An Unlikely Conversation

Rāpare, 21 o Hōnongoi 2016

First of all I tried to find the Māori word for ‘journey’ because we were asked to reflect on our ‘journey’ of learning Te Reo so far as part of our course. My little Dictionary of Modern Māori said ‘rerenga’ or ‘haere’ or ‘haerenga’. Which one should I use? So I back referenced and found that ‘haere’ is a verb, and ‘haerenga’ and ‘rerenga’ are nouns.

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Still not sure which to use I went to the online Māori dictionary and ….there were even more options! All sorts of nuances for the word journey!
Journey

I think that finding out which word to use in which context is the most challenging thing for me about learning Te Reo. I love that in the online dictionary there is so much detail, every nuance of how the word ‘journey’ can be used from personal growth, to setting out, to carrying responsibility, to sunrise and moonrise, to preparation, to actually being on a physical journey. It is fascinating reading all the whakatauki, and the kiwaha and the history around the words but sometimes I just want to know which word to use…quickly!! I think I have resigned myself to the fact that learning Te Reo is going to be a long journey, a journey of discovery. I have long believed that learning a language is far more than putting words together to communicate. It is about learning about the culture, finding out what makes a people tick, it’s about the whakapapa and the feelings and the memories.

Which brings me to an interesting conversation I had yesterday sitting in the hot stream at Spa Park as it flows into the Waikato River in Taupō. A group of Māori men ranging in age from mid teens to mid thirties, I suppose, were there. Some were heavily tattooed with what looked like gang insignia, others were not. This is an observation which has some relevance and is not intended to be a judgement. I will come to that later. They were doing what young men do – larking about, having fun, probably laughing at some of the tourists! One of the older ones was climbing up and down through the pools picking up litter and debris that had been washed down or left there.

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Normally, I am not someone who strikes up conversations with strange men and I have to confess that whilst I don’t believe in making judgements about people based on their appearance, given the negative media coverage of gang members, I would generally not have engaged in conversation. However, I ended up talking to him along with a young woman who was travelling around NZ from Australia. She was asking him about where he came from, the Māori language, she wanted him to teach her a few words.  After a few moments thought he asked her who she was and why she was there.  He seemed to suggest that it is not all about words, it is about who you are. He talked about Māori language being a ‘native tongue’ specific to who you are and where you come from.  He talked happily about how his family had lived in the area for generations, he was proud of his history, that his family had been Queen Victoria’s warriors, that his grandfathers house was over 200 years old – one of the oldest in the area. I didn’t hear everything very clearly (we had a waterfall pounding in our ears!) but he also talked about the difference between gangs and iwi and bloodlines and connectedness.

When she asked him what his relationship with the other men there was he said they were all brothers. She asked how many brothers he had. He thought for a bit, as if counting them up and then said that he had 9 brothers but he had lots more sisters. I wondered then at the different understanding of what ‘brothers’ might be. He may well have had that many biological brothers and sisters, but I think from what he was saying it was more the idea of brotherhood and sisterhood. The sense of belonging that comes from shared experiences, from a belief, from a shared history, something that comes from the heart. And he talked about everyone being answerable to a higher being – ‘rangatira’ – and how we had a responsibility to look after the land – he said that his ‘mahi’ of cleaning out the pools was something he did because it was part of who he was as a custodian of the land. He called it his ‘mahi whakapapa’ – a task that was part of who he was. It was fascinating listening to him and I think he would have talked happily all evening but unfortunately I had to go.

I take a few things from this experience;
1. My belief that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover has been totally endorsed
2. Language and culture are inextricably entwined and the meaning of words is entirely dependent on personal experience, feelings, context and history.

3. My pondering is how on earth do I ever get to even scratch the surface of being able to communicate in Te Reo in any meaningful way if the language is so specific to whakapapa?

4. Learning a language is all about listening to stories, making connections, immersing yourself at every opportunity.

5. It’s weird how really interesting conversations can happen in the most unlikely of places such as sitting in a hot pool in my underwear in the middle of a river with two complete strangers!

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