That act of kindness and generosity shaped my whole life…

This essay from Ulu Aiono talks of his memories of Margot and Arthur Spencer, and their impact on his life. It was originally published on March 17, 2019 on LinkedIn and is reproduced with permission.

A personal essay against the hate which killed & injured my Muslim Kiwi brothers & sisters destroying New Zealand’s faith in isolation and innocence.

ULUOMATOOTUA (Ulu) AIONO Chairman Alliance Health Plus

A lot of people think I am a business-hardened entrepreneur. But I can’t stop the tears since the Friday shootings of my Muslim brothers & sisters and their children at prayer and worship in their Christchurch mosques in New Zealand.

Yesterday my Salvation Army Otahuhu church’s 7:00AM Saturday prayer group wept as we mourned and prayed for the grieving families, their pain and their lasting losses. This morning at church our congregation continued its prayers. And we’ll carry on in prayer. We’ll also begin new outreach activity in the months and years to come because love for our neighbours must be more than talk.

My brother and I experienced racism in New Zealand. It was childish and naive from curious school children. They were what my family called palagi, the term Samoans reserve for white skinned or European people. In the 1960 Epsom Normal Primary School (visit to see today’school) several hundred children had never experienced Pacific Islanders. Some knew about the Maori people of New Zealand. But not a single school mate had played or shared a class room with a brown skinned child. Certainly no one had Pacific Islander or Maori school friends. So my brother Punipuniolo and I were novelties. During our first year we attracted attention.

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In 1960 when my parents left their highly privileged lives in Samoa and made a five-day sea voyage to New Zealand on a banana boat, named Tofua, my five-year-old brother and I could read English perfectly, but we could not hold a conversation. My parents swapped privilege for poverty. It was poverty because it was difficult for Pacific Islanders to get jobs in New Zealand. Most Pacific Islander immigrants including people from Samoa, Fiji, Cook Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu and Niue lived in New Zealand’s largest city: Auckland. That’s why our banana boat berthed at Princess Wharf in Auckland and discharged my parents, their three suitcases, two little boys and a 14-days old baby sister.

Today, the Muslim community and dozens of ethnic groups in New Zealand are full of people like my parents. They are seeking new lives with critical attributes including safety for families, economic independence, financial stability, education, democratic rule of law and most of all, effective social participation and acceptance.

One of my mother’s eleven sisters was married to a taxi driver. They picked us up from Princess Wharf in their taxi and drove us to their Epsom bungalow at 240 Greenlane Road. We lived there, five of us in one bedroom, sharing the house with my aunt and her family of six for the next three years. Nearly a year passed before my father got a full-time job. Until then he fed us by doing odd-jobs for locals. He also got part time work from the wise and supportive owner of Mrs Tass’s grocery store around the corner. The owner was Jewish if I remember correctly. A couple of roads along, not more than a mile distant was the local primary school. There my father enrolled my brother and me. I was seven.

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The first school week was a surprise for the other children. They stared at my brother and me or came over and stood next to us asking us what sort of people we were; where had we come from? Some, awe struck by the presence of two brown skinned aliens, reached out tentatively to touch our faces and arms. We understood the curiosity but not the English language words. When the school bullies called us names, we still didn’t understand the words, but we exactly perceived the emotions and threats. By the end of that first week my brother and I had stopped turning the other cheek. We gave as good as the bullies. Though we experienced the bullying we did not understand it. But we certainly understood the existential threats.

Our privileged lives in Samoa had included intense study of the Holy Bible’s King James version in Samoan translation. We had been reading from the age of four and were enrolled in our family church’s Sunday school classes. The church pastor’s strict wife schooled us with dozens of other children in the sixty-six books of the Bible. So we knew about the commandment to love God and our neighbours. At the very least this required respect, civility and good manners, practices which are inculcated by adults into every Pacific Island child. So my brother and I were astonished at the lack of respect between school children at the Epsom Normal Primary School.

Thirty years later, after I started my first business, I learned that the mother of my best school friend, Richard Spencer, had intervened on my behalf in 1960. Mrs Spencer was an Islander, but from the island of Guernsey rather than the Pacific. She married a Kiwi engineer, Arthur Morell Spencer, in England before World War II and subsequently had three children. The youngest, Richard was born in New Zealand, but his two sisters were born in England. Mrs Spencer lived in London and survived the 1944 bombings when the Germans launched V2 rocket bombs across the English Channel into London.

