The first day of kōhanga reo at Pukeatua in Wainuiomata, Wellington, remembered

Forty years ago next April, the first kōhanga reo in New Zealand opened its doors. Kōkiri Pukeatua Kōhanga Reo in Wainuiomata, and the many who followed, gave parents the choice of full immersion in Māori language and values for their pre-schoolers. The initiative was part of Department of Māori Affairs head Kara Puketapu’s Tū Tangata (Stand Tall) philosophy – community-based Māori development through programmes that supported cultural and economic advancement by encouraging self-reliance and self-determination. On that autumn day in 1982, Tautoko Ratu and his mum, Wikitoria Ratu – later a kōhanga reo kaiako (teacher) herself – were there. Cherie Howie reports.

Wikitoria

As parents we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.

All we were told was, ‘Bring the child to kōhanga, they’re gonna learn te reo’.

All these kids crying their heads off. It took about two weeks before Tautoko settled in and then things were fine.

There was nothing to be spoken in there but te reo so I used to write something down and show it, like ‘I need to see somebody’. It was quite hard on the parents.

I didn’t speak te reo then. But when our doors opened, I didn’t leave.

When I walked through that door I thought, ‘This is what I want’.

Not just for my son, but for myself, to grow in this beautiful movement.

Tautoko

I was 2, turning 3, on that first day. I don’t remember it, but I do remember kōhanga.

Going through the door and [the teachers] being a bundle of life, being bubbly, and just welcoming us kids in.

I can’t imagine having not gone to kōhanga reo. But I can see it in others who’ve been less fortunate.

My grandparents were brought up in the bush. This was their world, and when they moved to the city they lost a bit of that.

But in terms of kōhanga reo, my nan coming back into the movement to be kaiako, it reignited that in her.

A lot of the things she grew up with, she passed them on to me. If kōhanga wasn’t around, that wouldn’t have happened.

So the purpose was about more than me, it was about our people – our parents, our grandparents and also my children to come, and their children to come.

Koro Kara [Puketapu] and what he was trying to do for our people in the 1970s, a lot of the issues that exist today are answered by looking at the model he employed almost 50 years ago.

There are a lot of our people asking, ‘Who am I? Where am I from?’

That generation of people are the offspring of those who migrated to the city from the country, and never took their families back to their roots.

Even my generation and under, because a lot of our people that moved to the city didn’t put their tamariki into Māori medium education.

My mother’s of the marae where the [kōhanga reo] hui was held in 1979, the year I was born.

So as the wānanga [discussion] was happening, I’m in my mother’s womb. And of that came the first kōhanga reo, and they’re on our doorstep.

So that connection to me as a person and as a family of kōhanga reo, it fits my heart.

And although we have our ups and downs, we know that if it wasn’t for kōhanga we wouldn’t be in this position as Māori.

We wouldn’t be a voice as loudly in the public, fighting oppression.

All of those systemic issues that face us, we wouldn’t have the voices today to articulate what it was like for our people, and to voice where we’re heading as a people.

Because there’s now a whole movement of Māori that are on the waka, proud to be Māori and want the best for our people.

These are the outcomes of what happened in the 70s and what has continued to rise, to Māori pride from that time right through to where we are now, because we have people like those who go through [former Māori language academy] Te Panekire and things like Mahuru Māori [September Māori language challenge], and not just Māori participating in it, but the country giving it a go.

And if it’s growing language within our country, it’s growing a culture within our country.

And when we talk about a bicultural country, that’s what it’s about.

• As told to Cherie Howie

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