Kerre McIvor
Kerre McIvor is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Kerre McIvor: A convert to te reo Maori

I have always promised myself I would learn Maori - the language and the tikanga. Photo / File
I have always promised myself I would learn Maori - the language and the tikanga. Photo / File

There I was, dry-mouthed, hands trembling, clutching my cue cards in sweaty hands.

It was my final assessment for the Maori language course I'd signed up to this year and, after five months of three-hour classes every Thursday night, this was it.

We'd had a gruelling exam the previous week and now we were to deliver a mihi and a pepeha that explained who we were and where we came from.

We were put into small groups and had to open with a prayer, close with a prayer and sing a waiata after each of us had given our condensed life stories. It was nerve-racking. I have spoken in front of thousands before but this little presentation in front of my 20 very supportive classmates was different.

For one thing, I didn't want to butcher a beautiful language. For another, I hadn't memorised it as we'd been asked to do. We had to sing - in front of other people - and it came the week after an exam I was convinced I had failed.

And it was all my own fault. I hadn't put in the work needed to feel confident about the exam. I hadn't prioritised my studies as I should have. I'd expected to be able to do it because I wanted to.

I want to be really, really good straight away, without putting in any effort, other than buying the books and attending the class.

Some of my fellow students were amazing. The first was a woman from Yorkshire, England, who migrated here as an adult. She had memorised her pepeha and her accent was better than most New Zealanders'.

A number of young medical students were also amazing. They'd had seven exams to study for connected to their main degree yet they all managed to memorise their pepeha - and two of them prepared a home-cooked meal to bring to the shared meal we enjoyed after the assessment.

The number of people who completed the beginners Maori course at AUT was incredible, as was the diversity of their backgrounds. Ten classes were spread throughout the week, and all of them were full.

I met CEOs of major companies, med students and older Pakeha New Zealanders like me, doing it because they had always meant to get around to it.

I sat next to a young man from Mongolia who had signed up to Maori language classes because he thought it was incredible he could learn a language that was unique. He'd never be able to find it anywhere else in the world and, in this age of homogeneity, that was rare.

Four of my young colleagues from Newstalk ZB and the Herald had enrolled, as had a mate who'd never had the chance to explore the Maori side of his family. And we only found out we were fellow students once we started.

We kept reminding each other we were there to learn, not to come first, and even if our marks were a disaster, we still knew more than when we started.

Our kaiako (teachers) told us time and again it wasn't about the marks, it was about the journey. They were patient and kind and excellent teachers and somehow managed to not wince as many of us mangled vowels and consonants.

As it was, I did better than I dared hope. Which has given me the confidence to enrol for the second part of the course. I have always promised myself I would learn Maori - the language and the tikanga.

My husband, who is Irish and a polyglot, loves te reo Maori and is encouraging me to keep going even though he is miles ahead of me in terms of communication.

It has been very good for my brain - experts in Alzheimer's say brain exercises that make you struggle are excellent in warding off dementia. If that's the case, I should be sweet because my brain has been smoking for the past five months as it has tried to grasp new concepts and language structures.

And it has been good for my soul. Words define me and to be reduced to basic sentences like who I am and where I come from has been a humbling experience. But more than that, it has been fun and that is thanks to the wonderful teachers who are so generous with their time and knowledge and their culture and to my fellow students.

As Ang, my Mongolian classmate, said we have something rare and special in te reo Maori - a language and culture nobody else has. I feel truly grateful to be allowed to be a part of that.

- Herald on Sunday

Kerre McIvor is on Newstalk ZB weekdays, noon-4pm.

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