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World War II was a white supremacist war fueled by fascism. It sought racial separation. It sought religious separation. Its message was that if you are not like us then you had better become what we want you to be or you can go to hell, and we will make sure you get there. To drive home that message the Germans made London into a living hell. They launched rocket bombs into London; 1,400 bombs landed. With thousands of other children Mrs Spencer sent her two little daughters out of London into the English countryside away from the war theatre.

That 1940’s message is the same message from Friday’s killer in his social media posts and the manifesto he eMailed to the New Zealand Prime Minister’s office ten minutes before his attack.

After World War II the Spencers migrated to New Zealand. They hadn’t seen butter or milk or cream for four years of strife and war. Mrs Spencer told me that she almost fainted when she tasted her first New Zealand butter and milk. It was so smooth and rich. They became Kiwis and never returned to England to live. But they were very aware that the British colony of New Zealand and its people, especially the Maori, were different from London, Guernsey and the wider society of England. Mr Spencer became a senior manager at the Auckland Electric Power Board (AEPB). Today’s publicly listed Vector energy utility and fellow, publicly listed, electricity retailer Mercury Energy evolved from the AEPB. For his compassion and kindness Mr Spencer was highly regarded by the many Pacific Islander employees and lines crew.

Mrs Spencer was a mathematician. Her eldest daughter Jean became the first Epsom Girls Grammar School ( student to take science subjects at secondary school level. New Zealand did not allow girls to study science at high school. But Mrs Spencer was a World War II survivor. She recognised discrimination no matter what its cosmetic makeover. She got a dispensation for Jean who then rode her bicycle every week to join the science classes at Auckland Boys Grammar School ( two miles away.

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Mrs Spencer was also the president of the Epsom Normal Primary School PTA (parents & teachers association). PTAs were powerful entities which school headmasters ignored at their peril. As Richard and I became best friends Mrs Spencer learned more about my background. At the end of the 1960 school year Mrs Spencer found that the school planned to advance everyone in my class, including my best friend, Richard, to the next grade at the beginning of the 1961 school year. But I would be held back. Mrs Spencer issued the school Principal with a stern rebuke, perhaps an ultimatum: If Ulu is not advanced to the next grade then there will be trouble! From me! This boy is as good as other kids in class. It is only his spoken English in which he is a little behind and that will soon be fine.

I was advanced with the rest of my classmates. I never knew. Until 30 years had passed. That act of kindness and generosity shaped my whole life and the life of my family in New Zealand. That kindness and generosity placed me in the pathways of lifelong learning and connections. That kindness and generosity caused me, in myriad ways, to be the strategic breadwinner and back-fill of my huge extended family. When I think about my years of school and university, I know without a doubt, that they would have been different if Mrs Spencer had not spoken for me or put herself in the path of personal risk and damaged relationships in the interests of a little boy from the Pacific Island of Samoa.

The kindness and generosity of Mr and Mrs Spencer has prompted me to participate in 17 years of community building initiatives on the AUT University Council, the Salvation Army, the boards of Habitat for Humanity, two Primary Health Organisations in Auckland, the board of Otahuhu College, the Council of Manukau Institute of Technology, the RiseUp Charter School in Middlemore. Why? Because the Spencer’s kindness formed my character and love for New Zealand, my adopted home country. Like the Spencers I want New Zealand to be the best and safest and most fulfilling place on earth.

As the Spencer’s example set me on a lifelong path of inclusiveness so my businesses have attracted incredible people and leaders who on first sight may have appeared to be misfits because of their huge diversity in ethnicity, religion, talent, experience and qualification – but in combination we were unmatched.

With the help of the Methodist Church of New Zealand my parents bought a house in the new suburb of Otara in 1963. I cannot forget the date: 22 November 1963. As the removals truck with our little family’s possessions backed up to the front door of our new house the truck driver turned up the volume on the radio. My brother Punipuniolo (Puni) and I jumped down from the truck and ran around the house to the back. When we returned to the truck we saw our parents and the truck driver and his assistant crying. They told us that President Kennedy had been assassinated. Puni and I did not know what a president was – or an assassination. But we knew it must be bad. Why else would all the adults weep?

