Our four tamariki have been in Māori medium education their whole lives. Jo and I had chosen to speak te reo Māori to them from the time they were born, so we felt there wasn’t any other choice to make. We were either all in, or we may as well have put aside the dream of our tamariki being fluent speakers of te reo Māori.
But as neither Jo nor I had been raised in a Māori community, there was one part of Māori medium education we'd never really considered: kapa haka.
Some people love kapa haka. In fact, I suspect that's not a strong enough word — some people are infatuated with kapa haka.
I'm not one of those people.
The problem is that I never grew up with it. I never had the opportunity to be in a kapa, and I fear disaster if I did so now. Having been raised with only the All Blacks and St Bede’s College haka, I feel like there’s a toa-shaped gap in my head somewhere. I have to work hard to remember words and actions, and I can see they lack the natural ease of my cousins around me.
But kapa haka is a rhythm of life for whānau in Māori medium education. Almost everyone is a little mad about it.
Just last weekend, seven of us were waiting outside Tākitimu marae in Wairoa for everyone else to arrive, and three of our group were jammed in a van watching reruns of a kapa at Te Matatini.
I've no idea which kapa they were watching. Apart from Te Mātārae i Ōrehu, they all look the same to me. If I was forced in the van, I'd have to take a book to have something to do.
But this week, here I am again. Another Mana Kuratahi — national primary school kapa haka competition.
I’ve lost count how many kapa haka events I've been to. Regional competitions are every second year. In the off year are the national competitions. In Tauranga Moana, the top three to five kapa at the regionals go to the national competitions.
Māori medium kura tend to be particularly good at kapa haka as the tamariki are immersed in the language, culture and arts of our Māori world. So, in Tauranga Moana, those kura tend to go to nationals. Which means my life has become an unending cycle of kapa haka wānanga.
The tamariki will train for seven to eight months for a competition. Initially, wānanga will be an overnight every fortnight. And as we get down to two months, it will be every weekend. In those final months, the tamariki will do a period of kapa haka every day at kura as well. It’s an enormous commitment.
I enjoy watching my tamariki perform kapa haka and I’m proud of their achievements. They’ve worked hard to gain the level of skill in singing, movement, rākau and poi to confidently stand before hundreds of people.
None of our children grew up swinging a poi or running between the legs of toa practising rākau. Our eldest probably hadn’t seen much kapa haka until she was at kōhanga reo, and we rarely play it on a screen at home. So everything they've achieved has been through sheer determination and hard work.
Of our tamariki, Hinengākau and Te Kaponga seem particularly passionate about kapa haka. They’ll walk aroud the whare singing or practising movements. They look forward to wānanga and performing.
But I’d be just as proud of them if it was Morris dancing — and probably as committed to Morris dancing as a lifestyle as I am to kapa haka as a lifestyle. I stay overnight at wānanga and go to competitions because I like the people and the enthusiasm of my tamariki.
Unfortunately, the religion of kapa haka seems to have passed me by.
At competitions, some people will set up for the whole day. When the gates open, they run with their blankets, fold-out chairs, chilly bins of kai and umbrellas to get the best spot. They'd soon take you to the Waitangi Tribunal if you encroach on a corner of their blanket. They sit under tarps in pouring rain through hours of kapa haka.
I take a blanket and look for a space half an hour before my children stand. I watch the stand. I get a little teary. When they leave the stage, I pack up my blanket, go backstage and give them hugs, and then go off to find the fry bread and golden syrup caravan. If my wife twists my arm, I'll watch other sets. But I'd rather not.
Pity the life of the uninterested kapa hapa observer.
I’ve tried everything to cure my condition. Focusing on the words and the kaupapa of the waiata helps, as, often, there are interesting terms and ideas. The whakaeke and haka are always exciting. But I haven’t tried spreading my tamariki around different kapa — because then I'd have to watch more kapa.
But I have no regrets. As with te reo Māori, my tamariki will surpass me. I’m happy to be a stepping stone for them.