Nearly 20 years ago, Rhonda Kite produced a television documentary series Ōtara — Defying the Odds, which countered a prevailing view that nothing much good came out of that suburb. Ōtara is her home patch. And she’s been demonstrating, again and again, how to defy the odds here and overseas.
Rhonda’s successes with documentaries led on to setting up Kiwa Media and dubbing overseas cartoons into Māori. And that’s been followed by a series of major technological advances in post-production software and digital publishing.
Here she’s chatting with Dale about the path she’s been on.
Kia ora, Rhonda. I’d better ask you straight up about your surname. I guess a lot of people would assume it’s Māori and pronounced key-teh, as in “Ka kite ano.” But that’s not right, is it? Where does the name come from?
It’s a good old Londoners’ name. My dad, Ron Kite Sr, is an Islington boy and likes us to tell people that our tupuna was Sir Robert Kite, the Lord Mayor of London from 1766 to 1768. So there you go. That’s a plug for our Pākehā side. My mother was Waiheke Ngaromutu Heka and she was born in Tangoake, Te Kao, in the Far North. We’re Te Aupōuri. So, I’m a proud Far North girl.
But you grew up in Ōtara. How much of Ōtara is left in you?
Oh, about 99.9 percent and the older I get the more Ōtara I’m feeling. Isn’t it funny—when you’re younger, you want to get out. But, just when you think you’re out, you get pulled right back in. My dad’s still living in Ōtara, in the home we’ve had there since 1964. It’s still very much home to me. Obviously, the area has seen a lot of changes and while it has its share of problems, it has its beauty as well.
There must have been challenges that came along with your parents’ mixed-race marriage. Can you talk a bit about that?
They had a helluva a time. From both sides — Māori and Pākehā. There were obvious social things, like Mum couldn’t go and have a drink in the pub with Dad, because Māori weren’t allowed in. Renting a house was a problem, too, with racial attitudes the way they were. Dad would front up to a landlord on his own. And, often, as soon as it was found out that his wife was Māori, things didn’t go their way.
There were difficulties from the Māori side, too, because Dad was a Pākehā coming in. We’re talking late 1940s, early 1950s. I was their first child and, when I was born, my parents took me back up home. My cousins grabbed me and took me away to show me off as I was one of the first mixed Māori and Pākehā babies that had come into the community.
Dad totally freaked out as a 26-year-old from London, having his baby carried off like that. He didn’t see me for a day or so. Mum was fine with it, of course. Dad ultimately embraced not only the culture but the language as well.
How was it for you growing up with those two sides to your family?
From my perspective, I understood much later in life that I was “too brown to be white and too white too be brown” — and that there was a middle road to walk down. But none of us in our family had any experience of how to do that. And our parents didn’t know it to teach us. So you found your own way, jumping from one world into the other.
In the Pākehā world, you didn’t speak about your Māori side. Then you learned, actually, that in the Māori world you didn’t talk much about your Pākehā side either.
I was challenged more than once, over the years, to make a choice about whether I was Māori or Pākehā. I wasn’t about to turn my back on my father’s tupuna any more than I was going to turn on my mother’s. So it’s been difficult, like having a split personality. It took a lot of learning to recognise when you could walk down the middle — to walk in your own footsteps, as it were. I do that now.
And, and as we know, very comfortably, too. Now let’s turn to your work where you’ve had remarkable success. Can you explain how you’ve been able to achieve so much?
Oh, goodness. What I’ve learned about myself is that I’m an absolute survivor. I’m adaptable. I like challenges. I have tenacity. I think a lot of that spirit has come from the women in my genealogy — my mother and my grandmother on my Māori side. And my English grandmother who had it tough in war-time London. It’s really the women in my whakapapa who I’ve drawn on to give me the strength, or pig-headedness, to just keep going.
What my work has given me is the opportunity to focus on what I’m good at, which is storytelling. And I’ve taken that skill into the digital world, into television production and now digital publishing.
Of all the projects that you’ve worked on, is there one that sticks in your mind?
Squeegee Bandit has got to be one of my favourite pieces of work. That was a film I did with a young American-Asian, Sándor Lau. It’s a story about the life and struggles of Kevin Whana, a car windscreen washer — a squeegee bandit. I often think about him with sadness.
I mean, here was a Māori man — so smart, so intelligent — who was spiritually lost from his lack of identity. And so, to cover that up and to plug that frustration and hurt and loss, he turns to substances. We followed him around and I heard his story.
When I look from a distance now, I still see a lot of Kevins. That’s heartbreaking. Because there remains a huge sense of loss of cultural identity. It’s doubled down over generations, from not having a loving environment in which to thrive. I was blessed to come from a loving family with loving parents. I feel for those who don’t have that.
Here in the Middle East, you see the devastation of family units and communities first-hand. Such as when I visited a client in Beirut. We were in a fine dining restaurant and not an hour up the road were the refugee camps. It was a surreal feeling.
By coincidence, there’s a bill before parliament as we speak that would enable police to fine squeegee bandits $150 each. I don’t know that slapping fines on them is going to solve anything. But that’s beside the point. Now, these days you do a lot of motivational speaking. I wonder if you could tell us the sorts of things you focus on in those talks?
I believe that the most important and motivating thing that people can do for themselves is to invest time in their own personal development. What they think. What they feel. To connect with their own genius, and give themselves permission to be geniuses. That’s not something that’s encouraged in New Zealand. The old tall-poppy syndrome is alive and well.
