Memories of Koriniti, 1930
A television programme, ‘Looking at New Zealand’, took me on a nostalgic trip up the Wanganui River, and now I am remembering the crisp May morning in 1930 when I stepped from the river boat onto the landing of the little village Koriniti. Everybody met the boat. It brought the mail, meat, groceries and bread, twice weekly, and I am sad that fast service cars have silenced the welcome chug of the river boat's engine.
I was fifteen, not very sure of myself, and buffetted with the hardness of the times. The job I went to was at the school-house on the hill above the pa, where two middle-aged ladies did their conscientious best to teach and train, but were so out of touch with young thinking that they thought everybody was out of step but themselves. I discovered very quickly that the friendly warmth I needed was in the Koriniti Pa.
The television programme said that families have left the marae, only a couple of old families remain. I wonder where they are now, the boys and girls of 1930? I remember Pura, who tried to teach me to speak Maori. All I remember of her teaching is ‘Hoihoi’ which she said meant ‘shut up’. The teachers forbade the speaking of Maori in the playground. I wonder if they ever realised how much harm they did, planting in young minds a reluctance to use their own tongue.
I remember Paul, big-hearted, humorous, and clear thinking, already showing at the age of ten the qualities of leadership, Rufus, the ‘Don Juan’ of the dance hall, flirting with willing girls, and Jim, famous for his prowess on the football field. Were they taken in the war that came a decade later? I remember a trio of little girls from Primer One, Goody, Beauty, and Lovie.
Rihi lived at the schoolhouse. She was a ward of the Child Welfare, and came to Koriniti as Lizzie, but we all used the Maori equivalent, Rihi, which was prettier. My memory of Rihi includes a day when she was dressed in a long shapeless thing destined to become a floorcloth. She was told to hang her head and look dejected, and natural little actress that she was, Rihi did so with great realism. Five minutes later she was photographed, head back, laughing, looking her merry little self in a new velvet dress. Black velvet dresses were very high fashion for little girls in 1930. The two photos appeared side by side in a church magazine, labelled ‘Before and After’.
Lily was twelve, and lived in the pa. Lesser talents than Lily's have taken their owners to Covent Garden and Sadlers Wells. Lily had a pure soprano voice of such beauty that when she sang I think my heart stood still, but these were depression years and nobody who mattered ever came to Koriniti, so Lily's voice was like the desert flower.
Bessie Peni had been my penfriend before I came to Koriniti, so on the Sunday after my arrival Bessie sent me a formal invitation to visit. We were both on our best manners. Bessie received me shyly and took me to the front room. Tea was spread on the best tablecloth, dainty sandwiches and little cream cakes. Through the door I could see the family round a roaring open fire in a lean-to kitchen. They laughed and talked together, and Bessie entertained her Pakeha guest. If only I had known how to tell them that I wanted to sit among them in the warm lean-to, and eat fish in my fingers, and laugh when they laughed and feel I belonged. They were not to know
that as a child living close to Taumarunui Pa I had always envied the Maori children their wonderful way of ‘belonging’.
Attached to the school-house was a magnificent orchard, and above the orchard, relief workers employed on building the new road had their camp. The teachers were generous with the fruit, and I often heard them say they would gladly give apples to the men if they would ask. However, men are boys and orchard raiding was ever attractive to boys, so the relief workers came in the dead of night and took what they wanted. I remember the senior teacher standing on the stile, shouting into the silent night. ‘I know you are there. I know you can hear me. Call yourselves men, stealing from defenceless women!’ I like to think now that the children of those men enjoyed the fruit. It was a luxury to the relief workers in the 1930s.
Today there is no river boat, and the little Chinese store will have fallen down, and perhaps there is no school in Koriniti. Has the school house gone, and does the wonderful orchard run wild? Is the tree still there, where the men came to sit on Saturday afternoons, listening to the football on the teachers' radio? And if I walked onto the old marae where I found friendship and understanding and comfort, would there be anyone at all to remember me?