That event, memorable for the tears of the truck driver, his assistant and my parents., permanently marked two little Samoan boys. My brother and I would always know and remember that not all people love others.

Five years later just before the start of my year eleven (Form 5) class at Auckland Grammar Mrs Spencer and her husband agreed to take me into their home. This meant no more one-hour bus trips each way from Otara to Auckland Grammar School. Being a mathematician it was Mrs Spencer’s habit to read maths text books and quiz her son, my best friend Richard, with maths problems over dinner. When I left my Otara home to live with the Spencers I got the same loving quizzes as Richard and my maths improved enormously.

Mr and Mrs Spencer’s kindness and generosity with no strings attached changed my life, in turn changing the lives of others. In 2003 during one of my regular visits to Mrs Spencer, who was really my second and foster mother, I took a photo. Her husband had passed away years earlier but she was strong and independent. Around 85 years old my beautiful second mother had raised children, her own and others, survived and fought against the evil of hate and world war, lived a life of community service, social participation and quiet philanthropy. Mrs Spencer was not alone. Many of my school friends were born and raised into love-filled households parented by kind, generous mothers and fathers who wanted to live in a compassionate society.

Aotearoa New Zealand is different from all other countries because Aotearoa has its Maori people and the Treaty of Waitangi. As warrior like as they maybe it is nevertheless the Maori whose dignities, rights and cultural equities are enshrined in word and spirit in the Treaty. The power of the dignities and cultural equities enshrined in the Treaty is not diluted by the incredible diversity of 200 ethnicities calling New Zealand home. So New Zealand will always be Aotearoa. Not just the land of the long white cloud but the land of kaitiaki, of hospitality, respect and inclusion.

It is time for change: to our gun laws making semi and fully automatic firearms illegal; to fund smart systems which continuously verify firearm licence holders’ fitness-to-own; to effectively track, trace, tag, hold and rehabilitate hate mongers; to change our school system so that it incorporates life-long core syllabus material & practice on compassion, civil discourse & expression, individual duty to society and respect for others; to the mindsets of our Prime Minister and all Members of Parliament so that they claim love, respect, communication and forgiveness as the defining characteristics of Kiwi wellbeing & nationhood; to the Aotearoa New Zealand Maori view of national affairs so that Maori, right now, employ their enshrined dignities, rights and cultural equities to help lead the reformation of New Zealand identity.

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Today, Sunday, the Black Power gang showed its respect for the grieving Muslim community by performing a haka outside the Al Noor Mosque cordon in Christchurch. It seems odd that a bikie gang with a reputation for criminal-violence would perform a haka to reject hate-violence and show respect for its victims. But the difference is material and significant. The hate-violence on Friday is what the scholar Thomas Rid calls neo-fascism.

If we are going to deal with hate-violence then we must deal with the root cause. Rid and others have written extensively on their research and identification: neo-fascism. It kills and maims all in its path.

The deaths, injuries and loss of our Muslim brothers and sisters and their children is the now real declaration of a long-imminent war of hatred in New Zealand. This is a not war for assets or territory. It is a war about discrimination, cultures and prejudices. New Zealanders used to go overseas to join the fray of wars. But this war has come to us. We can pray diligently. And we all must. But tactical, active, help is at hand as described above. It is not enough for the Government to change our gun laws and enforcement practices. It is not enough to add civil discourse, compassion and public good to the school syllabus core. We must do more by incorporating all those changes into the re-definition and reformation of our Aotearoa New Zealand identity.

If it is true that our actions and behaviours are expressions of our identities then, for the sake of all people in New Zealand, our national identity must be reformed to one of love for others.

Not only will this confirm that it is socially unacceptable to be a hater; it will make haters’ lives impossible – and rehabilitation possible. Seventy five years ago Mrs Spencer, her husband and others fought in World War II for the Allied forces to defend, define and refine the identity of a free world. Our Kiwi national identity must set us equally free by forgiving those who have wronged us and rendering impossible the violent expression of cruelty and hate, ever, again, in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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