I know the humanity of New Zealanders is far greater than the zero empathy of a cartoonist and his bosses at a newspaper I will never bother reading again. But it still hurts, writes Christine Ammunson.
There’s one thing about going home to Sāmoa you can’t get away from and that’s the beautiful babies. They are everywhere. Smiling. Curious. Cheeky. Hilarious.
Earlier this year I was there for a funeral and we fell in love with my toddler nephew, a minister’s son who had all the mourners in hysterics. Transforming into Bumble Bee during the main service. Looking with wide disapproving eyes at an elderly lady bringing a coffee into the church. Turning into the Hulk behind our family matai as he delivered an important speech.
And then there’s one thing about New Zealand you can’t get away from. And that’s the racism that never totally went away, that hits you when you’re not expecting it.
Sometimes you can get too comfortable living in Aotearoa. A country where thousands of people will march in support of Māori language. Where Pasifika people are high ranked in Cabinet. Six60, Taika Waititi, Ardie Savea, the Black Ferns, Kanoa Lloyd, Stacey Morrison, The Rock for goodness sake.
You think it’s a totally different world from the one that preceded it. In that world 20% of Sāmoans died thanks to New Zealand public servants who let passengers infected with influenza disembark for many reasons but mostly because they were European. Ten years later New Zealanders machine gunned down Sāmoan human rights activists on a peace march. One of them my nana’s beloved dad. Forty or so years after that, once the New Zealand economy had shrunk, Sāmoans who’d been urged to move to freezing cities to work in factories, were hunted down and sent back to the islands. Blamed for all the global economic problems they never created.
But that was the 20th century. Being brown is cool now you think.
I suppose that’s why Garrick Tremain’s cartoon upset me so much. I thought we were the kind of country where empathy for other people was kind of built into our DNA now. I live in a small rural town and it’s not perfect, but at its core is a big bloody heart. When some bigoted retail worker told visitors to not go to a certain restaurant and mentioned that the owners were gay my Facebook was inundated and a week later our diverse table for ten included elders, army guys, aunties and elected representatives.
So when I saw a cartoon that turned the death of our Sāmoan babies into a joke. I was for once lost for words. Yesterday I discovered that the lives of our beloved babies are worth so little to some that they can be dehumanised into a play on words about spots.
I am glad the Otago Daily Times has apologised for the cartoon, and dismayed at Tremain’s attempt to brush it off.
But I will always wonder: If so many of us hadn’t roared in rage at the ODT’s heartlessness at this, one of Sāmoa’s darkest times – would they have apologised?
If Kiwis had just laughed along with the “spots” joke. Or ignored it and said nothing. Would there have been an official apology?
I know that Tremain would never have made a cartoon joking about the precious souls lost in the Pike River tragedy. And even if he did, the ODT would never have published it. And that’s because Tremain and the management at the ODT saw that tragedy through human eyes, and with empathy.
I’ve been following the pages of family members these past few weeks. Photos of tiny babies in hospital beds so big, I have to zoom in because I can hardly see them. Photos of people sitting on the floor and the ground, lining the halls and walls of hospitals. Praying and waiting for their babies to live or die.
I know the humanity of New Zealanders is far greater than the zero empathy of a cartoonist and his bosses at a newspaper I will never bother reading again.
But it still hurts. And my Facebook is still full of photos of our beautiful babies.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.