Moana Maniapoto learned to speak Māori years ago, but unlike many of her mates, she never became fluent. This year, she’s determined to set that right.
I’m going in.
It’s time to . . . ā-ā-ākona te reo. That’s my New Year’s resolution and revolution, all in one.
I’ve been thinking about it since I picked up my current affairs gig at Māori Television last year, and I’m putting the blame squarely on all those gorgeous, fresh-faced, reo-speaking youngies in the newsroom.
I s’pose it’s my fault for eavesdropping at the easy banter over their computer screens or across the kitchen bench, but there it is: te reo Māori sliding effortlessly off their tongues like spoonfuls of creme brulee. And I want some. I want more.
Yeah, I’m a bit jelly. I’ve always wanted to be confidently fluent and, at times, I’ve felt like it’s been within my grasp, that I’ve almost got there. But then I let it slip away. Other priorities and distractions, life and stuff. I look at my mates who I started learning with and I think: Damn — I dropped the ball.
The reporters are very sweet when I ask for help. It’s not like it’s in their job description and I feel a bit stink even asking. But they’re respectful and I suppose that’s an age thing.
I speak Māori every day to my daughter and I’ve fought for the language on every platform I’ve had access to — stage, radio, print, television. If push comes to shove, I’ll do an interview for Te Karere, but my natural instinct is flight.
In terms of my language prowess, competent would be a generous term. But I try not to beat myself up about it. Some of the staunchest advocates for te reo back in the day — the likes of Syd Jackson, Hana te Hemara, Donna Awatere and Ripeka Evans, who pushed for Māori Language Week and for te reo to be officially recognised — never actually mastered the language themselves.
Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, they were kind of tied up trying to push the Treaty onto the political agenda, leading occupations and protests, calling out institutional racism, marching against apartheid, and holding unions and feminist movements to account, in between going to work, raising kids, heading to tangihanga and other stuff. So, honestly, where would they get the time to sort through the taku and the toku?
I’m not sure how many beneficiaries of their efforts today even know who they are.
I’ve been thinking about pimping my reo ever since I decided to speak only Māori to my baby girl. That was 11 years ago. In the early days, I got the Māori dictionary out. Enrolled in Scotty Morrison’s classes at Unitec when we lived in Grey Lynn. And then, well . . . I don’t know. Stopped picking up the book each night, dropped out of class. Did carry on recording and performing songs in te reo, though.
The child was fed a daily diet of impressive kupu and phrases at Te Puna Reo o Manawanui by Nanny (Letty) Ereti, then at Westmere by Whaea Jane Cooper, and now she’s poised to enter the Pasadena Intermediate under Mātua Donovan Farnham. I’m bracing myself to get my game on because he talks fast — not quite as speedy as Timoti Karetu, but enough to make me consider a shot of vodka before our next parent-teacher thing.
I feel compelled to dig deeper into the language after every single tangi. Tangi are amazing but they can be stressful too. The thought of having to karanga scares the bejesus out of me and I know it goes back to the time I witnessed the most incredible volley when Te Arawa attended the opening of a wharenui in Auckland. It just went on and on, the most amazing exchange — and that wasn’t even a tangi.
The thing is that, when you rock up to tangihanga, there are expectations around profile, age, language. People make assumptions. You can never make assumptions about fluency.
My favoured tactic is to avoid eye contact with anyone who looks like they’re in charge and then I try to strategically position myself in the middle of a clutch of women a couple of rows back from the leaders, just to reduce my visibility.
Sure, I have a few prepared lines on my phone courtesy of my mates — that’s me sitting in the carpark trying to memorise them before I go on, just in case I get the call up. And most of the time, I’ve been lucky to be missed because, even if you’ve nailed the kupu, there’s always that fear that someone from the other side will hit you with a curveball and you’ll be left floundering. That’s the nature of the gig when you’re not a native speaker.
I remember some bloke reassuring me once: “Don’t be nervous. The words will pop into your head.” I gave him the evils. Pop into your head? How can they bloody pop into your head when they weren’t there in the first place? And a tangi is not the place you want to be waiting for anything to pop.
It’s not like I haven’t tried to learn, either. The cousins organise wānanga at Whakarewarewa. But every time a wānanga karanga comes up, I’m overseas, or I’ve already landed a gig.
Thankfully, in Whangarā, at the tangi of Nanny (Lorraine Love) Babe just before New Year’s Eve, a couple of beautiful kuia took the lead. It’s a wonder the crowd didn’t hear the fat sigh of relief from me and my sister. These two women not only looked the part, they moved with confidence and poise to the front. Like a game of chess, I did my sideways stealth moves behind them. Their voices rang out with such beauty and it was a gorgeous exchange, one that went on and on and on. The kind I would’ve drowned in.
I counted my blessings as I took my seat in the greatest theatre of all, the marae ātea. There was the dynamic Derek Lardelli rising to his feet like a Shakespearan actor in a live play, moving this way and that, waving his tokotoko. And then one of Morvin Simon’s sons, Kahurangi, from the Whanganui River, followed by my brother-in-law Jay, and then my brother Maru — all wonderful speakers. Engaging. Enlightening. Entertaining.
And there’s me trying hard to concentrate because it takes a lot of effort and discipline to focus when you’re not fluent.
I was knackered last year doing my current affairs show on MTS. Active listening is hard. It’s challenging enough interviewing a media-trained politician in English. Try sitting through an hour of speeches in a language that you had to learn.
Me? I zone in and out.
Trying hard to listen and not to think about what’s going to be on the first episode of the current affairs show and then laughing at Derek’s joke and wondering who we might interview for The Negotiators and whether the band will get to Europe in August and nodding as my brother tells a yarn. Then I’m dreaming about the likelihood of paua at lunch and whether I’ll be able to nail my final two music videos before the end of March, and looking around for John Love and wondering if he’s coping with the death of his wife, and also what is the name of that guy on the left. And, wow, isn’t she neat, that one leading that really long waiata?
These are the things that go through my mind when I can’t quite grasp every word or phrase.
Nothing is certain except the paua.
It’s not like I’m completely useless. I don’t freak now if someone speaks to me in te reo. And I can get through a TV interview or a talk with Bubba’s teachers. But I’m acutely aware of my weaknesses, the gaps, and what I don’t know.
And I get things mixed up. The a and the o. The ki and i. And I just can’t seem to grasp any new words. Āritarita means eager or excited, āmaimai means nervous.The only way I can remember is because there’s a t in both āritarita and excited.
Āritarita and āmaimai: the only two new words I learned in 2019 pretty much sum up my relationship with te reo.
I s’pose it’s all about timing. The young reporters in the Māori Television newsroom were born into a flourishing kōhanga reo movement that was established when there was no actual Māori Television.
Me and my contemporaries missed kōhanga reo and kura. The first kōhanga reo started in 1982. We had left school. My lot had to learn the language without the benefit of kōhanga, kura, podcasts, documentaries and programmes in Māori. Apps? Forget it. The internet hadn’t arrived in New Zealand. No one I knew had even seen a computer. Jesus, we grew up when telephones had dials and were attached to actual walls. There was no Te Wānanga o Aotearoa offering free lessons. Iwi radio had barely kicked in.
And there was the attitude.
Māori language was considered radical. Some white folk were horrified that things might go a step too far, that they might be forced to hear te reo or, heaven forbid, learn it. The more paranoid of them suspected that the darkies were plotting.
Fair enough. Some probably were. But most of us were just trying to retrain our brains with the few tools available to us.
Scotty Morrison hadn’t written all his stunning books. When I met him in Ōtaki at a wānanga, he was struggling like the rest of us. But it was those wānanga that were the gamechangers for my generation. We were the ones in between. Our parents were fluent speakers and our kids would become fluent speakers.
My generation occupied the linguistic wasteland. But our role models were on to it.
Wānanga reo are an amazing concept. Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa, out at Waiuku, down at Taumutu on the west coast — wherever and whenever they were being held, we would home in, moving in en masse, in cars and on trains, to hunker down for a week — no English. Scotty, Moana Sinclair, Alice Heather, Jenny Lee, Whetu Fala, Keith Ikin, Hinewehi Mohi . . . we got into a groove.
Not all Māori were in there boots and all.
When my former husband and I announced we would speak Māori only to my first child, both sets of parents rolled their eyes.
“Great,” my Pākehā mum muttered. “How’s that going to work? I can’t speak Māori.”
“Mum,” I said. “Just speak English to him and we’ll take care of the Māori. It’ll be fine.”
Not that we actually knew this. It was all new territory. We’d never even met someone who had raised their child speaking Māori only.
My son’s Māori koro huffed, puffed, and delivered the biggest eyeroll: “Jeez. You two? You’re both hopeless at the language.” Good one, Bob. Kia ora for the tautoko.
We just carried on. Mum and Bob came on board. And the flow-on effect meant my siblings and their kids all got into te reo. My wānanga mates went on to become educators, journalists, documentary-makers, and policy advisors — where they could use and grow their language skills every day.
My second child keeps talking to me in the language I gifted her and I try hard not to glaze over and say: “Taihoa.” It’s effortless for her. She doesn’t have to translate in her head like I do. She rarely speaks in English to me, and she asks for permission to do so. A couple of years ago, she went through a short phase of weird pidgin and coming at me using chunks of English, so I suggested we should just drop te reo (leaving out the bit that it would make life much easier for me).
Her brows furrowed, and she shook her head vigorously.
That’s a no then?
It was a fleeting, half-hearted gesture on my part because te reo is our thing. It’s brought us together, it’s our secret space, our Da Vinci code, and it’s the gift she has in common with my Te Ao team. She’s confident in both languages — her English is awesome — and she has an amazing worldview. It’s all going for her.
I’m her rock — but I’m also the weak link.
Sometimes I wish I hadn’t started this thing and I wonder who I really did it for. Was it all about me trying to make a point to the world? I know I’ve let down the side and particularly her by not growing my own prowess. I worry that my lack of vocabulary stymies my ability to hold the kind of intimate conversations with her that we need to have now.
Anyway, I’m going to make an effort this year so I’ve put together the bones of a 40-week plan. Had a cup of tea with Scotty and Stacey Morrison and we chatted over what might work for someone like me who is time-poor, easily distracted, doesn’t do routine, and has a memory like a sieve.
Podcasts in te reo can be my friend. While I’m driving. But first I’m going to have a go at my workbooks. The Morrisons have loaded me up with exercise books. That’s 30 minutes a day. Reckon it’s those damn actives, passives and statives that I have to focus on. I’m training myself to stop asking: “But why . . .” and to just learn it.
I started my plan and nearly gave up because I lost the plot on those. So I went right back to the start. I’ve missed the odd day but that’s okay.
I have no staying power for classes, but I’m finding one-on-one cuppa tea explanations a good fit. One of my new reporters Kimi Kaire-Melbourne, who’s fluent, is going to help me out. And Stacey and Scotty are always there for gentle encouragement.
I told Manawanui, my daughter: “Bub, ka whakapakari ake au i taku reo i tēnei tau.”
“Pai tērā, Māmā.” I give her my notebook and she tests me at night, in the cafes, or as we’re driving on the North Western.
I’ll give it a bash, 2020.
E pao, tōrea. Seize the day.
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