Adrienne Thompson shares her journey of learning te reo Māori.

E tū ana au i te pūtake o Whārangi, i te tahataha o Waipahihi, i te rohe o Te Atiawa. Nō Ingarangi, nō Kōtarana hoki ōku tīpuna. I whānau mai au, i tipu ake au i Inia, engari nō te manaakitanga o ngā tāngata whenua o Aotearoa e noho ana au i Te Whanganui-a-Tara. Nō rēira, nei he mihi aroha.

I stand on Makara Peak, by Karori stream, within the domain of the Te Atiawa iwi. My forebears are from England and Scotland; I was born and grew up in India, yet because of the generosity of the people of the land I live now in Wellington. So here I offer my thanks.

When I decided to learn te reo Māori I thought it would be fun, interesting and worthwhile. I’d lived in Bangladesh for 20 years and spoke fluent Bengali. It seemed only right on returning to live in New Zealand to learn the language here. It took 12 years to get around to it but in 2014 I enrolled in beginner classes.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into. 

I’m now in my fifth year of struggles and songs and not a few swear-words, many tears and some triumphs, a little pride and a lot of feeling like an idiot. This journey into te ao Māori (the Māori world) has been God’s tool for my transformation in ways I never imagined.

So here is a small offering of thanks for what has been so generously shared with me. 

Tēnā koe—hello!

Early on in language classes I noticed that while most of us glanced around and said an awkward “Hi guys,” one or two went purposefully to each person present, introducing themselves with a handshake or hongi. I gradually realised this is the Māori way. Every individual must be acknowledged. In fact that’s the meaning of the everyday greeting ‘tēnā koe’. There you are. I see you. In my current class, every single week, every single person greets every other person by name. 

That takes time. That reminds me that nurturing relationships is worth the time it takes. Or, as the well-known saying declares: “What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people.”

Ngā mihi—thank you!

An extension of this courteous recognition of every individual is the uncompromising expectation that everyone must be thanked. Someone leads a prayer at the start of a meeting? Someone else will thank the person who prayed. Whether it’s making a speech, singing a song or serving the meal, the beautiful habit of the Māori world is that the gift never goes unacknowledged. 

I’ve been at Christian conferences where everyone enjoyed the food, but no one thought to call the cooks and servers in to thank them. That would be an unthinkable omission on a marae. Always someone must say thank you, always the group must sing, always those who have served us must hear our grateful appreciation. 

I’d like to make this my habit too. In church services I look around and notice the person on the projector, the musicians, the ones serving the coffee, the ones who opened the building, who brought the message, who welcomed the worshippers… How can I thank them?

Me karakia tātou—let’s pray!

This pattern of grateful recognition reaches further still. No meeting, no language class, no meal begins without a karakia. Even the kapu tī (cup of tea) and a snack in the middle of class must be blessed.

Often the words of the karakia are clearly Christian. Sometimes they are acknowledging the spiritual beings concerned with the forest, the ocean, the garden, the weather. Nearly always they will name our two foundational realities: earth and sky. 

I love this repeated reminder of my dependency. We humans are not in control. We are sustained by ongoing generosity. Our food is grown in the earth, given life by rain and sun, brought to us by the labour of many people. The plans and activities we initiate are affected by spiritual realities. So often I forget. The practice of karakia puts my perspective right again.

No hea koe—where are you from?

I also learn from te ao Māori a connection to the landscape. Early on in our language journey we were invited to discover our pepeha (a personal introduction that establishes identity and heritage). What mountain, river, harbour or island defines my sense of belonging? I began to reflect on my family history. My great-grandparents in the UK, my own birth in India and my children’s in Bangladesh—all of us left behind the landmarks we first knew and came to find our place in Aotearoa. Now I orient myself, not by the high peak of Kanchenjunga, my childhood mountain, but by Whārangi, the range of hills on which Karori stands. I pay my respect no longer to the Meghna river of Bangladesh but to the great harbour of Tara—Wellington Harbour.

With a sense of landscape comes a sense of delighting in the seasons as they were understood and experienced by Māori. One fascinating side effect is an increased sense of connection with the Hebrew people. Like the Māori, they surrendered the ‘first fruits’ of their gardens. They watched the stars, and, again like Māori, associated the Pleiades with winter. Like the Māori they had a sense of the aliveness of all creation, calling on the mountains to rejoice, the trees to clap their hands, and the floods to  lift up their voice in praise.

Whaia te iti kahurangi—persistently seek the treasure

There has been much joy for me in all this, but truth is, it’s also been hard. Turns out my language-learning brain has atrophied since my 20s! I don’t like making mistakes. I hate feeling foolish. Time after time I’ve wanted to give up.

“Get over yourself,” says God lovingly, and shows me again how I’m blessed. On this path I receive both gracious welcome and inspiring challenge. “Kia kaha—be strong, you can do it,” are the encouraging words I hear most often, spoken by my teachers, whispered by my fellow students. But also, the challenge, “Kia maia—be brave!” Take a risk, be seen, fall over, try again. And from God, the invitation: “Kia manawanui—be patient. Listen, learn and grow.”

There’s so much more, but for now, here is my thankful mihi ki te ao Māori. He iti noa, nā te aroha. A small offering, given with love. 

Story: Adrienne Thompson

Adrienne and her husband Paul worked with NZBMS/Tranzsend for many years in Bangladesh. They now live in Wellington where Adrienne practices as a spiritual director and supervisor.