So I try to inspire people to discover the best that they can possibly be. But, in order to find what that is, you need to experiment. To do that you’ve got to stick your head up. And yes, you’re likely to be shot down. But that’s okay. You’ll come back up again.
What I’ve learned is that no one can hurt you more than you can hurt yourself. And no one can stop you more than you can stop yourself. Once you acknowledge those internal barriers, it gets easier, or at least you know what you’re dealing with.
You must’ve had challenges in business that knocked you back. Challenges you’ve had to overcome?
It’s still an ongoing story. But the challenges to overcome? As an entrepreneur, doing business in New Zealand, it’s hard. Doing business as a woman is harder. Doing business as a Māori woman is damn near impossible.
And that’s largely why I’m here in Dubai. There was a limited future for where we needed to take the business — or for the ambitions we had for it. Which meant leaving New Zealand and expanding the business overseas.
Today there are young wāhine coming through who have a different experience than I did. They’re a lot more confident and sure. More balanced. They’re supported in education and ambition by whānau. That’s exciting to see.
You’re really pushing the technological boundaries with your innovative products such as your dubbing software VoiceQ and your authoring tool to produce multilingual digital books. How important is technology for Māori development?
It’s critical that investment is put into innovation and training. Normalising innovation. Not assuming it’s something that can’t be accomplished. Or that you can’t afford it.
I’ve overheard patronising commentary over the years about Māori not being able to “afford” an internet connection, a device. Or basically that they don’t have what it takes to utilise it. It’s absolute rubbish. It’s a myth. Māori have been guided by the stars and science, and been storytelling for ages.
The web is where we live. We comprehend it. We get it. There's nothing peculiar about messages being transmitted through the air for us. Not for any indigenous individuals — and unquestionably not for Māori.
I believe it’s important that the education system embraces innovation and doesn’t make it this indistinct thing that only the privileged few can embrace. That’s rubbish. It’s here. It’s now. And Māori fit in that world like a hand in a glove.
You’re taking products developed by a Māori production house in New Zealand and selling them offshore. How do you sense that we Māori are perceived in international circles?
Here in the Emirates I’ve found that not a lot is known about Māori. My experience, however, in doing business with the local community and with government ministries is that the Māori story feels familiar to them.
We have the marae — they have the Majlis where they come together and meet. We have the hongi — and they do too. Women don’t, but the men do. There are seven Emirates, and we have seven waka. There are so many similarities. They have whānau, hapū, iwi. Families live together here in their many-room mansions.
What I get to share here is the Māori experience of more than 160 years of loss of language, culture and heritage — and the social and economic fallout from that. The Emirates are only 45 years old, but already, literally every day, you read in the media that they’re worried about the retention of the Arabic language and the local dialects of the Emirates and the impact on their culture.
We’re seeing comparable issues with social and health issues. In New Zealand, often the cause is poverty. But here it’s happening through wealth. It’s a fascinating dynamic. So, when I talk about our business story here, I discuss it from a Māori point of view. And they’re really interested. They totally get it.
A lot of the work you were doing in New Zealand was to enhance our reo. I wonder if those dubbing capabilities that you and your team developed are applicable in the Middle East.
They’re very applicable. There’s rapid change going on in television, the biggest being the imminent demise of free-to-air television and the demand for on-demand television. It’s a global trend.
The continuing challenge in television always is to produce quality content. That’s never going to change. People have more choices than they’ve ever had, so they’re going to be tuning in to the content that is relevant to them.
Here where I live and work, they tune into content that’s in their language. One of our clients is a satellite broadcaster and they say they simply can’t get enough of Arabic language content. So the voice dubbing technology that we’ve developed is valued.
I hope you’re still keeping your business running here. You know that the land cries out for your return, Rhonda. What are you hoping to do when you return?
Eventually we’re headed back to the Far North. I want to support Far North economic development, specifically for Māori. I’m also working to encourage Māori businesses to look toward Dubai for Expo 2020.
It's been great chatting with you. I’m pretty sure that when I last I bumped into you, you were getting a bit of tā moko work done down at the Viaduct. How important are these little touches of taha Māori to you as part of your identity?
Really important. I’ve got them at different stages in my life when I’ve felt the calling for that. Here I’m living in a Muslim country where, for some of the elders, tā moko, tattooing or body art is frowned on. So I have to conduct myself appropriately and cover them where I need to. And I’m happy to do that. After all I’m the manuhiri here.
I should also say that I’ve got one of my mokopuna with me now, as well. I called him up about a year ago. I said: “Hey, what’re you doing, boy?” And he said: “Oh, doing my building apprenticeship, but not sure what I really want to do yet.”
I said: “Here’s the deal for you. Come over here and help me for the next two years. We’ll build up this company and sell it. Then I’ll put a cheque in your pocket and you can go off into the world.” And he said: “Is there a rugby team there?” I said: “Yep.” And he was like: “I’m on my way.” So, he’s with me here and we’re working together. It’s just fabulous.
And then what? Europe? America?
My husband, Tom Hyde, is American, so let’s just say America is off-limits for the next three years. We came here with a three- to five-year plan to build a company for acquisition. We’re halfway there and on track. Then we’re home for good. Well, maybe until the next calling.