Piripi Whaanga

Piripi Whaanga

Today I’m showcasing Piripi Whaanga, who I met in a memoir class. Piripi was a journalist, with a rich and varied career. Here he reflects on his father, who he describes as an “undercover agent’ in our pale Lower Hutt suburb”, He begins with a  childhood memory of going to the Maori language classes his father taught.

– Jo Morris

Ko taau kete, ko taaku – our baskets of belonging

Na Piripi Whaanga

The grass-fresh taste of farm cream in an Agee jar and the phrase, “My hairy toe” are two sharp

memories of my childhood. And the connection is that my Dad taught Maori language, to adults at

night classes.

I remember Dad and I sharing the drive to Taumutu, just outside of Christchurch – just me without

my three brothers. I guess Dad could have taken only us older ones, but I think Dad wanted to make

each of us feel special. I was about seven or eight at this time.  There was the smell of the car-leather

seats and a lingering strong smokey smell and no sounds,  as we settled into the silence. If we talked,

it was Dad’s deep voice that wrapped me in.

After a long drive, we arrived at an old school room scattered with desks and bare light bulbs.

Moths flapped around the bulbs, coming through the open windows. No-one noticed I was terrified

of all flying insects – especially at night.

If I had forgotten to go to the toilet at home, the school had one but really scarey.  It smelled and

the hole under the lid was deep and dark.  And of course spider webs were everywhere.

I don’t remember how long the classes were but I do recall I couldn’t understand a word, nor read

the textbooks that had stick figures in them.

But there was lots of laughter and other children I could play with outside and that’s where the

cream memory appears. This farming community gave Dad an Agee jar full of the stuff as a koha

each week and I found it went great on the Weetbix when we got home around midnight. There we

were, just me and Dad.

As for the memory of “My hairy toe”  – it was a mispronounced phrase that contributed to the

general laughter. Dad told me later, it should have sounded like “Mear- high-ery tar-oo-a,” which

means ‘let’s go.’

This was part of the fun and play of Dad’s night-classes, because we boys got to hear the Maori

language spoken as Dad corrected the lessons at the kitchen table.   But my grounding in the

language and culture grew from the Maori ‘culture’ clubs he established so that his adult students

could use the language in action songs.  Of course his family was expected to be backup, which

meant Dad bought a guitar and my older brother learned to play. Later I graduated from the ranks

of warriors, to take over guitar-playing.

As a teen, I asked Dad why he never taught us children  the Maori language.  Dad said

the adult students he taught had chosen to learn but if he had taught us from babies, we would have

had no choice. It didn’t make much sense to me then but as I grew up, I learned it was a generational

thing and that Maori were encouraged to abandon their culture and become like the Pakeha.

Dad was not a success at being pakeha. He had learned all the trappings of things, like ballroom

dancing, social  etiquette and English language usage from his Dad – whom I never met.  Grandad

was said to be a real gentleman.  I’ve got photos of him on the Nuhaka farm, milking the cows

dressed in matching waistcoast and suit pants.

Dad never lost those Nuhaka roots – his belonging in the land. He knew his favourite swimming

spots and the sheep trails on the farm hills where he rode his draft horse. We boys just loved hearing

about the big strides his horse made, heading straight up the hills, rather than having to zig zag like

the smaller horses. Dad would also talk about sitting on the back-door steps of the family home and

looking down the valley, to a tall hill called Moumoukai.

This sense of belonging seemed to make him comfortable wherever he found himself. That place

was Taita, a train-station in the Lower Hutt valley near Wellington, where we boys grew up. As

children, Dad’s stories came from a world we knew nothing about. Maori was not a word Dad

used often. I heard ‘Irish,’ as a more real word. I knew that Nana, living just around the corner,

was Irish, as were the Presentation Sisters at Saint Michael’s school and the parish priest. I believe

the story that they had come from Ireland as teenagers to save our Kiwi children’s souls.  Part of the

salvation was also teaching us Irish dancing and poetry.

