Monday, April 30, 2012

Tim Grosser's Te Reo comments offer opportunities for NZ

On a TV interview over the weekend, NZ Trade Minister, Tim Grosser, suggested that Te Reo Maori (Maori language) be made compulsory in New Zealand schools. His argument, which he stated was his 'personal view', was that by exposing all children to this country's other official language would enable and encourage them to learn other languages and, through such learning, understand and appreciate other foreign cultures. I couldn't agree with him more. However, there are a number of aspects of what he's proposing that he may not have been considered.

Forget NZ's Clean and Green delusion, our one truly unique offering to the world is that of Maori culture - nobody else in the world has it, and yet we dismiss it with an almost colonialist disdain, as it's of lesser value than the overriding British culture that we inherited from a distant time when this country was a part of that nation's empire. Yet, as I saw at the opening of NZ's embassy in Cairo, the karakia (prayer) and powhiri (welcoming ceremony) performed by a London-based Kapa Haka (Maori cultural performance) group absolutely floored the Egyptians who attended the event - they were absolutely gob-smacked! This is even more amazing when one understands the Egyptians' sense of their own 6000+ year old history, yet they saw Maori culture as unique, exciting and of great value, at least it was to those whom I spoke with at the time. They said they had no idea that New Zealand had such a rich and exotic culture and wanted to know more. Interestingly, when I met with some of the Kapa Haka group participants and told them of the Egyptians' reaction, they were surprised that they'd made such a strong impression with the locals..!

Closer to home, there are a lot of similarities between Maori culture and especially those of Asia, the Middle East and Africa. This includes how relationships are formed and fostered, as well as other shared values and traditions. Take the Maori greeting, Kia ora, and the Chinese equivalent, Ni hao. In basic terms, both virtually mean the same thing, so why are we not leveraging off such a simple bridge between cultures?

Another example is the traditional Maori greeting, or hongi, where two people press their noses together to share the air.  The local Beduin in the UAE and some other Gulf States do something similar, and when I lived there in 1999/2000, the locals were fascinated by the fact that they shared something with a totally different culture. They were further impressed when I mentioned Maori achievements in long-distance sailing and navigation. The Arabian Peninsula has a great tradition of seafaring going back millennia, and provides yet another link between NZ and the Gulf. Maybe it's time we start using it.

My final argument in support of adding Te Reo Maori to the syllabus is the fact that our migrants community see it as an integral part of what it means to be a Kiwi - look at the stats of the numbers of migrants learning Maori language as proof.

Last year, I mentored an expat from Fiji who was taking a course in Social Work at a local tertiary institution, run by Maori. She had a lot of concerns about not being able to understand Maori culture and I suggested to her that she look for those aspects of the culture that had parallels with her own Fijian, Indian and Muslim values and traditions. I got a text message at the end of her first day thanking me and saying that it was the best advice I could have given, and that she was able to immediately pick up on shared aspects of Maori and her cultures. Being able to find those links will bode well for her in her chosen career, not only in her dealings within the Maori community, but with those of other Pacific peoples and other migrants as well.

Maori language and culture have both great value and relevance to New Zealand in the 21st Century and we ignore utilizing it to everyone's mutual advantage at our detriment. Let's use Te Reo as a way to bring all the people of this country together and then proudly take it to the world.

Mau te rongo (let peace reign)

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