election to lobby the incoming National Government’s arts minister, Allan Highet, to set aside a pūtea for Māori from the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council.
What they got three years later was the Māori and South Pacific Arts Council, or Maspac, to which Georgie was appointed.
In the interim, she’d studied art administration and training at the National Arts School in Papua New Guinea and the Aboriginal Arts Board in Sydney. These were connections made as part of an effort by a reinvigorated Māori Affairs Department to reach out both to Māori living overseas and to other Indigenous Peoples.
She brought her artistic flair to other roles, too. For instance, designing logos for the Māori Women’s Welfare League and the Māori Women’s Development Incorporation (MWDI). Commissioning Māori-themed garments for her wardrobe. And setting up the Taumata Art Gallery in the MWDI’s Symonds St headquarters.
In the course of our weekly outings, we’d sometimes drive up Mt Eden Rd, hoping she could spot where she and Brian had run a dairy after they’d left their Post Office jobs in the mid-1960s.
Post Office Tolls in Wellington is where a fellow worker — the tall, gangly, rugby-playing Brian Kirby — first spotted her and, the next day, invited her out for a coffee.
From then on, the pair became partners for life, moving up the ranks of the Post Office to run branches north of Auckland, at Silverdale and Orewa.
On another outing, I drove her into the city and to the Freeman’s Bay community centre, which she’d insisted be given the original name of the area, Waiatarau.
Brian worked for Auckland City Council as the community centre’s manager and Georgie leased a small upstairs office for her many activities, which by that stage included being the Māori Women’s Welfare League president.
Brian also rented part of the hall to his friends Don Selwyn and Selwyn Muru to run a Māori Access training scheme for work in film and television, which is how I first encountered the pair as a young reporter for the Auckland Star, trying to get a handle on the Auckland Māori community.
While Georgie would be upstairs dealing with mounds of paperwork and a steady stream of visitors, Brian would be downstairs, always an active, friendly and garrulous source of tips and gossip.
Georgie joined the Māori Women’s Welfare League in 1976 and created a Waiatarau branch and also a junior branch, which drew in many of the Auckland Girls’ Grammar pupils who congregated around her home in Freeman’s Bay.
League luminaries like Whina Cooper, Mira Szaszy and Ann Delamere took an interest in this dynamic young woman, mentoring her and showing her the paths to power and influence.
As someone who spoke only Māori until she started school at five, Georgie helped start one of the first kōhanga reo at Waiatarau in 1982, and was proud of her service on the first Kōhanga Reo Trust with Sir James Henare and Sir John Bennett.
Waiatarau was also a place that felt like home to me — it had been home in 1965, the year my family spent in Pratt St, a literal stone’s thrown away from the community centre.
We seemed like the only Pākehā family in half a mile, and I remember, just two doors along, Betty Wark and her friends sitting on her front porch laughing and talking and weaving mounds of square kono baskets for the hangi at the Māori Community Centre across from Victoria Park.
Georgie didn’t have much need of the news media — her approach was to go direct to the decision-makers to demand support for her ideas — and my big attempt to give serious newspaper coverage to the Māori Women’s Welfare League proved a bust. After I got approval to go to New Plymouth to cover the League’s national conference, I was told not to bother filing any stories. There’d been a coup in Fiji that morning, and the Star’s pages were full of that.
The big news from the conference was probably one I wouldn’t have noticed at the time. Georgie brought in a smoking ban. And the sweet drinks and lollies that used to be on every conference table were also on their way out.
While president, Georgie was doing double duty as the New Zealand Commissioner for the 1986 World Expo on Vancouver, Canada.
At her funeral, a succession of League veterans talked about how she shook up the organisation after stepping into the president’s role in 1983 following the sudden death of Maraea Te Kawa, which meant she served longer than the usual two-year term (1983–87).
They remembered her marathon meetings as she got her executive considering a huge range of kaupapa, then barking out instructions as to what they needed to do before the next meeting.
She marshalled League members into conducting the Rapuora survey of Māori women’s health — and she used the data to set up Whare Rapuora health and wellness clinics throughout Aotearoa.
The effectiveness of the League’s outreach was harnessed by Māori Affairs for a 1988 survey of Māori housing.
When Māori Affairs was handing out development money under the Mana Enterprise Loan Scheme, she lobbied hard for some to be earmarked for women.
She eventually got about $250,000 as seed money for her Māori Women’s Development Fund, which became her major work for the next 22 years.
There are similarities to Bangladesh’s Grameen community development bank with its emphasis on investing in women through small loans, although there was no requirement to take in deposits.
Throughout her life, she supported and mentored younger women, including the Labour MP Meka Whaitiri who said that Georgie epitomised rangatiratanga.
Georgie had a way of asking questions that would make those in power squirm. “Where are the women?” “Where are the Māori?” Then she would do something to answer them.
For International Women’s Day in 1993, she started a petition with Marilyn Waring and Jocelyn Fish on gender representation in parliament, pointing out that up to that date there’d been 1127 male MPs and just 36 women.
She represented New Zealand and presented papers on women’s and indigenous issues at many overseas conferences, placing Māori in the context of the larger indigenous revival.
As a past president of the League, the roles kept coming, from government and non-government organisations, arts and sporting bodies, as well as chairing Ngāti Kahungunu’s Auckland rūnanga.
As a member of the Māori Fisheries Commission, Te Ohu Kaimoana, she pushed for more of the benefits of the settlement to flow to urban areas through jobs and training.
I’d talk with Georgie about the stories Waatea was running about the people she’d worked with, never failing to get an “I know them”.
Georgie maintained an interest in politics, making sure she had the chance to vote for Phil Goff as mayor, and in Tāmaki Makaurau.
“Who are the candidates?”
“There’s John Tamihere, for the Māori Party now, and Peeni Henare, Erima’s boy, Sir James’s moko, for Labour.”
“Sir James and I, we started Kōhanga Reo,” she said, ticking the Labour box.
She enjoyed reading books by old friends like Patricia Grace and Witi Ihimaera, or Māori memoirs and biographies, as well as solving endless word puzzles.
The end, when it came, seemed sudden, even though she’d been living with lung cancer for several years.
On her last afternoon, we again drove around Maungakiekie, diverting into a street where the ginko trees were blazing gold, passing through Cornwall Park where the first of the Paperwhite and Early Cheer daffodils had pushed through the dark soil.
We stopped to look over at Māngere mountain and the harbour in the midwinter sunshine, before heading back to the home.
In the early hours of the morning, she was admitted to hospital and, around dawn, the light that had blazed so fiercely for so long was gone.
Dame Georgina Kamiria Kirby was born in 1936 in Horohoro, near Rotorua, and died in Auckland on June 11, 2021, aged 85.
Adam Gifford is te reo Pākehā news editor at Radio Waatea. He’s been a reporter and an observer of, and for, te ao Māori for more than 30 years.
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