The sandwich makers of Old Farm Road
Aimie Cronin visits a gang house that's giving back.
Down the end of Old Farm Road is where tenants know if you're one of them and if you're not. There's a block of two-storey state houses, half boarded up and waiting for the bulldozer, half occupied by people who hang sheets for curtains and are home between 9 and 5.
Ordinary people live here. They garden and wave to the neighbours. And gangsters live here. They walk with a slow beat and grow staunch if you meet their eyes, they parade colours like peacocks.
It's 8am. The door's open at a gang house and cars are banked up on worn-out grass. People sift in and out through the narrow front door. Some are patched up. Most have tattoos, one guy has TRIBAL HUK NGARUAWAHIA stamped on both sides of his face. Baby Violet bounces on the hip of her mum and watches. A new looking black truck arrives and you know it's the Tribal Huk leader because he drives the flashest car and people salute him and he has the presence of an amicable guy who could change on the inhale.
"Come in, come in," he says.
His name is Jamie Pink. He's been president of the Tribal Huk gang for 13 years. He stands at 5''11, but seems taller and he weighs 110 kilos, but seems bigger. He's 43, with a good head of brown hair slicked back and a trace of sweat on his forehead. His people defer to him with what could be respect, fear, or both - probably both. He talks gently, as though he's trying to settle a child.
There are days Jamie Pink is a violent man and there are days he is peaceful and today he is peaceful. He stands in the corner of the kitchen watching his people, busy at work."This is our operation here," he says. "All good, all good."
There are 96 pieces of bread spread bumper to bumper on the kitchen table and half a dozen people crammed round it wearing hair nets and gloves. They are making sandwiches for kids at school who have nothing to eat. They make between 450 and 500 sandwiches every school day and deliver them to 25 Waikato schools in Hamilton, Ngaruawahia, Huntly - as far north as Glen Massey.
"When I was little we had no food," says Pink, "so I grew up a hungry little buggar and a bit angry, too.
"The main reason we're doing this is because there's a lot of hungry kids out there and it means a lot to be able to fill their little bellies up."
Members of the Tribal Huk gang making sandwiches
Tribal Huk leases about 50 acres of farmland around Horotiu and Ngaruawahia. The gang owns about 50 beef, 70 sheep and over 100 pigs. Pink says some of the meat for the sandwiches comes from the farms and the rest of the cost is recovered from selling stock, plus a raffle every month "and whatever else, we all just put in". Every day they go through 40 loaves of bread (Coupland's Bakery sells it to them for 90 cents a loaf), three quarters of a tub of margarine ($13), tomatoes and lettuce they grow when they can, ''but Pak'nSave do pretty good out of us,'' says Pink, and he laughs.
There are about a dozen letters from children taped up on the kitchen walls. ''Dear sandwich makers,'' most of them begin.
''There are some hard case ones that make you go awww when you read them,'' says Pink. He has a wall full of them at his own house.
''Your sandwiches are some of the best I have eaten,'' says one. ''I know they have been a hit because they are all gone within five minutes.''
''Without you sandwich maker,'' says another, ''our children will starve at lunchtimes.''
It's an organised operation. The sandwiches are all transported in large containers with each school labelled on the front. When the guys drop off a fresh batch, they pick up an empty container from the day before. They started out by taking sandwiches to the town where the gang originated and Ngaruawahia Primary School secretary Karen Newport says she loves them.''They've done a very good service for our community and especially our students, because our students are the ones that benefit.''
The Tribal Huks have been delivering sandwiches for two and a half years and haven't missed one day.
''There's no stopping,'' says Pink. ''There's no, 'Oh, I don't feel well today, we're not coming in.' Nah, it don't work like that. No way, no way. Because then you'd get that nightmare that those kids might not have been fed that day. Oh, that's enough to keep you going."
He drives to the schools with his window down and an arm up on the ledge. As he takes off from the Old Farm Road house and settles into the leather seat, ''alrighty, alrighty, alrighty'', his people salute him from the steps.''Only smiles, aye,'' says one.''Only smiles, boys, only smiles,'' and he drives off, beeping the horn, happy. The gang leader, the sandwich maker.
''Years ago, I used to just love violence. I loved it probly too much - still do - but this means more. This is better than violence, y'know. It's a nice thing ta be able ta do."
In May last year, the Children's Commissioner reported there are 270,000 kids living below the poverty line and at the same time the government announced a $9.5 million spend to expand its food in schools programme. It meant certain low decile schools would have milk and Weet-Bix available so kids could start the day with a full stomach.
Kids are still hungry.
''The sheep outnumber us 10 to one,'' says Pink. ''we got plenty a good water, plenty a good resources, we shouldn't have 270,000 hungry kids. ''Sooner or later, something has to be done and if people like us, who are not exactly the pillars of society, can help, everyone else could get involved, too.''Pink says he's thought about asking the government for assistance, because he wants to make more sandwiches for more schools next year. A Ministry of Social Development spokesperson said money is given to ''approved providers of community services across New Zealand.'' No comment as to whether the Tribal Huks fall into this category, but they plan to keep making sandwiches regardless.
Huntly West Principal Banapa Avatea is out in the playground with the kids when Jamie Pink rolls up. ''Ma man!'' he says when he sees Jamie Pink and the boys approaching with a container of sandwiches. ''I met this man when I first started,'' he says. ''I couldn't believe that anyone would bring 30, 40, 50 sandwiches without wanting anything back. He's doing everything he can to feed the Waikato.''Avatea says food is a necessity and that sometimes necessities fall by the wayside when money isn't available. He says the empty sandwich container at the end of each day is testament to the fact there is a need for the support they get from the Tribal Huks.
Fan mail for the sandwich makers
''Take away the word gang and you get to the heart of what the matter is about and it's about caring for the community. I think any collective group whose idea is about helping others, whatever the organisation, is going to make a difference.''
Jamie Pink stands in the sun with his arms crossed and he's visibly moved. Back in the car, he beeps as he drives away. ''Wow, yeah, all good, yeah, nah, [I feel] a little bit emotional in a way because I don't look at it like that. It's humbling. That people respect what you do, that they appreciate it, I spose, more than we realise.''
Back through Ngaruawahia, his favourite place. He beeps past the cemeteries. His hand is out the window in a permanent salute as he drives through his town.
He slows down in Hamilton as he's driving up to Patricia Avenue School. ''Hello darling,'' he calls out to a young girl in a wheelchair, ''you have a good day, aye.''And he tells a story about a young Muslim boy who couldn't eat the Tribal Huk sandwiches because the meat's not halal.
"The lady at the office said, 'Oh, do you mind?' We said, 'What's wrong?' She told us he couldn't have any meat or egg. They didn't think we'd say yes, but a'course, every kid deserves a feed y'know? We cater for everyone, aye. So, jam sandwiches? Two jam sandwiches for every day he was there.''
"Every day,'' says the sandwich maker. And he laughs.
Aimie Cronin firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Aimie on Twitter: @AimoCronin