On a Saturday night in September, dozens of teenagers took to the stage of the Auckland Town Hall. They were there to perform at the grand final of the Word the Front Line poetry slam, an inter-high school spoken word competition.
In our short documentary Reo / Language, we followed five of them - Takunda Muzondiwa and the champion group Ngā Hinepūkōrero. Here we speak to them, and two other poets who performed on the night, Stellar Pritchard and Maika Tasi, about the power of finding your voice, and share excerpts from their poems.
Ngā Hinepūkōrero are a group of friends from Ngā Puna o Waiōrea, the reo Māori immersion unit at Auckland’s Western Springs College. They graced the stage at this year’s poetry slam as guest performers after a whirlwind year sharing their reo through slam poetry around the world.
So tell us to be quiet and know that we won’t.
This is our language. We are reclaiming it. We will speak it.
Because our bodies weren’t built for silence. We will speak it.
Until every ear drop is bruised. We will speak it.
“There’s this big stigma that if you go into a kura kaupapa, or even a bilingual school learning te reo Māori, that you won’t come out as smart as a kid who goes through mainstream,” says Terina Wichman-Evans.
“I just want people to understand that it's not a risk, going through kura kaupapa. It’s not a risk, it’s a privilege.”
Last year Ngā Hinepūkōrero won the finals of the Word the Front Line slam against 44 other schools. That took them to Melbourne, where they won the Trans-Tasman Youth Poetry Slam.
This year they travelled to the prestigious Brave New Voices Youth Poetry Festival in the United States, the first time a team from this region has been invited. While teams in the United States were impressed by their use of their indigenous language, for many of the group it has been a struggle to get to this point.
Manaia Tuwhare-Hoani is the only one out her nine siblings that speaks te reo fluently. “We’re holding on by a thread just to learn a language that should have been simply and easily put into our lives,” she says. “It kind of makes me mad, because I feel that so many of us Māori tend to have identity crises because they don't know the reo.”
My grandmother couldn’t speak. She was beaten until her jaw was broken.
Used the pieces to raise our family.
I speak teachings of broken bones because no one else in my family could.
The last section of their poem is only in te reo Māori. “And we refuse to translate it,” says Matariki Bennett. “That’s kind of our act of rebellion against the Native Schools Act, that’s us reclaiming our reo. It’s like, now it’s our time to speak, and you can hear how beautiful our language is.”
Māku tēnei reo e kawe
Mā tōku arero ngā kupu ā ōku tūpuna e whakatinana
Kia maumahara ai tō rātou mataora
Kia kore rātou e koroheketia
Ko wai koe ki te whākako i te poutāwhā ō ō mātou nei tupuna?
Patu ā kiri, rere ā toto
Anei rā ō mokopuna e tahuna i te ahi
Hei te pō, hei te ao
Anei rā ngā whenua i mōrehurehu i ōku tupuna
Ki ngā kino ō te Pākehā
Tēnei tōku reo e haruru ana i te whenua
Arihia Hall has hope that Aotearoa will become a truly bilingual country. “I want the whole world to know that te reo Māori is this country’s language,” she says. “And I want people to be able to speak it as easily as they speak English in this country.”
Suppression of indigenous languages was common across colonised countries. Takunda Muzondiwa was born in Zimbabwe in Southern Africa, a country that was colonised by the British in the 1880s.
Her parents were banned from speaking their mother tongue, Shona, in the classroom. But they taught Takunda Shona as child, and she considers it her first language. She moved to Aotearoa with her family at the age of seven, and her poetry speaks of the difficulty of navigating two homes.
At the age of seven my family immigrates from Zimbabwe to Aotearoa.
I pass through customs, but my culture is made to stay behind.
In the classroom, I am afraid my tongue will beat back to its African rhythm, be concussed by fear, have amnesia turn all its memories to dust.
A prefect at Auckland’s Mt Albert Grammar School, Takunda has been making headlines after a speech she gave at the 2019 Race Unity Speech Awards went viral.
