It is Summer and the sun beats down with stagnating insistence. Who would work on such a day? Ah!—the sea looks right for fishing. The blueness flashes a silvery invitation as tantalizing as the sheen of the paua must be to the kahawai. And with nostalgic yearning the men look towards the shore. They think of the days when grandfather would have dropped his spade and would have gone to catch fish, while grandmother remained behind to finish the chores.
Those days are gone now; and though allowed a certain latitude because of his self-employment, the Maori farmer must work to the clock. The clock says at 4.30 a.m., “Get up! Milk the cows! Take the cream to the road—it must catch the carrier! Weed the garden! Mend that fence! Cut the manukas!” The clock ticks on and each tick is a reminder that there is work to be done.
Summer, summer, summer—all summer, from dark to dark, in my little village, people and children bend with bottoms up. A sleepy looking village in a sleepy valley, a hot day, cows chewing contentedly in the fields—why such activity? Most city people are on holiday, enjoying the summer sun. It is heresy to forego such pleasure. But the Maoris still bend with bottoms up. They are weeding kumaras. They must “race the rain” before it sets in and the weeds get thicker.
Kumaras need lots of attention. They must be weeded carefully since excessive weed robs them of much of their nourishment. Warmth and moisture are needed for successful propagation, and hence the farmer is especially careful in the selection of his plot, which must be well drained and receive plenty of sun.
The crop must be good this year and the market offers good prices. So, with insistent attention work goes on. It goes on because from the sale, these people get a very welcome additional income.
It is noticeable to me that life is changing—slowly for the more conservative and rapidly for the far-sighted. The root of the change lies it the transference from a system of mutual reciprocity to that of a money economy. For the Maori people money has created a new pattern of values. Where once, without money, the Maori worked communally for a communal existenc, he is now obliged to work more or less by him self and for himself. Where once needs were very simple, they have become more complex. No-one, if he can, works for a mere subsistence level, Wants seem to accumulate endlessly, and they are stimulated by public opinion, which, by its subtle and implied compulsion, demands better education, more farm machinery, better houses and greater investments. For all these things more money is needed, and people are very conscious of this. They know that hard work alone will not do—they know that, in addition, there must be consistency and careful planning.
Most of the people in my little village on the East Coast are farmers. Some milk cows and rear pigs for the markets, while others are “big-time”
sheep farmers. Nearly all of the farms were developed under the Maori Affairs Development Scheme in the late thirties. Many of the mortgages have been paid off, some still struggle under the burden—and for these the additional income from kumara growing is a definite advantage.
As elsewhere, our people believe in large families; and in many a house, mother cooks a meal for twelve hungry people. Somewhere, somehow an additional income has to be found to supplement the cream—or wool cheques which are neither consistent in amount nor regular in payment. Because of its isolation, people in the village cannot contemplate seasonal factory work. So, once more the Maori turns to the soil, and over the last six years this has been the case.
For quite a while now the markets for crops have been very attractive. Each farmer, if he can, does cropping as a side-line. Kumara growing has taken prominence. Isolation however is a curse, for transport is often so difficult. Rangitukia, for instance, is at least a hundred miles from the nearest market. Frequently people fail to catch good prices. So, with all the difficulties associated with kumara growing, everyone watches his crops meticulously. From December until almost the end of January everyone is out weeding. To me the task is one of pleasure. I come home from the city, with my shoes worn out from treading on pavements, with my hand quite weary from holding a pen— I am a school teacher home on holiday. It is good to take off my shoes and to walk barefooted between the rows. The turned earth has a softness that is sweeter than that of a thick-piled carpet. I love to take a hoe, watch it go in and see the weeds come out. Near the plants I use my hands and the warm soil feels wonderful. How neat a row looks when I reach the end of it. How soft the sunlight looks on the green-yellow leaves. But as I meditate, I realise that to the village weeding means something different—to them it is not mere respite from other chores; it brings an extra income. It is this knowledge which lightens their labours.
Because kumaras have become an attractive cash-crop, it is not so easy to ask one's neighbour for a kit without some feeling of embarrassment. I no longer say with a clear conscience, “I'll go over to Hori's place to get some to take back to the city; he won't mind. After all, he can always come to us when ours are ready.” Because I know that a kit of kumaras less means a few pennies less for Hori, I hesitate. And Hori needs that extra money, for the Pakeha has taught him that it is not an easy thing to live in his world if financial obligations cannot be met regularly and in time.
Whenever there is a hui, such as a church gathering or the opening of a meeting house, it becomes evident that it is now more difficult for
people to give freely. Potatoes, kumaras and meat are supplied by few families. Sheep farmers are sometimes taxed varying amounts to meet the cost of the hui. Those who do give, are well aware that it gives them additional prestige. People say, “He pai era whanau, he mohio ki te whakaro.” Families in the village have a reputation either for meanness or for lavish giving. This reputation becomes almost a by-word in other villages. But even the lavish givers are becoming fewer. The markets offer prices, the hui offers only prestige—and in this clash of culture values the former is now taking precedence.
In spite of the money-conscious world in which the Maori lives, the village still tries to perpetuate its customs in a modified form. If an important person dies, almost everyone goes to the funeral. Parents can very often leave household chores and farm work to their children and spend a day at the hui. If the deceased is not particularly noteworthy, few attend apart from the close relatives.
It is interesting to note that waiatas once chanted by many at gatherings are now confined to few. Only some of the elders between the ages of 55 and 80 can chant. Of the women of the same age group only three or four can chant more than two. The younger age groups take little interest in learning waiatas, but usually enjoy listening to them. There is little incentive to learn since big huis have become rare. The adolescent age-group would rather listen to the hit parade than learn a chant, but then scarcely anybody offers to teach these people. There is still the superstition that it is bad luck to learn a waiata when there is no immediate occasion for it. The reason for the waning of this wonderful tradition lies mainly in the fact that social obligations are no longer as binding as they were when the Maori was not yet immersed in the pattern of a Pakeha economy. Now many a Maori has quite readily bartered kinship obligations and privileges for economic independence. Several families in the village, however, still remain as a co-operative unit for work and the planning of social functions.
At the celebration of weddings and birthdays relatives voluntarily come forward to assist. It is the one time when people relax completely from their rigid work-a-day routine. Everyone gives freely and everyone helps willingly with the preparations—there is no need to requisition help. Cooks appear from nowhere, waitresses bound in with alacrity, and invitations are understood things. The Maori in the village is at his best, feels his best and gives with generosity.
But in spite of all this the people will become more careful, more individualistic, though not nearly so much as the Pakeha. For he still recognises that he has many relatives and that he is part of a wide kinship group. As long as he is conscious of his kinship ties, the Maori will never become as truly individualistic as the Pakeha. To me, this, more than the retention of the language, is what constitutes Maoritanga, and it will, in my opinion, be the only permanent trait which distinguishes him from the Pakeha.
It is summer, and the sun beats down with stagnating insistence—on the backs of people, men and women, young and old. The Maoris are weeding their kumaras.