Maori for cannibal

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I was Writer in Residence at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch.
Had a relationship that wasn't going all that well with a man from Kaitangata.
Seemed like a good idea to go down there and meet some of his folks. Well.
It was certainly fascinating. I have never felt so out of place. And yet. And yet.
Kai (food) tangata (people) is Maori for cannibal. People are food, as it were.
There was a custom for Maori warriors to eat the enemy they killed in battle.
This was called long pig because it tastes like pork but the bones are longer.

Kaitangata is famous for the mine disaster in 1879. 30 men and boys died.

Kaitangata is 6 k from the Clutha river and 15 minutes drive from Balclutha.
As we drove south in the orange kombi (yes! he had done the Katmandu trail!)
the country got harsher and tougher. I was looking about me at the visible signs
of a country that I hadn't been in before. Erosion. Tussock. Hawks wheeling.
He motored on looking neither to the left or right. He knew it all backwards.
We stayed with his sister and brother-in-law. They made us really welcome.
But he dumped me there and vanished. Don't know where. Do know why.
So I just made the best of it. I have never drunk so many cups of tea.

Local Customs
For some reason people thought the rules that governed mines
back in the old country didn't count here. They were sadly mistaken.
Black damp, choke damp and fire damp were just as lethal in NZ.
And a naked flame was just plain stupid.
In many ways this was like Gallipoli was to Australia.
But because it was NZ it went deep underground. And dwelt there.
The town feels it and lives by it.
The mine closed in recent years and they commuted to Balclutha
and the abbatoirs and became freezing workers.
It's tough on the killing floor, but at least it is not underground.
His mother had begged him (her youngest) not to go down the mine.
He was apprenticed to an electrician and went down the mine.
His story of hearing an earthquake rolling in towards him
through the walls of the earth was breath taking.
Then he went to the university in Christchurch and learned Russian.

Hoo Boy!
The brother-in-law, one of nature's gentlemen, invited me to the pub.
It seemed like a good idea. And I have been to pubs before.
But this pub was one huge open space, as big as a rugby field.
The barmen were working like donkeys dishing out the beer.
It took them a split second to sort out my brandy, lime and soda.
But they dished that out to me. Once they had taken it on board.
He turned up for a minute and said he had people to see. Of course.
I had brought him to a town where he always would have unfinished business.
I glanced at the b-in-law and saw a woman who was not his wife was sitting
next to him — in his aura! — and realised that he was having an affair with her.
The whole town lived underground or on the killing floor, the drama was
played out all around me in the pub that was at least as big as a rugby field.

Nothing and yet …
He had told me when his sister made jam she never pitted and hulled the fruit.
So her jam was — phhht! phhht!
I noticed the tea I drank so much of had the taste and texture of old pennies.
Everyone was wearing woollen jerseys — it was bloody cold, I shivered.
But the knits looked like they had been well and truly boiled in the copper.
We went to his brother's house for dinner. Everything that opened and shut.
The latest toys. The newest most garish axminster that money could buy.
The newest wall paper that clashed with the axminster that money could buy.
These people had money. As they sprawled about in their well-boiled woollies.
We eat crayfish, oysters, the fat of the land. (Maybe I mean the fat of the sea.)
What the brother hadn't caught himself he had bought for negligible amounts.
I was irresistably reminded of Memoirs Of A Peon by Frank Sargeson.
'Just because you have money doesn't mean you are not still a peasant.'
I was the daughter of a peasant and I either went with it or went against it.
But I had learned not to like seafood. Since I had seen my mother
cramming an urgently spiralling crayfish into a pot of boiling water.

Sometimes I just love nothing
The next day I walked down to a beach and gazed out upon —
absolutely nothing.
The next stop — the Antarctic.
Perfect and infinitely desirable emptiness. Purity.

Blue Eyes!
He had the coldest, bluest, most thrilling eyes I had ever seen.
I often asked him where he had got his eyes from.
I met one of his brothers. The same cold blue eyes.
He told me that there had been a primary school teacher in town who had left
a few Midwich cuckoos behind. With ice blue eyes. His brother and himself,
the two youngest, were probably, almost certainly, spawned by the teacher.
And you saw the same eyes, here and there, in the most unexpected places.
When I was googling I found a laconic web site for the town.
What amused me was it laconically intimated that the centre
of the town's social life was the primary school.
Jennifer Compton is a poet and playwright who sometimes writes prose.




Topic tags: Jennifer Compton, Maori customs, cannibalism, Kaitangata, poetry



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Existing comments

‘Here be dragons’ is how some ancient maps ended, hinting – of course – that they were guardians of a treasure or paradise or a soul-tingling mystery in the uncharted regions beyond. Kaitangata is one of those liminal places (yes! I’ve been there, more than once) where danger and strangeness abut an eerie beauty. Sorry, Jennifer, I have to disagree about the ‘harsher and tougher’ country and the beach where you gaze on nothing. Copper tussock and fog-shrouded sand in the foreground with the smudge of velvet green hills to the south make for one of the most beautiful areas on the planet. Keep on going down the coast to Slope Point and you arrive at a windswept promontory where the occasional praying rabbi is to be seen wandering up the track, past the sheep and the macrocarpas bent almost horizontal with the wind. Apparently it’s the ‘ends of the earth’ in orthodox tradition. I have to admit, however, that it never really felt that way to me. It always felt like the edge of paradise. Maybe those eyes were the same colour as the sword of the cherubim. Blue-white isn’t just ice – it’s also the hottest temperature of stars.
Anne Hamilton | 08 February 2009


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