“For me, whenever I speak Shona in my poetry, it’s kind of like telling untold histories,” says Takunda. “People want to wash away our history so it’s kind of like my act of rebellion.”
Zvinochikisa kuva mhunu asinga ziva nyika yangairi yake pekutanga.
It’s an emptying feeling, to become foreign to a country that was yours to begin with.
I am beginning to forget the taste of my own language and home has become just a memory.
Every student who stepped onto the stage at Auckland Town Hall used the power of language to express a deep aspect of their identity. Stellar Pritchard is a 16-year-old at St Paul’s College in Auckland, a Catholic secondary school for boys. She’s their only female student, and the only openly trans person at the school.
In our society, when you present as male, you're expected to be an alpha within the pack.
We sign away your emotions. You sign a pact to never cry publicly, to speak mostly when spoken to, to be one of the boys, mask it with anything but gay.
“I’m surrounded by people that are male and very masculine, and I want to try and be a voice for them. And not only that, be a voice for those that are like me,” she says, sitting in her classroom after last period on a Wednesday afternoon.
To be a man you have to act like a man. Walk like a man. If you cry out, you're a poofter.
Why? Because they don't know what to do with their emotions, most times, but some things just can't disappear.
Pray the gay away, New Zealand. What hits back is that violence isn't always the answer.
When Stellar’s teacher, Rewa Worley (“he’s lit as”), brought up the idea of her writing poetry, she thought it was just “intense big words.”
“I thought it was for sophisticated, really hard ideas, like poems about war, things that don't apply to you.”
But she now sees it as a way of “speaking yourself into existence”.
“It’s finding your story and telling your story to the world. And making a space for yourself, cos there's not going to be a lot of spaces for most people.”
To survive, the boys I know learned what other people told them. The boys I know would kick a bin to prove they're manly, assert their masculinity, rather than shed a teardrop.
We build our men to break, tell them to express their emotions yet demonize a man's tears.
They're taught to be afraid of fragile.
Paint insults on bodies they don't understand.
Stellar began her transition last year. “At times it can be a very hard process, especially socially. It can be really lonely.”
“Most of the messages that I ever heard was that people like me can't get there, there's going to be so many adversities and hate towards me, something that's ingrained into you when you grow up.”
Truth is, I've been avoiding this poem because of how real it is.
I struggled being pushed out. Home hasn't always felt like home, but this body will always be my first. Love it, no matter what.
But writing and performing poetry allowed her to find herself, and find her strength.
Slam poetry gave her a sense of freedom. To walk onto a stage in front of hundreds of strangers, and talk about the most private part of herself, gave her the confidence she needed.
“It’s been extremely liberating, afterwards I feel really happy and like my story was shared, and I can try apply it to my life. Like if I get knocked, then in my head I’m like, ‘I’ve been there, I’ve done this and I was able to perform this on stage. So, this can't be that hard.’”
The affirmation from the audience, the finger snaps, the clapping, the cheering is deeply empowering. “To freely be loved and cherished was something that really helped me.”
No matter what anyone says I'll whisper, I love myself.
Till it's the loudest sound in the universe.
Till my name, Stella Angafili Makarita Pritchard, is no longer a question.
Sitting next to Stellar in the classroom is her teammate Maika Tasi, a Year 13 at St Paul’s.
I'm not the bad guy.
See, my bushy eyebrows, and my deep voice might make you think twice, but I'm not the bad guy.
Or has your mind been made before I've even said my name?
“People never really want to show that they’re afraid or assuming something about me. But deep down they are, it’s so obvious in their faces,” he says.
Growing up, the dominant message he heard in New Zealand was that people who look like him are rowdy, or dangerous to be around.
“We’re so much more than that. We just need everybody else to see it that way.”
From the cradle, to this stage, I feel like people have poisoned our image, that there's venom for the youth of kava-colored skin, and somehow no matter what I wear, I always fit the description of the thief, thug, idiot, imbecile, drunk, bum, Bible-bashing, brute strength, the kid at the back of the class, no future.
