Up in Northland, the Nga Puhi iwi hold sway. It was, and still is, an area of breathtaking natural beauty and nearly continuous indigenous Maori settlement.
When Auckland fell during the early stages of the Zombie War, the marae up that way embraced their returning kinfolk with open arms and used their own intimate knowledge of the land that they had cherished, and which had nurtured and supported them for generations, against new intruders- tangata piro (“rotten people”), or zombies.
The traps set were humble, simple but effective, honed by years of scrapping with central government over alienated Maori land and property. Nets were woven, tripwires were secured, sticks were sharpened to use as spears once more, and knife blades affixed to their ends to give them advantages in hand to hand combat. There were other unwelcome surprises for tangata piro if they came calling. Lacking awareness, caution and reasoning, zombies easily blundered into them and were promptly dealt with. In fact, that seemed to be a staple of indigenous communities that survived the Zombie War- most of those who had retained core cultural values and control over their own destiny successfully and effectively fought back, not only in Aotearoa/New Zealand.
Not every Zombie War story has to involve a fierce and determined warrior. For example, if someone met Nanny Rima Korowhai, they’d have seen an elderly Maori woman who tended to her marae’s livestock and vegetable plots, happy telling stories to her mokopuna (grandchildren). Yet, this unassuming, tenderhearted character was a hero, many times over. She just didn’t talk about it all that much.
One story from her time there may help to demonstrate this. One afternoon, Nanny had almost finished reading a Terry Pratchett story to the moko, when the distant alarm bell rang down the valley. Nanny tutted to herself, put away her knitting, and called to her elder moko:
“Irihapeti, Eruera, you get the wee ones onto the bus and up to the main marae an’ tell the men an’ ladies up there we got piro trouble.’
“Nanny, will you be okay?” Iri asked, a quaver in her voice. Nanny Rima embraced her favourite grand-daughter and whispered:
“I seen off worse’n this, Iri love. Don’t you worry about me. This marae been here for hundreds of years an’ I’m not about to let those piro ruin what all of us here worked for all those years. They need you, e hine. You strong, smart an’ brave, and so is Eru.”
With reluctance, Iri kissed her Nanny goodbye and let her go, as she and her cousin Eruera marshalled and strongarmed the other mokopuna onto the trusty if rusty and groaning marae methane-fuelled bus. With its usual backfiring hiss and roar, the venerable old vehicle started up and rattled and complained down the road. Arms around two of her youngest cousins, Iri looked back at the rapidly diminishing form of the old lady as she waved at them from the dusty backroad.
Nanny read the signs of the whenua (land) down the valley and used her binoculars, a keepsake from her time as a Vietnam War nurse almost half a century ago now. There were flocks of small animals and birds fleeing from a particular area within the forest. Up at the marae, she nodded to herself:
“That’s right, you stupid piro. You all walk toward those bells and see what happens. Me, I got better things to do.”
Altogether, there were about fifteen of the zombies, cadaverously thin through lack of human flesh now, and if they had still possessed any reasoning or human motivation, some might have called them desperate. They were oblivious to what was about to befall them amidst the deceptively calm and sedate grandeur of the Northland forest. Nanny Rima was a determined old woman. She’d survived the Vietnam War, seen off government land grabbers and gangs trying to corrupt the young ones with drugs, and, sadly, pakeha raider gangs who had tried to seize the marae and its surrounding land for its food. But at least those ones had a brain, not like these piro. Oh, she knew it probably wasn’t nice to call them “rotten people” in the reo, but Anika up at Waitangamoa was right- they did stink!
Watching from a hill above them, after negotiating a flying fox jump, she saw three of the piro stumble across her concealed stake pit, oblivious to the signs of piled vegetation that might have alerted a more wary and cautious intruder. The greenery collapsed into the pit, impaling them on the densely packed wooden spikes below. Avoiding the harsh and guttural cries of their fellows, two others roared their rage and fury at the slender elderly woman on the hill, as she waved and caught their attention, across the jerry-rigged wooden stepbridge.
The piro knew nothing of written language, whether English or te reo Maori or Cantonese or Hindi, so they staggered past the signs that would have warned them about the hazards ahead. But of course, Nanny had intended that when she supervised the construction of this, and other bridges, throughout the marae and the rivers and canyons threaded through it.
The bridge swayed menacingly as the piro crossed it, heedless of their impending fate. Rotted and preweakened wood began to groan, crack and splinter beneath their heavy footfalls, but still, they continued on, intent only on reaching the frantically motioning, cunning old woman at the other end. The inevitable happened and the wood collapsed altogether, sending the piro spiralling down to the sharpened rocks below, and another two headhits.
And so it went on, throughout the afternoon. Two fell to prepositioned rocks that crushed and immobilised them, so she could spear them in the head. All that fishing for kai moana (sea food) for the marae placed her in good stead. Three more perished when they crossed a tripwire unaware and triggered a booby-trapped wood alcohol keg, with a lit fuse and resultant explosion that could be heard for kilometres around.
The remaining five lurched up the road, aware that their companions had vanished around them, and Nanny dialled Waitangamoa up the road:
“Marama? The piro are on the move. Could you tell Shirley and Hemi to get that rig of theirs on the road? You know, the big one with the bulldozer fitting and the blades on it? They’re headed your way. Yeah, scared them off. Get the men an’ ladies back out to do clean up an’ get rid of ‘em.”
With the threat removed, Nanny Rima went along the course of her obstacle route, checking that all of the piro were dealt with, and disposing of the one or two that were not with a large carving knife to the head. Thankfully, there were no Maori amongst them this time. Reclaimed former Maori piro were a different matter. If possible, it could be arranged that their iwi could be identified and they could be returned to their ancestral lands for burial. If that wasn’t possible, they were buried, with all due ceremony and recognition, in the marae’s cemetery out the back.
And finally, there was a satisfying crunch up the road. She rolled up her sleeves, walked back to the marae and got down to the real work of the day, namely preparing meat and veggies for her horde of hungry mokopuna. When the bus rolled up, the moko and their parents returned to the marae for a good meal, and Nanny Rima finally finished reading her Terry Pratchett bedtime story to her grandchildren, before tucking them into bed and kissing them goodnight.
When the official envelope arrived a month later, Nanny Piro was bewildered to find that she’d been awarded the Order of New Zealand honour for the day’s work: “Who, me? But all I am is an old lady who looks after her moko and tends to the cattle and veggies here. I’m not a warrior.”
Except warriors can come in different shapes and sizes, sometimes deceptively so.