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April 16, 2018 | by  | in Features |
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Short for poverty.

Up until I reached university, I had never heard the word “povo” before. Indeed, I had lived in my community, in the apparently mistaken belief that we were normal. We are normal — let me emphasise that. We didn’t have the most. But compared to others a short walk away, we were well and truly wealthy. But when I reached university, I found another norm.

I walked into my hostel dining room to hear someone debating the election results. Catching the end of a sentence, I heard him say, “…we have to have something for the povos to moan about”. What was povo? I had to ask one of my friends. She explained what this short, clean, and tidy four letter abbreviation stood for. You know. Beneficiaries. Addiction. Domestic violence. Youth suicide. Malnutrition and unemployment. Crime and gang violence. Child poverty and child mortality. All very messy, anguish ridden topics. Not topics about which conversation easily flows, aside from uncomfortable conjecture. Not topics about which a lot of accountability is taken. But worry no longer. These can all be collated in four letters. Povo. Wash your hands of collective guilt. We can all be Pontius Pilate.

I wondered if the individual who offered comment on “the povos” from his privileged place in a University Hostel had ever been in a “povo” situation before. Like living in a suburb where talking to the Police was taboo, or where three of his friends had committed suicide in the space of a year, or where someone just down the road was shot over a rent dispute, or where one of his mates had to hide and change his name on all social media for fear of gang retaliation.

Being povo means that your margin for error is much smaller, and the consequences of your mistakes far greater. The pillar is closer to the post, the fire situated next to the frying pan. In 2015 I was “lazy” and “didn’t challenge myself” according to a friend because I, like the rest of the great unwashed, was working several minimum wage jobs at home. Still stuck in the flat circle of povo, incapable of achieving something more than what I already knew. Not in a position to be able to apply for an internship as she was doing, lacking the skill to apply myself beyond roadworking. And I was one of the lucky ones — I didn’t have to leave work to attend obligatory drug and alcohol counselling stemming from a firearm offence, and consequently lose my job. I didn’t do six months on my first, relatively minor offence, despite the fact I was the primary caregiver for my daughter. My friends were firmly rutted into the flat circle of povo. If you called them lazy they’d laugh in your faces.

But of course, I didn’t say any of this at the time. I was meek. I knew my place. But I wondered if she knew just how Antoinette-esque she was being.

Gangs, the most common demarcation of all things povo, and, like it or not, a permanent part of many communities in New Zealand, tattoo the faces of prospects looking for protection in prison, to guarantee loyalty. It’s vaguely religious; through circumstances beyond their control, they have to “bear their cross”. Except it’s not a cross, or a bible quote even. It’s a fist or a dog or a skeleton hand pulling the finger on a cheek. Hard to miss. Especially when someone you went to school with sports a face tattoo, the ink fresh under his bagged eyes.

A few hundred metres from my house is Cyprus Street, full of new subdivisions. But mortgage payments are a hell of a thing, and my neighbours don’t stay for long. A few days later I read on Stuff that a HeadHunters MC pad got raided. Police seized meth, guns, and ammunition.

What do we call a 9mm sitting in the same 100m radius as our kids? Povo.

Two hours drive from New Plymouth there are two quiet towns. Both have been the site of renewed gang activity. HeadHunters MC quietly settling in one, Rebels MC clashing with Black Power in the other. One of these unassuming towns made the news after an altercation between Black Power and the Rebels. One has not. Far worse events are transpiring there. Somewhere in the backblocks of South Taranaki, something is going on. Something is “cooking up”.

Drive two and a half hours north from these towns, back through New Plymouth, to a town that was recently the scene of three shootings, a ram raid, and a burnt-out car dumped in a school. There’s a street in that town, famously called the “not-pot highway”. You know, because that’s where you go to buy “not-pot” — synthetics in another word. All this activity was the result of Highway 61 MC’s and Black Power’s efforts to take sole control of the “not-pot highway”.

