Journalist Shilo Kino writes her first column for Newsroom on the profound challenge ahead of her in undertaking a year-long full immersion journey to learn her language and awaken her soul.
Tumuaki Tawhirimatea Williams greeted me at the door and I was immediately intimidated by his mana and wanted to run the other way.
Instead, I took a seat next to a young wahine who waved me over with a smile. Tumuaki Williams introduced himself as if we didn’t know who he was and then invited each of us to stand up and share our whakapapa and why we wanted to enrol in the full immersion te reo course at the renowned Te Wānanga Takiura in 2021.
“Te reo is my birthright and I felt the call of my tīpuna to restore our language back into our whānau,” the young wahine next to me declared boldly. She was 17 years old and still at high school. I was both deeply inspired and overwhelmed and hoped to have even an ounce of her confidence when it was my turn to speak. After she shared her kōrero, Tumuaki Williams asked her only one question. “How are you going to pay for it?”
I thought about this question every day since he asked it. He was referring to the $7000 course fee plus living costs like rent, water power, petrol, food – all without a full time working salary. Savings, part time mahi and student loans were some of the responses. But how much should it cost to buy back your culture and identity? It shouldn’t cost us anything but in the end it costs us everything.
It was my turn to share. I stood up and my voice did that ugly thing where it started to shake like I was on the verge of tears and I realised why my brothers used to tease me when I was little and call me a cry baby. I shared how I was a reporter for the current affairs show Marae and earlier this year I went to a kohanga reo to interview the kaiako for a story. She started speaking te reo to me and I did what I always did, gave a stupid grin and said in bad reo, ‘kei te ako ahau ki te kōrero i te Māori.’
Māori millennials who grew up colonised just like me know what comes next. A flash of disappointment on the person’s face that digs out the whakama you thought you had buried away but nope, it’s still there. The kaiako then tilted her head and asked, ‘How can you tell our stories but not speak our language?”
Her words were not vicious. They were spoken with love, like the blunt Aunty who tells you you’re too skinny or too fat depending on the season. But her words still felt like sharp daggers and afterwards, I went to my car and had a big old cry.
On January 1, 2020 I purchased every Scotty Morrison and Hemi Kelly book available and promised myself I would do half an hour a day of intense study. I switched on Māori TV, befriended reo speakers and started following reo-speaking influencers on Instagram. I started working for a Māori media outlet and I was deeply inspired by my colleague Whatitiri Te Wake who spoke the most beautiful reo I had ever heard. The ease and eloquence every time he spoke filled me with great envy.
The dream slipped further from my grasp as I found myself stumbling at every turn. I struggled committing to the weekly Te Wānanga classes because after a long hard day of mahi, I couldn’t deal with three hours of intense decolonisation in a class filled with Pākehā. While I love the fact Pākehā are learning reo, for me it isn’t an extracurricular activity, it’s not a hobby nor is it the equivalent of going to a weekly squash lesson. It is me trying to reclaim my identity. So when a Pākehā person’s reo is significantly better than mine, I feel paralysed and buried in shame and to protect my hurt feelings and ego I ask myself smugly, ‘But can they speak fluent Mandarin?’
“You speak fluent Mandarin, speaking te reo will be easy for you,” every single person I know has said to me. Let me make this clear. Learning a foreign language is not the same as learning a language that was stolen from your tīpuna on your own land. There is trauma in learning te reo for many Māori. And for each of us, the trauma comes differently. If you are Māori and do not have to live out this trauma, you are probably a kura kaupapa kid who grew up in great privilege by being immersed in te reo Māori.
My story was met with heaps of nods and crying eyes and I realised at that moment all of our stories in the room were different but the same. I was surrounded by Māori from all walks of life on the same journey. Then Tumuaki Williams looked directly into my wairua and I knew the question was coming. How are you going to pay for it? he asked me.
We pay through education currency where a flawed mainstream education system is designed for Pākehā to succeed and Māori to fail. We pay for it when our people search to fill a void in their life that comes from a loss of belonging, a loss of sovereignty, a loss of mana and that turns into alcohol and drug addictions and overpopulated prisons. We pay for it in health currency when we watch our loved ones die before everyone else. We pay for it as adults scrambling to learn what was never taught to us as kids. It’s exhausting, confronting, deflating. It’s the price we pay every single day.
When I was still weighing up my decision to leave full time mahi and study, I wrote a pros and cons list. The cons list was huge. A year hiatus from my journalism career that I felt was only just starting. How could I afford to live? Being a poor student while everyone around me my age was buying their second or third house. Only last month I went out to dinner with friends and they started talking about stock markets. The day before I had just made a budgeting plan for 2021 and was internally calculating the dinner bill because it was not part of my new budget.
But the cost of learning reo is less about the monetary value and more about unravelling parts of ourselves and trying to dismantle colonisation, unlearn lessons of internalised racism and overcome trauma, both intergenerational and individual trauma from learning a language beaten from our ancestors.
Most Māori would do anything to have our language back, but the affordability and accessibility prevents many from doing so. I acknowledge my own privilege in having fewer roadblocks than other Māori in accessing te reo. I know it is a privilege that I can afford to take a year off from full time mahi. Full immersion te reo courses should be free for all Māori. Bite-sized crumbs thrown to us in the form of once a week classes are not enough.
A couple of months ago, Waihoroi Shortland was in our office and he signalled me to come over. He had a big smile on his face as he drank his cup of coffee. ‘No hea koe?’ I told him my whakapapa. He grinned and told me his whakapapa, then he started sharing with me his reo journey – nuggets of gold – and I desperately wanted to write everything he said down because I didn’t want to forget, but I thought that would be rude, so I stood there and listened and then he said something to me I will never forget, that I didn’t need to write down because it will be forever ingrained in my memory, in my heart and in my soul.
“Māori were born with te reo inside of us. It’s already in you. Once you stop focusing on putting the reo inside and instead find a way to bring it out, that’s when everything will change.”
What I thought was a hard decision became the easiest decision of my life. I was prepared to give up everything I have to learn reo. Everything. But as Matua Shortland taught me, I don’t have to. Learning te reo Māori is not learning anything new. It’s simply the awakening of my soul. I have spent my whole life searching for something that has been there all along.