In a small community we have to work closely together. These people are the backbone, the people here work day, night, all sorts to support each other. - Constable Saifudin Abu
It's been known as the "gum-boot capital of the world" but Taihape is much more than an iconic farming festival that saw gum-boot throwing become a competitive sport. Located near the middle of the North Island in the Rangitikei Borough of New Zealand, Taihape services a large rural community.
As soon as I arrive in Taihape I know it will be impossible to get lost. For a start the locals are so friendly that you'll be directed to the right track in a moment. There's also only one main road running down the centre of the town; State Highway One. I’m looking for the police station and the new mosque. I’m told I’ll find Constable Saifudin Abu at both.
Constable Saifudin (Din) Abu is affectionately known as “Din” to the locals. He’s been the local cop in Taihape for just on two years now.
Saifudin Abu is Malay, originally from Singapore. He worked as a police officer in the front line and on VIP protection in Singapore for 13 years before he and his wife Siti Khalijah immigrated to New Zealand in 2009. Saifudin became a constable working on the front line in Pukekohe, South Auckland, for several years before taking up the job offer for a rural posting in Taihape.
Life couldn’t be more of a contrast for this family and they're loving it. Saifudin wears many hats in Taihape. As a police officer working in this rural township of around 1500 residents Saifudin is also the local Imam. He'll chant the call to prayer before he begins his own. Taihape has a small population but resident Muslims are even scarcer with just one family – his. Saifudin and Siti Khalijah have three children with one on the way. Saifudin's eldest child attends Taihape Area School just down the road, which is newly built and providing for new entrants to Year 13.
How have the Taihape locals received this newest member of their police force? As soon as we start walking Constable Abu's beat we’re stopped by a woman in her fifties in a passing vehicle.
“Why the interview?” asks “Flossie McDuck” (not her real name obviously, but a resident with a great sense of humour). We explain that I’m covering two stories that happen to involve Constable Abu; rural policing and the new mosque in Taihape.
“The fact that he is a Muslim is neither here nor there,” Flossie declares stoutly (just in case I was going to labour this point in my interview) “He’s our local policeman.” I agree whole-heartedly and we carry on walking.
The teller behind the counter at the local bank tells me that "Mr Din" is one of their favourite customers. She also tells me that the Westpac rescue helicopter is very much in need, especially with snow on the roads and numerous farming accidents that plague remote areas.
The life of Taihape's Constable Abu in pictures
Back onto the beat and we are heading towards one of the three supermarkets in Taihape. Constable Abu explains the variety in rural policing that you won't get as a officer in the city.
You’ll get a range of jobs from family issues to traffic incidents to extending help to travelers stuck on the road. You get to know a smaller community really well.
In the supermarket the local bouncer Toate is shopping with his seven-month-old toddler. Constable Abu chats amiably to Toate – there's great rapport. The iconic Gretna Hotel is popular with many farmers and agricultural workers in the region. I ask how weekends go and whether there is much of a problem with intoxication or rowdy customers.
“Everyone knows each other around here.” A smaller community is a safer community? Toate laughs as he replies that being a small town means everyone will know you if you cause trouble. “Bit of a tap to the shoulder and they’re pretty sweet.”
When we arrive at Taihape Area School Janice Hawera, the school receptionist (who also doubles as the local life guard at the swimming pools), greets "Din" warmly but eyes my microphones with a cheeky grin. Constable Abu is teased about having his own paparazzi on this beat. Their children go to school together and it's here that I discover that almost all the locals have at least two jobs. Even some of the tall and strapping senior Year 13 students will volunteer as fire fighters, along with the local plumber. That's the community spirit that Constable Abu loves.
We're stopped on the main street outside Soul Cafe by Etaine and her daughter. Etaine works at the local BP station and also volunteers for Victim Support, assisting the rural officers at all sorts of times of the day. How is Constable Abu to work with I ask, “Very friendly, very approachable. We have a great relationship with the police here."
In total there are seven regional officers covering the very large area from Taihape to the base of the Ruahine Ranges across to with many traffic patrol officers passing through in support.
Constable Abu explains that all local residents are happy to multitask with several jobs - it's a necessity; the local plumber will also serve as a volunteer fire-fighter, the local furniture shop also provides the local funeral parlour.
“Gidday Din! How are you?” Owner of Bennetts Furniture shop and the local funeral home, Marion Bennett greets us warmly. She and her husband are local born and bred “Taihapiens” – they've been 25 years established in these family businesses. I can’t help but ask which does better – funeral or furniture? Marion hoots evasively in reply.
On a serious note though, Marion and her husband also hold the police contract for body recovery, officially supporting the NZ Police and the Coroner’s office – for the huge area that covers most of the lower Central North Island.
The best thing about Taihape? Marion replies without hesitation; “The people – even our transient police population!”
Constable Abu agrees, “It’s one of the friendliest towns I’ve ever come across,” he says, “Not because they know I’m a police officer but because they appreciate the small and little things in life.”