Volume 10 Number 3
Maori Children Lead the Way
01 June 1997

Over the last two decades the Maori people of New Zealand have found new confidence through a movement which runs 'language nests' for pre-school children. Mary Lean visited the headquarters of the Kohanga Reo Trust in Wellington to discover what has happened since we last covered the story in May 1991.

Twenty years ago, the Maori language was dying out-and taking with it the culture and confidence of New Zealand's Maori people. In the 1980s, 75 per cent of Maori teenagers left school without qualifications-and a disproportionate number found their way onto the unemployment role and into prisons and institutions. Millions of dollars of government money were spent on the 'Maori problem'.

Today, this is changing - and, says, Iritana Tawhiwhirangi, Maoridom's youngest members have led the way. She has seen a movement to nurture under-fives in their own culture bubble up into a renaissance for her whole people. A former teacher and civil servant in the Department of Maori Affairs, Tawhiwhirangi was in at the birth of Kohanga Reo and now heads up the Trust which administers it.

The idea of setting up kohanga reo (language nests) for pre-school children was born at a large tribal hui (meeting) in 1980. The idea was to 'totally immerse' small children in their own language and culture, so that they would be confident of their own identity when they entered the school system.

Following Maori tradition, which focussed on the extended family (whanau), each kohanga was to be run by a community which spanned the generations from the elderly fluent Maori-speakers through the parents to the children themselves.

The first kohanga opened in 1982. By the end of the year there were 107, and three years later, 337. Today there are 750, catering for some 14,500 children. There are also some 55 total immersion Maori primary schools, set up by parents who felt their kohanga-reared children were being failed by the mainstream schools.

These early kohanga received seed money from the government, but otherwise had to fund themselves. In the first three years, the government contributed NZ$1.5 million, and the Maori community some NZ$30 million. 'The government fell in love with Kohanga Reo not because it believed in language and culture, but because Maori people seemed to be happy all of a sudden-and because it was cost-effective,' says Tawhiwhirangi.

Even when fighting off flu, as she was when we met, Iritana Tawhiwhirangi is a dynamo. In the early days, she guarded the kohanga's independence fiercely. 'I told them to shut their doors to officials: I've seen so many Maori initiatives snuffed out because they were made to feel they weren't measuring up.' When the authorities complained that the kohanga would not let them in, she invited them to meet regularly with her instead. 'At the end of a year or two we couldn't have had greater support.'

Meanwhile Kohanga Reo was building up its own database. Every community meeting, every kohanga, every child was documented. These archives will not be opened until the first kohanga-raised academics emerge from the universities equipped to research their own history.

From the beginning, the keynotes of Kohanga Reo have been trust and inclusion. In the late 1970s, Tawhiwhirangi was responsible for handing out government seed grants to Maori groups under the Tu Tangata (stand tall) policy, which later gave birth to Kohanga Reo. Any group could establish a programme to meet their needs-and requests varied from funding for kindergartens to a group of large ladies, who asked for a grant to buy small tracksuits to slim towards. Tawhiwhirangi did not insist on accountability. The grants were small and unrepeatable, she says, and the aim was that people should feel trusted.

In a kohanga everyone is valued, whether they are formally educated or not. A young graduate who now works at headquarters told me that respect was the main lesson she had learnt through being involved with her children's kohanga. By contrast, Tawhiwhirangi has recently had to deal with the coordinator of a kohanga who persisted in over-riding parents' views. 'I told her she'd have no difficulty finding a job in mainstream education, but that she had no place in Kohanga Reo.'

In 1988, some 4,000 adults were involved in running kohanga, 90 per cent of them as volunteers. For many, this has been a transforming experience. By 1990, there were over 5,000 Maori businesswomen in New Zealand, as against about 150 in 1984, and the vast majority had started out by helping to run a kohanga.

In 1990, the government placed kohanga on the same, fully funded, basis as other pre-schools. This has eased the financial burden on the mostly female whanau-Maori women are New Zealand's poorest group-but in some ways cramped their style. For instance, many kohanga previously housed in tribal meeting places (marae) have had to erect new buildings which conform with government regulations.

Kohanga Reo now has an asset base of over NZ$40 million. Its property is held in trust for future generations. Every asset belongs to the movement, so that if one kohanga closes, its equipment can be passed on to another.

These developments have also plunged Kohanga Reo into what Iritana Tawhiwhirangi calls 'social economics'. 'We've had this left/right argument in New Zealand, social factors against economic ones. But Maoridom has always seen them as related.' Unable to find an insurance package suitable to its properties, Kohanga Reo set up its own insurance group. It has since expanded into health insurance, after discovering how many kohanga children were waiting for surgery, particularly for ear problems. 'Many of our young people in prisons and institutions have hearing problems,' comments Tawhiwhirangi.

Every kohanga now contributes $25 per child to the Trust's health insurance fund, which covers doctor's visits, prescriptions, specialists, surgery and hospitals. In the fund's first year (1994-5), it dealt with 16,000 claims, and in its second, 40,000. As the contributions from the kohanga nowhere near meet the bill, the fund is hoping for government assistance. Meanwhile, business is getting in on the act. Toyota, Ford, Mobil, Panasonic and Telecom all now offer discounts to kohanga and make contributions to the Trust's education fund. These contributions have done 'a great deal to promote racial harmony', says Tawhiwhirangi.

Her latest departure is information technology. When we met, she was working on improving communication between the Trust's headquarters and kohanga around the country. Plans were afoot to install computers, with e-mail facilities, in every kohanga, and the possibilities of satellite TV were also being explored.

Looking back over the years at Kohanga Reo's achievement, Tawhiwhirangi draws a diagram. At the top and the bottom are thin lines, representing the two age groups with no problem about identity-the very old and the very young. In the middle is the majority of the Maori population, so often written off as a problem. Sharing their language and culture with the children brought alive dormant skills in the old, she says: 'many of them died on a high'. And in the process, they helped to rebuild the confidence, self-worth and initiative of the generations in between. Small wonder that one of Tawhiwhirangi's watchwords is 'the child shall lead the way'.
Mary Lean