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Learning te Reo is a personal journey

Rangitane o Wairarapa cultural adviser Mike Kawana [standing] is often called upon for his knowledge in karakia and tikanga. PHOTOS/FILE

Story by Tom Taylor

Opportunities to learn and speak te reo Māori are on the rise, a prominent Wairarapa cultural advisor and teacher says.

Universal College of Learning [UCOL] te reo teacher Mike Kawana said Te Wiki o te Reo Māori helped to normalise usage of the language.

“Te Wiki o te Reo Māori helps people to know that there is nothing scary about this language, and it’s a language that is ours – that belongs to Aotearoa,” Kawana said.

He said there had been encouraging progress in the past few years, with newsreaders and TV presenters making Māori greetings commonplace.

Mike Kawana’s te reo journey was spurred on by his daughter starting at kohanga reo.

Kawana said the next challenge was for people to use the language they had been exposed to within their own homes.

Already called upon for his expertise in karakia [prayer], waiata [song], and kawa [opening ceremonies], Kawana’s work stepped up a notch during Te Wiki o te Reo Māori.

Each morning throughout the week, Kawana had appeared on air with More FM presenter Brent Gare to teach listeners a new phrase and promote UCOL Wairarapa’s language classes.

The institute had kicked off its adult te reo classes in 2015 with Kawana at the helm.

“When we first put it out there to see what reaction we might get, it was pretty overwhelming,” Kawana said. “The classes have been on offer ever since then.”

More than 50 students signed up for the first intake, forcing UCOL to split the cohort into two classes.

“Initially, we didn’t put a cap on entries, so it grew and grew.”

From an entry-level course on Monday nights, students could progress to intermediate and advanced classes that involved more immersion in the language, including overnight
stays at marae.

From 2017, UCOL introduced Level 4 and Level 5 programmes, in which students could sit assessments and gain the New Zealand Certificate in Te Reo Māori.

However, Kawana said that many people did not take the classes to earn a piece of paper.

“A lot of students came in because they wanted to be in an environment where they could use the language. The certificate at the end of it wasn’t their goal; it was to be in a space where they were given the opportunity to speak te reo Māori.”

Despite his proficiency as a spokesmaon and teacher, Kawana did not describe himself as a “native speaker” of te reo.

“I had to learn it myself,” he said. “Although my mother spoke Māori, our household was not a Māori-speaking household.”

Kawana had trained as a butcher and worked at the Waingawa meatworks – then Wairarapa’s largest employer. When the works closed in 1989, Kawana, like many others, was left
without a job.

Shortly after the meatworks closed, Kawana’s daughter started at kohanga reo [Māori-medium early childhood centre].

“Every time I’d pick her up, she would be speaking the kohanga reo te reo Māori, and that was even beyond me. I thought I’d better learn some of those words and phrases she was using.”

Taking the chance to study, he enrolled at the Wairarapa Community Polytechnic –later incorporated into UCOL.

“When the freezing works closed down, we needed to look for other things to do, and that was one of the opportunities I saw.”

Kawana spent two years in “full-on” te reo study, the second year being total immersion.

In 1994, one of the polytechnic tutors moved on to another role, leaving a position to teach basic te reo Māori open.

“I thought, ‘I’d like to have a go at that,’ and put my name down. I was lucky enough to get it.”

UCOL Wairarapa had 116 students enrolled in beginner and intermediate level Te Reo Māori classes so far this year.

The next intake would begin classes on October 11.

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