Grandmothers come together over inhumane treatment of Māori, racism in Auckland's Pukekohe

In May, former school teacher Phyllis Bhana opened up about the inhumane treatment of Māori whanau who came to work in Auckland's market gardens. 

Bhana has been on a campaign to acknowledge the unmarked graves of around 200 children and pēpī at the Pukekohe Public Cemetery. She has been one of the leading voices demanding a public apology for the horrific abuse and living conditions whanau endured for decades in Pukekohe. 

Bhana's story captured the attention of retired nurse Julie Lewis, who was so moved by what she saw that she felt compelled to get in contact.  

The Hui arranged for the two women, who were both born and raised in Pukekohe, to meet. 

Lewis told The Hui that when she listened to Bhana's story her ears "pricked up" as her grandfather, Cuthbert Penney, had been a market gardener in Pukekohe. 

"When the programme had finished, the first thought I had was, 'I must find Phyllis, I want to find Phyllis and acknowledge the awful times that you and your family and other Māori workers went through'," Lewis explained. "I was horrified, to be honest." 

Phyllis Bhana opened up about the inhumane treatment her relatives endured.
Phyllis Bhana opened up about the inhumane treatment her relatives endured. Photo credit: The Hui

The story prompted Lewis to go on a search to find out more about her grandfather. 

"I didn't know a lot about my grandfather, I don't know whether he had workers living on his market gardens, hopefully I'll be able to find that out," she said. 

She said if any of Bhana's family members had been affected by hers, she would be "truly sorry for that". 

It's been more than 20 years since Lewis has been back in the town she was born and raised in. 

"Everything is certainly so different," she said. 

Although the two grandmothers are the same age, their upbringing couldn't be more different. Yet there's still an openness to learn from each other. 

Growing up, Julie Lewis had no idea of the racism that occurred in Pukekohe.
Growing up, Julie Lewis had no idea of the racism that occurred in Pukekohe. Photo credit: The Hui

"My grandfather is buried here in the military part, and my nana is over there somewhere," Lewis said, pointing in the distance.  

"At least I have a gravestone to visit, unlike parents of children here, buried in the Pukekohe Cemetery," she added. 

Lewis said although she grew up in Pukekohe, she didn't realise it was divided by race. 

"There was a lot going on that I didn't know about as a child," she said. "The racist attitude towards Māori was still there right up until I was at college. Hopefully it can come to terms with its past and become something different." 

There's been a renewed focus on acknowledging Pukekohe's uncomfortable history. 

In June, Bhana and other mana whenua blessed a mural, 'Kumete' - in honour of the children of Pukekohe - both past and present. 

"That is the love I want to see come back to Pukekohe," Bhana said. "The working together. Not only adults with adults, but with the children, too. That is magnificent." 

Recently the Government earmarked around $700,000 to establish the design and delivery of a memorial at the cemetery to honour those buried without headstones. 

"Someone's listening to those silent voices. It's taken a long time, but it's started," Bhana added. 

She's now supporting Lewis in her search to learn more -  a reminder that it's never too late to acknowledge past injustices. 

"If you hadn't done this programme, I wouldn't have known any of this," Lewis admitted. "It's very emotional, more than I thought." 

"I think I am a little bit more prepared to stand up and say something nowadays rather than let it slide.

"For me personally I think it's important to work towards making a better future, and I hope that our future is more inclusive and understanding and tolerant."