Heather du Plessis-Allan sparked controversy this week with a column calling the Waikato town ‘rotting’. In fact, Ngāruawāhia is the epitome of uplifting small-town NZ, writes former resident Tainui Stephens.
In 1998 I fled Herne Bay in Auckland to live in Ngāruawāhia. It was one of the best things I ever did. I lived there for 12 years and cried my eyes out when I left. It had been a wonderful home and had treated me well.
Moving to a small town was an escape from traffic and the pressure of big city survival. I had thrived in it, and had reached a point in my life where I wanted a change. I was able to work from home, and this Waikato region was nicely perched between Auckland and Hamilton airports for when I needed to travel.
Ngāruawāhia had all the shops I needed for my day to day interactions with food, services, and DVD hire. It was only a two minute walk to the single main street. Every time I walked it, I felt blessed that it was so easy.
I also walked the streets morning and night in a mild attempt at exercise. It was always the same route: up the neighborhood, by the school, through the town, and down along the river.
As I do anywhere in the world, I would look at the homes and imagine the variety of life experiences that were occurring or perhaps even simmering behind closed doors. For all the evidence of happy families that I saw, I also knew that Ngāruawāhia was no different to any town or city where people are under pressure and break. I remember when a local woman Cherie Kurarangi-Sweeny stood up to make a noise about child abuse. She was excoriated by some locals, but to me she was a total hero. It takes enormous courage to stand up for what is right when everyone knows who you are, and where you live.
Another hero was the late Māori Queen Te Atairangikāhu. The local Tūrangawaewae marae is an official seat of the Kingitanga, and the fruits of her visionary leadership were on display whenever a big hui took place there. On my walks I could see over the river into the back of the marae complex. There was always something going down: cultural and sporting events and the impressive hosting of visitors from near and very far. I was always hearing speeches, song and haka bursting out. He ātaahua tōna rongo.
The rich history of Ngāruawāhia is ever present for those who choose to see it. When I walked down to the point where the Waipā and Waikato rivers meet and savoured the early morning mist; I could clearly imagine George Grey’s British troops emerging in their iron-clad boats of war, as much as earlier eras when iwi in their waka plied the waters.
On Saturday mornings there was a market in the main street. Nothing fancy, nothing flash, and a great opportunity to really see who lived in Ngāruawāhia. It was at those moments of local peeps gathering to have a kai and a kōrero, that I witnessed one precious reasonwhy I enjoyed life in a small town. No one worried about what you looked like. There was no parade of folk concerned with their image or what they wore. I knew that I loved to live in a place where you can go to town in your pyjamas, and no one cares.
One of the local characters was an elderly Pākehā man called Bill. He was a bit of a loner who worked at the supermarket. An unassuming chap who shuffled about the place with his bung leg to retrieve and return the shopping trolleys. He helped out around the town. I sometimes saw him being a warden at Anzac Day parades. If a tangi was on at the marae he would go there too. Humbly and by himself. Paying his respects by just being there. I always enjoyed seeing Bill as a guy who had his place and mana in this little community.
He lived alone down on the Esplanade. A glorious little tree lined street by the Waikato River. If he wasn’t at work at New World, he would be perched in his porch on an old seat. He would sit there for hours, watching not much go by.
I had to go to Tūrangawaewae recently for the tangi of a friend. I drove around the old Ngāruawāhia streets I knew so well, and suffered the pangs of memory. Not much had changed. There was evidence of some growth in the town, but nothing extraordinary. And down by the river, there was Bill. Sitting in the same spot, but this time with his Zimmer frame. I suppose someone else is doing the shopping trolleys now.
I have been fortunate to have traveled and done work in many small towns around the country. While indeed some of them are suffering tough economic times the response and resilience of the people is staggering. I see it in the good deeds of the community. I see it in the slow turnover of generations when the young step up with their beauty and talent to finish the work of their elders. I see people struggling against overwhelming odds. I see evidence of patience and love. I don’t see so much of it in the big smoke. Of course it’s there, perhaps lost a little in the haze.
When yet another television mediocrity decides to hurl a smart-arsed remark as evidence of personality, I am bemused at what it reveals of their character. I am also intrigued when city dwellers scorn those who live in small towns. The throb of a city is a seductive experience. But in my experience, cities the world over look more and more the same. Same shops, same traffic, same frenzy. New Zealand’s small towns are one bastion that protects our national identity: if only because we are close enough to the land and to the people upon it, to know the eternal beauty of that.
I now live in Ōtaki, and see the same stuff. Yippee.
Mauriora ki a tātou.