Valmai Whyte reckons you're never too old to learn something new — and she should know.

The Far North great-great-grandmother, who celebrates her 87th birthday today, has just completed her first formal qualification.

Valmai, known to her classmates as Nan, will officially graduate in March with a Level 4 certificate in mau rakau, a Maori martial art, from Te Wananga o Aotearoa.

As the oldest of five siblings, with one more on the way, she had to leave school at the age of 15 and look after the family when her mother fell ill. She went on to work at Middlemore Hospital for 30 years, but never had a chance to further her education.


She was inspired to take up study by her great-granddaughter RaeRae Hemara, who has studied at the wananga for the past five years and took the mau rakau course, Tu Taua, in 2015. Valmai completed the same course last year through the Whangarei and Kaikohe campuses.

"I was a bit bored staying at home, and I wanted to support my great-granddaughter," she said.

With classes once a week, and a weekend-long wananga at a different Northland marae once a month, the course had been "quite intense." The marae stays sometimes involved practice until 3am, then getting out of bed three hours later.

RaeRae accompanied her great-grandmother to all her wananga, and Valmai went to all of RaeRae's, which meant they had had 16 marae stays in one year.

RaeRae said the course had given her great-grandmother, who is not Maori, a much greater appreciation of Maori culture.

"For someone who's never had much to do with Maori culture, and who'd never been on a marae, then to do 16 marae in one year ... She used to be quite closed about Maori things, but it's been a real mind-opener for her," she said.

Valmai grew up in Otahuhu and moved to Northland about 30 years ago. She splits her time between her own home near Kerikeri and RaeRae's home in Moerewa.

Her five children, and almost 70 descendants so far, including eight great-great-grandchildren, are all Maori through her first husband.

She was pleased to have done the course, but isn't yet sure if she'll do another. She recommended mau rakau to anyone, and wished more Maori boys would take it up.
"It would keep them out of trouble and give them something positive to look forward to each week," she said.