Siena Yates (Photo: Charlotte Marama)

Siena Yates went to her first kura reo to learn from reo legends and discovered that real progress happens only when you put yourself outside your comfort zone.


There’s a lovely Māori term I learned early on this year: “Āhuru mōwai.”

It means “calm space” or “sheltered haven”. I’m told it refers to the womb and the amniotic fluid that cradles, protects and nurtures a baby.

It’s a lovely sentiment.

I tend to use it as “safe space” or “comfort zone”.

Another fun phrase I learned more recently is “whiua ki te rapihi”. It means: “Chuck it in the bin”. Less poetic. Just as useful, though.

The most important lesson I learned — and keep having to learn every day — is putting those two things together.

“Oh, you have a lovely safe, comfortable zone to stay in that makes you feel secure and at peace? Cool. Chuck it in the bin.”

As harsh as it sounds, I’ve come to realise, especially in the last few weeks, that that’s pretty much the vibe of the reo journey.

At the beginning of this month, I thought that it’d be a good idea to go to my first kura reo, by myself, to learn from kaiako like Scotty Morrison, Te Waihoroi Shortland, Tātere MacLeod and the indomitable Tīmoti Kāretu.

(Side note: Ta Tīmoti wasn’t able to make it in the end and I don’t know if I was more disappointed or relieved. One less reo legend to embarrass myself in front of, but also one less to learn from.)

If there’s one word to wrap up the kura reo experience, it’s “humbling”.

Every now and again at Te Tohu Paetahi, I feel like maybe I’m starting to get the hang of things, just a bit. The kura reo set that straight, real quick.

As soon as I arrived, I wanted to cry, turn around and drive the full hour back home to Te Puke. Why? Because no sooner had I parked the car than I heard a group of fellow tauira having a full-blown, fluent conversation in te reo Māori.

I knew that there were going to be people at all different levels at the kura, but I didn’t expect to be confronted with it before I’d even got out of the car.

“Confronting” is another good word.

Let me tell you, there’s nothing quite like looking Te Waihoroi Shortland in the eye, wishing the ground would swallow you whole while you try to figure out what the hell he just said to you — and he’s just sitting there waiting for your response with a knowing smile on his face.

The thing is, though, you get there in the end. Because you have to.

(Or you don’t, but from that you learn something new, so that you can get there next time.)

What Te Tohu Paetahi tries to teach us is to be okay with not knowing. To get used to it because it’s going to happen a lot — and not just this year but in the years to come when we continue our reo journeys on our own.

It’s a hard pill to swallow but the thing about courses like these is that, not only do they compound your learning, but they also force you into that state of acceptance because, if you dwell on what you don’t know, you’ll succeed only in holding yourself back.

One kaiako at the kura reo said something along the lines of: You’re not going to get everything, so just pick one or two things that stand out to you and focus on taking those away with you.

He was right. We’re not going to become fluent after one year of study and we’re not going to grasp everything thrown at us during a kura reo. And that’s okay.

We also learned to be comfortable with the level we’re at, rather than feeling like we should be further along the path.

We were split into four groups and, although the people in Group One were far more competent in the reo than I was, we all still learned the same things from the same teachers. It was just that we did that in different ways and with different levels of expectations.

If my group had tried to learn at the same level as Group One, we would’ve been  overwhelmed, understood nothing, and spent the better part of four days crying in the wharepaku.

So, yes. The kura reo is specifically designed to challenge you, to push your limits and  demolish any concept of a comfort zone. But it’s done in a way that is manageable for you, and with aroha.

I learned this lesson again more recently at a noho marae with our sister class from Te Tohu Paetahi ki Kirikiriroa (Hamilton). They’d just come from performing at the Kaapuia kapa haka competition, and we were supposed to do kapa haka in front of them

Scared as we were, we had to accept that we were never going to get to their level overnight. So we could only do what we could do, and that would have to be enough.

And it was.

Not only that, but their level of kaha and wairua was infectious and made us stronger too.

That noho was the first time in my life I’ve been able to pūkana during kapa haka without feeling whakamā, without feeling like a fraud playing dress-up in my Māoritanga.

And it was because I’d seen and felt the kaha of the Kirikiriroa group and a part of my wairua felt the call to reciprocate. It wasn’t about competing or outdoing each other or trying to be like them. It was about receiving the wairua they put into their performance, and returning that in kind.

It’s the same as how your reo improves just by being around fluent speakers and having no option but to kōrero Māori. You want to reciprocate the knowledge and the effort that people put in to teach you, to speak with you, to help you stick to the kaupapa.

Your reo isn’t going to be as good as theirs at the end of the week, but it’s going to be better than it was last week — and you can feel a bit more at home in it, knowing you gave it your all.

A comfort zone is nice. But progress happens only outside of that zone and, if someone’s willing to meet you out there, me haere koe.

Siena Yates (Te Rarawa, Te Aupōuri, Ngāti Kuri, and Tainui) is a journalist who has worked for Stuff, the New Zealand Herald and WOMAN magazine. She was born in Morrinsville and grew up in Te Puke in the Bay of Plenty, where she’s now studying te reo through Waikato University’s Te Tohu Paetahi programme.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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