ACTION AGAINST DANGER
The people of Matapihi peninsula were never sure until recently whether they really belonged to the town of Tauranga. They could look across the harbour and see Tauranga less than a mile away. Many went to town to work and do their shopping. But yet the place seemed very far removed in spirit; in fact looking at all the urban progress across the harbour the people felt left behind.
Typical of the separation was the access to Tauranga; it is seventeen miles by road, served by an irregular bus service. There is also the railway bridge used every day by workers and shopping women. Through many years of use the railway sleepers have been worn down well over an inch in the centre and become very slippery. The narrow space outside the rails is beginning to be worn too. When a train approaches, the only point of safety is the end of the nearest beam, studded with round-headed bolts. Here every accident is fatal: no one who slipped on these sleepers has ever been recovered alive.
The people of Matapihi, mainly Maoris of the Tukairangi and Ngatitapu subtribes of Ngaiterangi, have lost thirty people in thirty-three years; their saying is that the bridge claims one death a year. Most of the accidents have been in the dark, in stormy weather.
The bridge kept the people of Matapihi in constant fear. At night when the weather was rough, wives feared for their husbands and sons. The perilous crossing kept alive the feeling that the people belonged in a separate world lacking the security and comfort of town.
Matapihi has some imaginative leaders who see the need to change things. I interviewed one of them. Mr Turi Te Kani, a farmer prominent in local affairs. In his opinion, the community's main need was to develop pride in themselves. As soon as a belief in their own value was restored, the people would find it easy to become fully part of the town.
It was with such thoughts in mind that the Tukairangi and Ngatitapu tribal committees and leagues took a very active part a few years ago in the drive to build a hostel and hall in Tauranga. The whole community worked for the Queen Carnival and for the great field days in Tauranga which were great financial successes. In this work they joined with all other Maori communities in the Tauranga area whereas previously they had little real contact with them.
Simultaneously, many people responded to an appeal from the Department of Maori Affairs to improve housing conditions and a number of families were settled in good modern homes.
Shortly after this upsurge, there was a dreadful series of accidents on the bridge: four people died in quick succession. Through the mayor of Tauranga, Mr R. Wilkinson, an appeal was made to the Railways Department to erect a footbridge but this was not, of course, one of the Railways
Department's usual responsibilities and nothing came of it.
In 1956, a boy fell off the bridge at the very time the Minister for Railways, then the Hon. McAlpine, was visiting Tauranga. He came to the river and saw people dragging for the boy's body. Later, he offered to subsidize the footbridge £ for £, which would leave £11,000 to be raised from local sources.
Maori leaders attended a meeting called to find this money. At this meeting they offered £2,000 and the labour for building the causeway, estimated at another £3,000. The rest of the cost was made the responsibility of the local bodies and the government.
The leaders returned and reported to the tribe what they had done. The offer had been made on the spur of the moment and without previous consultation. For a community of the size and resources of Matapihi it was huge. There was a stunned silence—then agreement. The people realised what it would mean, but tribal prestige was at stake.
A four year plan was made. A Combined Tribal Footbridge Appeal Committee was formed, closely linking the previously not always united Tukairangi and Ngati Tapu subtribes. Surrounding communities from the Ngaiterangi and Ngati Ranginui tribes joined in. Chairman is Doc Nathan (Tukairangi), secretary Mrs Myra Jacobs, and among the other members was Mr Turi Te Kani, the chairman of the Ngati Tapu tribal committee.
Some donations came in at once. Over fifty residents assigned five shillings per week from their wages for the bridge. Employers helped by passing on the assignments and where this was impossible, the thrift club savings scheme was used. Net income from this scheme is £13 10s. per week.
Further money was raised by concerts put on by the Matapihi concert party and youth club. Local experts trained the people in haka, poi and other items. A Maori seven-piece band gave its quota by supplying rock-'n-roll sessions. Basketball and rugby field days helped swell the funds. Matakana Island and Te Puna followed the time-honoured custom of bringing gifts for the marae. Papamoa put on a fund-raising dance for the bridge. The Cargoworkers' Union of Tauranga, and the basketball club also made a donation. Throughout, the women looked after the enormous volume of catering. The press and prominent local figures were behind the movement.
Less than nine months from the start of the four year plan, the Matapihi residents forwarded their first cheque of £500 to the Minister of Railways, with over £100 in hand towards the next instalment.
The building of the bridge has now started with the placing of 4,000 cubic yards of rock near the causeway. Soon the placing and trimming of the causeway will start and the men will take turns in regular weekend working bees to provide the promised labour.
The bridge will make a fundamental difference to the community, not only by giving safe access to Tauranga, but also because the project may well bring about a changed outlook and stimulate further social progress. The new homes, and the successful gardening competitions are helping enormously in this change. As often happens, individual and community progress go hand in hand.