Maori Wardens written for M2Woman magazine
published Winter 2010
Do not be afraid if you are lost. These words are written on a fairground sign, in my favourite photograph, taken by Ans Westra somewhere in New Zealand in the 1960s. I don't remember what the rest says because these words are all I see; a message that gives hope without asking questions, pure and simple.
On the streets of Auckland on any given day, we can see the lost , and thankfully we can depend on the presence of those who hold hope ; the Police, social workers, teachers and countless others who make it their job to fight fear .. . who give direction in all senses of the word. I think of them as people who stand not just at the heart of society but at its bleak perimeters; watching and shepherding those who have all but given up. And I think we should be grateful - we should know, acknowledge and support those amongst us who do their bit to help.
So when I was in Henderson one day last year , in search of fabulous vintage clothes from my favourite secondhand shops ( secret's out ) , I felt ashamed. Not because I love beautiful, meaningless things and I get upset by things like cullottes - though there is shame in that - I felt this way because , there in Henderson square , was a group of young people talking to some Maori Wardens and I had no idea who Maori Wardens were. This bothered me. What they did, and who they were eluded me, as did one other thing; how on earth they had managed to stroll up to the kids they were laughing with and not get told to get lost. After all, those Hendo daytime youth are more than a little intimidating to some, and these Wardens - with their black uniforms and fluro vests and RTs - look like cops. Or at least security. At a time in my life when I was searching desparately to find myself, along with the raw silk tangerine number I took home that day, I went home, looked in a phone book and found Maori Wardens and I called them up.
Junette Reilly is a widow, a grandmother and the matriach of a family who love her dearly. With a face that summons the warmth and crinkles of my own much adored late grandma, she sounds just like you'd expect on the phone; very knowing and very content. Hers was the first on a list of contacts that I discovered on the wardens' website , and she answered before I'd really figured out what i was going to say. I told her my name, she said hello. I said - I found you and I want to know more about what you do. I'm not a journalist or a student ( I am kind of both now but was neither then.) And I am not Maori ( still not ) . But I feel I should know you, and I was wondering if we could talk.
Why I was calling didn't seem to matter; what mattered was that I cared enough to show some interest, and as Junette said; if you don't ask you don't get. She simply began talking to me, freely and with warmth, about her life and the life of the wardens, and at the end of our conversation, I had an invitation to accompany the wardens on their regular mission; patrolling the streets of Auckland from 11pm till 4am in a not very flash white van on a Friday night. I said yes.
The Maori Wardens have been around since the 1840s and were put in place to ' protect the well being of Maori' . In a practical sense, this meant keeping the peace at such things as marae gatherings when leaders spoke; to an extent, this is the kind of stuff they still do, offering the services of crowd control, traffic managing and general security patrolling. The movement has suffered and enjoyed various changes over the last 30 years but has been officially recognised by government since 1962 and still goes strong today. They are a voluntary body of people whose organisation aims to ' play an effective part in the social development of the community' - a vision which is carried out in hospitals, where they support families in times of accident or bereavement, in courts , and it seems, most importantly, on the streets . This is where they find the truly lost .
Like a total schmuck, I arrived at the headquarters of the Akarana Maori Wardens with a thermos of soup my boyfriend had made and insisted I take , and a dictaphone. Both came home untouched. Not because the evening was so busy and like a circus of Police 10/7 moments but, more because it wasn't . It was a night where I learnt so much that I felt full, and where I didn't need to record anything because the story wrote itself.
The Akarana Wardens are based in Fort St, inside the downtown police station - living proof of the mutual respect and memorandum of understanding that exists between the wardens and the New Zealand Police . It's not flash , and there are fake plants and bad coffee but I expected this - having done my own time in voluntary roles within Womens Refuge and Mt Eden Prison among others , I know what voluntary simplicity looks like. Sadly, the people who we are all so thankful for - the shepherds - don't get beautiful things regardless of whether they want or deserve them. Rather, society tends to say; you are doing a great job, you are the backbone of the community, so here is a rickety white van and some mismatched coffee cups. What I was expecting , however, was a sense of bravado and attitude that I never got. Even after talking to Junette and being made to feel welcome before I arrived , I expected some kind of a wall - a feeling that in all reality I didn't actually belong. I was instead received warmly and without judgement .
