As told to Kirsteen McLay-Knopp by Rosina’s daughter, Amy Wiparata-Valentine
Until World War II (1939–1945) most New Zealand Māori people spoke Te Reo Māori (the Māori language) as their first language. By the 1980s however, fewer than 20% of Māori spoke the language well enough to be classed as native speakers. The causes of the decline included the switch from using Māori to compulsary use of English in schools, as well as increasing urbanisation, which disconnected younger generations from their extended families, in particular their grandparents, who traditionally played a large part in family life. As a result, many Māori children failed to learn their ancestral language, and generations of non-Māori-speaking Māori people emerged.
Recognizing the danger of losing their language, Māori leaders initiated Te Reo Māori recovery-programs. Kōhanga Reo literally means “language nest”. These were started up in 1982 for Kindergarten aged children (0-5 years) to be immersed in Te Reo Māori from infancy to the start of school. Then, in the later 1980s, Te Kura Kaupapa Māori, a primary school programme in Te Reo Māori, was set up.
Despite efforts at language revival through the 1970s and the beginning of the Kōhanga Reo movement in 1982, it wasn’t until 1987 that Te Reo Māori became an official language of Aotearoa/ New Zealand (alongside English and NZ sign language).
“Back in 1987 there was only one Kōhanga Reo in Dunedin,” Amy remembers. “It was Arai Te Uru, near Otago University. This was great for those who lived and worked in that area, but not so convenient for people in Brockville, particularly those on lower incomes who often had transport issues. My Mum decided she wanted to be part of initiating a Kōhanga Reo in Brockville.”
Amy says Rosina began by speaking to the priest of the Catholic church on the corner of Wray Street and Brockville Road. “The brotherhood of monks agreed, so long as the building was still free on Sundays for their services. Together with my mother, there were seven founding members. The others were: Hiria Singe (Nani Hiria), Nani Milly, Nani Jackson, Hawea Grant, Pop Hune and Denise Rakete. My mother and Denise were the two “waka rowers” (hands on teachers). Wirimu Quidley (who is now a kaumatua [elder], but was not back then) thought up the idea of calling this Kōhanga Reo “Whakaari” (which means “the hill”, thus representing the hill suburb of Brockville) [the English transliteration of the Māori word “Whakaari” is “Wakari”].”
“My brother Thomas was the first child enrolled on 22nd July 1987,” Amy says. “The Ministry of Māori Affairs later granted Whakaari Kōhanga Reo $5000 annually for paying staff and resources and eventually Mum and her colleagues were able to rent their own facilities.”
Nearly three decades later, Whakaari Kōhanga Reo continues to have a strong and constant roll. Rosina wasn’t just a founding member of Whakaari Kōhanga Reo: her relationship with the Kōhanga continued to be strong for years afterwards (her grandchildren attended with my children when I met Amy and Rosina in 2008). Amy tells us her mother was “passionate about helping the community, particularly women and children.” Raising five children as a solo mother, Rosina, aside from being involved with Kōhanga, still managed to work in women’s groups (in particular supporting women and children who were vicitims of domestic violence) , at the Dunedin Community Law Centre and on Treaty of Waitangi workshops (educating all New Zealanders about things Māori).
“Mum was also passionate about being Māori,” Amy says. “She wore her moko [Māori tatoo, on women usually to the lips and chin] with pride. Mum didn’t care who you were or what your background was– nobody phased her. To her the most important thing was where a person was going and who they could be. She was proud of her roots and proud to share her knowledge with others. If she could give a sense of her culture, language and heritage, as well as feeling it was being respected, valued and passed on to the younger generation, she was happy.”
Sadly, on 29th September 2013, Rosina suddenly passed away from complications as a result of having suffered from a stroke and aneurysm earlier that year.
“It still hurts that she passed away before her time,” Amy says. “I still miss her: she was my best friend as well as my Mum. She was one of the most influential people I’ve met and I’m so proud to be able to say that about my own mother.”
Rosina is survived by her five children: John, Amy, Sheila, Thomas and Rawiri and her mokopuna (grandchildren).
Further Reading about Rosina Wiparata’s Community Work (and that of others in Aotearoa/ New Zealand) can be found in the following book: