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My te reo Māori journey: Derek Handley

This Te Wiki o Te Reo we’re sharing the stories of New Zealanders who have challenged themselves to learn te reo Māori. Today: entrepreneur Derek Handley lays down a wero for others.

If you really want something, making a public commitment to that goal can be one of the most effective ways to get there. It creates accountability and motivation to remove roadblocks. I’ve used this tool many times in the past and my current journey with the native language of New Zealand, te reo Māori, is its most recent deployment.

Two years ago I gave a talk to iwi leaders at an annual dinner hosted by Te Waka Ture, the Māori legal group within law firm Chapman Tripp.

Before me was the actress Jennifer Ward Lealand. The first word that came out of her mouth was in te reo Māori. Then the next. Then a sentence. An idea. A speech. Entirely in te reo for 15 minutes.

It was admirable and inspiring… and I couldn’t understand a word of it.

I was so moved that when it came to my turn to address the audience, before I knew it, I had laid down a wero – a challenge – to myself. I committed to all present that next time we met I too would address them all solely in te reo Māori.

I grew up in Hong Kong, to a Scottish father and a mother of Malay, Chinese and Indian heritage before moving to Auckland as a teenager. I was immersed in a totally new culture and country but rarely paid thought to te reo. In recent years I have increasingly been drawn to te ao Māori, the Māori world. If our generation wishes to help lead and shape New Zealand with an authenticity unique to our country and our history, an understanding of the culture and potency of te ao Māori is non-negotiable. At least, for me it is.

As a society, I think we have also been evolving our ways towards an understanding of the interdependency of our people and planet with a pursuit for profit and genuine sustainability. Indigenous cultures around the world have always understood this, and are wellsprings of supporting wisdom and inspiration on this journey.

Industrialisation destroyed and overran those wellsprings in a relentless pursuit of what became the 20th century models of growth – mechanisation and separation. We are now learning that despite inarguable progress, we have gone too far in overlooking the primacy of what underpins a sustainable world.

Similarly, perhaps many of us in New Zealand have gone too long not making enough effort to understand te ao Māori.

Derek Handley delivers his first whaikōrero at Waipapa marae.

A language is similar to any other part of our natural world in that if it isn’t protected and nourished, it risks dying out.

Learning a new language is fraught with vulnerability and embarrassment. It’s uncomfortable at times but fascinating.

But there is nothing but support and encouragement for anyone wanting to embark on this journey. Taha Māori is, after all, the thing that makes New Zealand unique.

This year, my charitable trust the Aera Foundation hosted Nobel Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus in Auckland and partnered with Chapman Trip’s Te Waka Ture team, who brought together many of the same leaders who were there the day I vowed to come back and address them in te reo. In the months between those events, amongst a myriad of other commitments, admittedly it had been challenging. It still is. Doing hard things means turning inertia into momentum and then sustaining it.

One afternoon in April, that delivery date had arrived. We stepped onto the University of Auckland’s Waipapa marae for the welcome pōwhiri for Professor Yunus.

I got up to speak and addressed the audience in te reo Māori.

Curious how it went? Here is a short clip of highlights of Professor Yunus’ visit to Auckland, including excerpts of my debut.

Te Wero Hou (The New Challenge)

Today is the beginning of Māori Language Week for the year. I’ve set a new goal to learn 1000 new words in the coming 52 weeks. If you want to join me on this journey get in touch on my Facebook page here and use the tag #kupuhou1000 or join this ‘class’ on Quizlet where I’ll release a new pack of words every week.

Ka pai e hoa mā!


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