Fort St was alive and kicking when I got there at ten pm and was let in through an appropriately non- descript door. There was a small group of people in the room and a relaxed, familiar air. I was amazed to meet the team ; all, in some way, part of Junette's family. The process of selecting and recruiting Maori Wardens seems to be an unwritten one and to attain the title, a hierachy of members must give their collective blessing - the wardens I met were of varying ages yet all shared a clear and deep commitment to the cause. The fact that they were mostly blood related reflects the holistic nature of their resolve; to be a warden is not an activity or a personal hobby. It is a family affair. What moved me most, on arrival, was being introduced to Junette's teenage granddaughter Jordyn who sat quietly at a table completing her geography homework. Inside Fort St police station at half ten on a Friday night ? Yes. This is what they do as a family; both nights, every weekend, year round, rain or shine. As you and I are snuggling up or heading out, the Akarana Wardens are beginning their shifts. Unpaid.
The Wardens' van has an RT system that links in with police communications, so that the wardens are privvy to callouts happening in the area. It works like this; the wardens are there to patrol, observe and help when they see fit. The see fit part is important - safety is an integral value of the warden movement, and always has been. They work ' by persuasion rather than intimidation.' They do not involve themselves in breaking up fights or approaching dangerous situations - both warden and cop agree this rule is paramount.
But through their presence the wardens get to know the faces of our city's walking wounded; runaways, prostitutes and homeless especially. Junette and her team know many by name and for most of these they know a lot more . Junette tells of two 12 and 13 year old cousins who she took home one night after convincing them to come off the streets and stop selling their bodies to strangers - the place they called home was run by a caregiver who only wanted to know, that night, ' where her fucken money was '. Jarmon, Junette's nephew, tells me of a German tourist , set apon and attacked by a group of men , whom he stayed with and cradled untill help arrived. They all discuss One Dread - an infamous Auckland homeless man who can often be seen skulking down Queen Street talking to himself - except when they talk about him, they use his real name, Ed, and they tell me that he's alright. He does know when he gets stuff thrown at him, and when he gets laughed at, and it makes him sad.
They are true angels of the night, the Maori Wardens. Winding our way through the city, as they talk to me they are always eagle eyed, peering out at parks and alleyways, seeking out the very spots of trouble and darkness that most of us steer clear of. They hold council keys to public parks and they know, back to front, what goes down where. A mental and physical list of runaways stays with them during the night and they are looking, always, for the kids most at risk. I ask at one stage what would happen if we spotted someone they know is on the run - the response is simple. Lots of talking, cajoling and time. The wardens are not there to force - they even make jokes about how often they use the word ' please' . But by all accounts, given how well they are received at every corner, the approach works. We hear various reports of violence - cars being smashed up, a restaurant being trashed, fights breaking out - sadly, the RT provides a constant stream of incidents for us to investigate. Nothing gets ugly on my watch but you don't have to close your eyes to imagine just how precarious this work can be.
At the end of the night, when I'm dropped home in the wee hours, I no longer feel ashamed but instead, enlightened. It makes sense to me that there should be this movement of hope on our streets; an alternative kind of authority, a kind of light for people in need that is different from what they are used to. It makes sense to me now that those kids in Henderson were happy to hang out with the Wardens; who wouldn't be ? There's nothing insincere in their intentions and no swagger in their walk. While it is easy to shake your head at kids like that and mutter someone should do something, it's not such an easy or common thing, to be the do-er. But Junette and her team, and hundreds of other Maori Wardens throughout the country , are part of a wider yet largely invisible force who get on and ' do ' as a matter of course . I for one feel grateful.