So Dad’s childhood Maori world  was somewhere else when I was growing up. But not quite.

You see he was a sort-of ‘undercover agent’ in our pale Lower Hutt suburb. By day he travelled to

the capital, Wellington, as did all the other dads. My Dad worked for the Department of

Maori Affairs as an interpreter in the Maori Land Court. And at night there were those Maori

language  night classes.

After I left school,  I read that Dad was part of a 1950’s Maori generation who moved from

the country into the cities to find work. That’s because through the process of colonisation, they had

‘lost’  their own tribal land.  The Pakeha, they ‘found’ in the cities had little knowledge or time for

Maori culture, so most of Dad’s generation chose not to pass on this culture to their children. They

saw it as a block to ‘getting on.’ They wanted a better future for the next generation, which meant

adopting Pakeha ways and dropping Maori customs. That’s why Dad never spoke Maori language to

us in the home as we were growing up.

Dad learned about belonging ‘in his bones,’ through growing up with his tribal land of Kahungunu ki

te Mahia. This belonging  was not just something he felt in his body, but also a knowing where his

tupuna had lit their fires, dived for kaimoana and loved fiercely. As well, it was learning as a

youngster about the do’s and don’ts that kept things in their place and the community ticking over.

The hill of Moumoukai was one such ‘belonging.’ Here Dad’s ancestor, Rakaipaaka, kept a

stronghold to shelter the tribe in times of war. It is said that sometimes looking up at the hill, you

can see the glistening of a spring that watered the gardens there. (I have seen this glistening) .This

food made it possible for the iwi of Rakaipaaka to hold out indefinitely against besiegers and even to

throw food down at the attackers in contempt.  This is the meaning of moumoukai, ‘a waste of


And so parts of the landscape of Aotearoa, of New Zealand, are intimate locator beacons for those

who know the tribal stories and choose to carry the mana of that larger picture.

I now understand a bit of the belonging that Dad had, because I know where I belong

in the story.  Dad and Mum established  firm roots for the family.  Mum’s ‘Irish’ world was

transplanted to New Zealand through the Catholic religion and surrounded us like a korowai, a

big fluffy cloak.  Dad’s Maori world was more subtle but was more organically woven into my

childhood, because even though New Zealand History and Maori culture were not taught in my

time at school, I breathed it in through my whanau as my Maori learning. I also felt and

absorbed the passion of the Maori and Pakeha grown-ups for our Maori culture club. I thought

everyone had this fun in their life and so I learned to be culturally inclusive, as my Mum and Dad


On leaving school, I trained as a journalist, where I learned that everyone has a ‘story’ in

them. The skill is to help them ‘tell it.’  In 1981, after ten years  working for newspapers and radio

stations, I went to work for the Department of Maori Affairs as the editor of Tu Tangata magazine.

Dad was still working for the Department then. My cultural ‘baptism’ in Maori politics came as part

of the 1980’s Maori language struggle, where I helped establish Iwi radio stations and Maori TV and

the first Maori news agency, Mana Maori Media.

Now that’s a different belonging to Dad’s rural roots, as part of my generation’s growing up has been

in an urban ‘tribal land’ that both locates and dis-locates me. By this, I mean I’ve been able to put

down roots in most of the places I’ve lived, but am still drawn to  the Maori world and Te Mahia as

an ancestral homeland.  I don’t choose to live there as there’s no work, just like Dad’s generation


Instead I visit and write moteatea about ‘home’  with my cousins, as tribal songs to mark our adult

learning. One such visit will be this Christmas, when I am runnijng a whanau wananga, a learning

school for our wider family of cousins, nephews and nieces.  I hope that my generation has enough

tribal knowledge to share, but I’ll be bringing my basketfull

That’s another Maori language saying.

‘Ko taau kete,

Ko taaku kete.

Ka  ora ai te manuhiri.

With your food basket and mine, the visitors will be fed.’