"Kapai Tama" was the first ever phrase I can remember hearing in te reo Maori - the Maori language.

I was all of 6 years old and my job at Dad's fish 'n chip shop - the Cafe Royal on Hinemoa St in downtown Rotorua - was to run across the road and deliver big packets of fish heads wrapped in newspaper, across the road to the Hob Knob as it was known in those days. Some of those fish heads were almost as big as me, but nowhere near as big as the huge heads and hands of Dad's mates, waiting for their kai to take home to keep in the good books with the Mrs.

These giant Totara of Te Arawa had hands the size of softball gloves and when they patted you on the head and said "Kapai Tama" (well done son) you knew that you were in their good books (kapai pukapuka) and that was way better than ever being in their bad ones.

I have thought of those two words many times when writing storylines for children's books and it is by no coincidence Kapai became the principal character in my Kapai the Kiwi series.


Other Maori words I can remember growing up in an English speaking community came from my Mum's secret squirrel conversations with my Aunty Niki, who worked on the local switchboard for the phone company. Back in those days of shared party lines every bugger could pick up their phone and have a good old "jack nohe", so mum and Aunty Niki would korero Maori (speak Maori) to throw the gossiping gas bags off the scent.

Words like hapu (pregnant), hoha (nuisance) and haehae (rooster - with a glint in his eye) were words us kids quickly became familiar with, as we cracked their code of camouflaged korero.

Ironically, a few decades later in 1984 another telephone tolls operator Naida Glavish (of Ngati Whatua) began greeting callers with "Kia ora". When her supervisor insisted she use only formal English greetings, Glavish refused and was demoted. The issue sparked widespread public debate. Not everyone was keen to hear "kia ora" used commonly, but many others came out in support of Maori greetings. People called the tolls exchange to speak to "the kia ora lady", and airline pilots began to use the term to greet passengers.

After Prime Minister Robert Muldoon intervened, Glavish returned to her old job.

My first attempts to wrap my tongue around te reo were, and still are, great avenues of amusement for my daughter who has never learned to pronounce Maori incorrectly as did her nanny Kitty. Both her and mum would cringe with my attempts at "farnow" instead of "farno" (whanau) and as for our sacred maunga (mountain) Mauao, it was quickly pointed out the Mount - as it was known as then, was no pussy cat mountain Meeow-oh but a strong manly mountain, as in "who let the dogs out? Mau au au au!"

Since then I have worked on my "tin of cocoa" (tena koutou) to welcome friends and "car keys in Te Are Now" (ka kite ano) to farewell them, and I will continue to listen and learn along the way, so as not to shame my mokopuna who will, like my daughter and her mother, converse comfortably in te reo Maori, just as their tupuna (ancestors) did.

We can all have a go at te reo as many are doing and waking up to a mihi (greeting) every morning on National Radio warms my heart and gives me great hope we are growing up to be a culturally cool country.

Next Monday marks the beginning of Te Reo week and the campaign will run from July 4 to 10. The theme for this year is akina to reo - behind you all the way, which is about using te reo Maori to support people, to inspire and to cheer on.

Continuing with last year's approach, the campaign will develop 50 phrases in te reo Maori that are simple to use, even for those with little or no grasp of the language like this once was a tin of cocoa, who will one day take time off from trying to save the world and try to help save his mother's native tongue.

We have come a long way since those dark days when Maori were suppressed, or worse, punished for speaking their native tongue and we need to akino or get behind each other and support all of our attempts to learn this beautiful language.

Next week I will celebrate my own daughter who can sing in both Maori and English as well as she can speak it. She can also dance in both languages and, the best of all, she can laugh in both languages.

You may well ask how can you laugh in Maori? I'll let the late great Billy T James answer that one.

Ka kite ano (catch you later).

- broblack@xtra.co.nz