It would be akin to something out of Sons of Anarchy, or Breaking Bad. But the end results are not so dramatic. They are miserable and predictable. What do we call the situation, where access to meth and synthetics is easier than weed?


We’ll make a dope fiend of you yet.

Two minutes drive from my house there’s a decile one primary school. Sometimes I volunteer with the Red Cross Breakfast programme there. If there’s ever a world Weetbix cup, these kids would be the top contenders.

Think about that again. Funny, right? Hunger is pretty funny.

This school is in a rough area, a rarity in New Plymouth where rampant realtors and subdivisions terraform the neighbourhoods every 5 years or so. But here, the school stands a vestibule, a living and breathing monument to that word.


These kids — little champions. They read and write above their age level (who can say they read Jules Verne at age 9?), they excel at any sport they play, and can answer any question quick wittily. Kids say the darndest things. They say things like, “our hot water comes on again today”. Or, “Mum couldn’t get the WINZ quote so we don’t got a fridge yet”.

The six o’clock arrival is accompanied by steaming breath, steaming milo, and barely concealed bruises. Empty bags, empty lunchboxes, and empty hopes. Open sores, closed mouths, and frowns that nothing can change.

“Come on Casey, I just want to see that smile!”

Casey won’t smile. What does Casey have to smile about? Casey is povo. Casey is just another child among a majority whose futures will be incredibly difficult and completely stunted unless we do something. Unless we understand the implications behind that word. Povo.

I lied earlier. There are primary school Weetbix eating champions all around the country. They’re in your town, they’re in your neighbourhood. You call them povo. And the gang altercations mentioned, they’re nothing new. Nothing special to Taranaki. In fact, they’re happening where you live, and will keep happening, following the $20 bil brick road as filling the glass pipe becomes more and more lucrative.

“HFFH” is embroidered on HeadHunters patches. It stands for “HeadHunters Forever, Forever HeadHunters”. This is poetic and unerringly appropriate of all things povo. Police made arrests after the ram raid that sparked the conflict between 61 and Black Power. The youngest among them was 22, the same age or not much older than most of the Victoria demographic. Someone else will take his place, someone else who started out much like Casey. Not a villain, not a bad person. Just a Weetbix eating champion with a stunted future. PFFP. Povo Forever, Forever Povo.

In New Plymouth my friend has a warrant out for his arrest. I won’t say who he is and I won’t say what he did. That’s wrong. He’ll keep moving. A few minutes, hours, or days from a pivotal moment in his life. He’ll be caught (they always get caught), and depending on what mood the Judge is in, and how many other broken, former Weetbix eating champions they’ve had through the court, and how many offenders haven’t turned up to parole meetings, and how many subsequent warrants he’s had to issue, my friend will be looking at anything from home detention to 4-6 months.

You see, I know the Judge will not have a face tattoo. I know the Judge will be a “he”. I know he will never have been a Weetbix eating champ. I’ve never known a Judge who knew they couldn’t talk to Police for fear of the brothers paying him a visit. I doubt any Judge has ever looked upon a gang member as anything more than a criminal in his dock, rather than a friend, or father, or victim of his own, tragically predictable, miserable circumstances.

I won’t lie and say my friend will turn his life around. Prison will simply compound his problems. He will upskill inside, network with all the wrong people, and come out as another candidate in the revolving door interview for drug dealing. PFFP. Povo Forever, Forever Povo. Maybe he’ll come out as HFFH. Or AFFA (Angels Forever, Forever Angels). Or maybe he’ll have a fist, or a dog, or a skeleton hand pulling the finger on his cheek. Being povo gives him these options.

We didn’t care enough to take an interest in his younger years. He was povo then, he’s povo now. He will be povo forever. For now, we will punish him through arrogant indifference. An offence of Antoinette proportions. For later, he will live as a gang member, and in the ink on his face he will carry all that being povo entails.

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