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Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays


Taken in isolation, the statistics are disturbing; but they have to be placed in a context of change. Maoris themselves are optimistic about the future and are more willingly emerging from their pre-war withdrawal, voluntary in some areas, geographical in others. It must be admitted that sanitation and housing have improved since the war, that the proportion of one or two-room dwellings is much smaller. If the comparative health of the people hasn't greatly improved, their attitude to it has: among the young, especially in the cities, personal hygiene is a matter of self-respect, and in the country there is not the pre-war distrust of pakeha medicines, of district nurses and hospitals. At Kaitaia it was estimated that only about 1 in 20 of the Tai Tokerau peoples would prefer to consult a tohunga for 'Maori sickness'; at Whakatane Dr Maaka thought the few old-time ritualist tohungas among the Tuuhoe and Ngaati-porou were harmless in that they provided psychological satisfactions for patients otherwise incurable.

High infant mortality has been shown to be directly related to poor feeding, swampy housing sites, disrepair of houses, poor sanitation, and shortage of living and sleeping accommodation; and a vigorous housing programme would remove some of these causes. But other causes can be remedied only by Maori parents themselves—ignorance and the system of child-rearing that is forced by large families in small houses. Rural Maori page 103 mothers are frequently ignorant of hygiene and diet and the need for a regular routine for babies. Unfamiliar with symptoms of children's illnesses, they do not seek medical attention till it is too late; nor do they have periodical checkups on their own or their children's health. Except in the Hokianga (as a result of G. M. Smith's work) they do not attend pre-natal clinics—if there are any accessible—and often do not seek the services of the Plunket Society after birth. Branches of the Maori Women's Welfare League (formed in 1951) have attempted some education in health and child-rearing, but it is only the converted who belong to the League, and those who do not resent the League's interference. Several of the young leaders' conferences have suggested koreros on health problems at huis; adult education courses in cooking, child care and homecraft; health campaigns organized by the Tribal Committees with the co-operation of the district nurse and the village school. To overcome the shyness of mothers too embarrassed at the condition of their houses to answer the door to the district nurse, it was suggested that Maori girls be enlisted as district nurses and that there be more Maori women doctors.

It should of course be admitted that many Maori mothers are more enlightened than this, but it is true of the majority of mothers of the subsistence farming class and the unskilled working class living in the country or in the single-industry towns of South Auckland. Such mothers are overworked and fatigued. As each new baby arrives, the one just older is consigned to the care of an older sister, and those over four are left to look after themselves. From the time they are confident on their feet, children are kept outside as much as possible, except when called to do jobs, and are forced to become independent of adults at an early age, relying not on their parents but on their siblings and playmates for advice. Mothers at Turangawaewae and Whakatane complained that fathers do not take enough part in child-rearing. Pakeha observers like Ausubel and the Ritchies find both mother's and father's punishment capricious and aggressive—either a 'growling' or a 'hiding'. At several of the young leaders' conferences there was lack of unanimity and some embarrassment at allegations of parental cruelty and neglect. Generally, delegates resented the charge of cruelty, or conceded it but said it was exceptional and usually the effect of alcohol. There was a more general admission of neglect, with the qualification that it was often unconscious neglect. It was said that parents often feel free to go to cards or to parties when the youngest is four, leaving the children alone in the house; that they do not see the need for a steady routine for the children, or plan their lives around the needs of the children. Only at Kaitaia was it said that the common practice of adoption by grandparents or other relatives was damaging to a child's sense of security. At Auckland, Dr Rina Moore strongly urged family planning, but at Kaitaia, even though a recommendation was passed advocating publicity for methods of family planning, the suggestion was clearly an embarrassment to some women delegates. Courses in homecraft page 104 and family budgeting were suggested: how to spend less on drink and biscuits and tinned jam and more on meat and fruit and vegetables and children's clothing is a felt need. A Maori friend tells me that this is one of the attractions of the Latter-Day Saints, who provide this and other directions of their members' lives.* It was a Mormon, Dr M. N. Paewai, who inaugurated the Kaikohe scheme by which parents voluntarily submit their expenditure to the supervision of a citizens' committee. The scheme has been hailed by Mr Hunn, the Secretary for Maori Affairs, and copied in several North Island towns: but it has to be run by disinterested people: in Mangakino an enthusiast almost launched one by which the local shopkeepers would have been directing the buying of their customers. On the whole, there is a growing feeling among the younger Maoris—and especially the women—who are more familiar with European child-rearing, that Maori parents should assume more responsibility for their children.

* Other attractions, I am told, are the provision of free secondary education, finance for small businesses, and a completely self-contained social life.