Like I was shipped over to be gentrified out.
I hear the whispers of South Auckland stereotypes, but I live in Grey Lynn, the land of flat whites, where bread can be found at $4.50. Where secondhand clothes become vintage.
So what is it about this face that tells you I didn't belong?
Maika grew up in central Auckland, right around the corner from school.
But on his first day everyone asked him where he was from, automatically assuming he wouldn’t live locally.
“Their first guess would never be that I was from around the corner.”
He finds it hard to vocalise the stereotypes that people might have about him. “I really don't know, I don't see it in myself. And I try not to see it in anybody else.”
This is to that lady at the Salvation Army store. Who said I was, "Up to no good." Who said I was, "Good for nothing."
God bless you.
This is to those Australian guys, making their way past me and my cousin, calling us violent monkeys. See, my cousin, he turned the other cheek, but I wasn't so forgiving, so I showed him what a monkey could do, and I went Harambe on his ass.
And to be honest, it felt good, for a bit. Then I felt the earth stop, and I felt this emptiness in my stomach.
Like I fell into his stereo traps.
Like he knew what he was doing.
Like we all know what we're doing.
“That’s a true story,” he laughs, “the Salvation Army one. It doesn’t happen often but when it does happen, I’m never surprised about it.”
He has a plan for situations like these. Those times in shops when he’s made to feel like he’s being watched, made to feel like he’s about to steal something.
“I like to explain things. So I just explain the whole scenario until they get it right.”
But sometimes it seems like it will take hours to explain. Sometimes it seems like they’re not trying to listen to him at all. “It’s very exhausting,” he says. “But I think it’s worth it if I can change somebody's mind.”
See, I'm not the bad guy. This chip on my shoulder comes from a lifetime of being brown, of being the brown boy with the big hands, who has a big heart, like every brown man. Who will stay, and take a proud stand for this here brown land.
So don't start walking in a rush. Don't look away in disgust. I'm not a villain. I'm just a boy from the village. Tired of being typecast.
The day that Maika performed at the Grand Slam was also his first time seeing live slam poetry. He was worried it was going to be so boring he would fall asleep in the back.
“I had my assumptions about poetry, that I wouldn’t understand it at all, that whatever they were saying it was just going to go over my head.”
But he got hooked into what people were saying. “I realise now they're making music without music. They’re making something that can resonate with people.”
See, my people are not the bad guys brought to these shores years ago. Those brave ghosts marching in line, one foot in front of the other.
Left, right, left, left. Don't forget your roots.
Right, left, left, right. Le manu Samoa!
Right, left. Mate Ma'a Tonga!
See, I am proud of both my cultures. Tonga and Samoa, the perfect blend, like manioke and kapa pulu, like noodles and pisupo.
Maika has seen some people he knows start to believe some of the stereotypes about themselves, about young brown men in Auckland. You know, that old saying - if you call someone a monster, eventually they’ll start to believe you.
“For Polynesian men their pride is everything, if you hurt their pride you've destroyed their life. If you label them this, it really hurts their pride, and then they do that exact thing.”
I'm the brown man torn by two countries. I'm the half-cast made of ocean and earth, stone and sea. This passion in my heart, fire and ice.
See, I'm not a dropout. I'm not a gangster.
But I'm the bad guy.
I'm an artist who shall paint his future one brush stroke at a time.
Maika’s never had a problem with public speaking. But when he got up onstage at the poetry slam, it felt different. It felt like it opened up a deeper meaning that only he knew.
In the weeks since the slam, he’s noticed that he’s speaking up more about things he might have kept quiet on before.
“I honestly think New Zealand is one of the best places on Earth, but it’s not safe from racism, from discrimination,” he says.
“I used to be more forgiving. I would just brush past all the hate and stuff. I didn’t really realise at the time, but I see a lot of that and I would walk past it and say nothing. But ever since the poetry slam I’ve really changed.”
“And I need everyone to change. It’s not about wanting them to change, I need them to change now.”
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