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Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori: The Fijian teenager who is fluent in Māori

‘Alakihihifo Vailala

Fijian teenager Usaia Wacavai Matanibukaca Rhodes describes his Kura Kaupapa Māori journey as one of “greatness”.

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

Rhodes is a proud Fijian fluent in Te Reo, as he has attended Māori immersion school since the age of two.

Now 14, Rhodes speaks three languages fluently - English, Fijian (Naitasiri dialect) and Te Reo Māori.

Rhodes comes from the villages of Lutu, Wainibuka, Matailobau, Naitasiri and Kubuna in Fiji.

His mother, Evelyn says language has always been important to her and she wanted to ensure it was passed down to her children.

Evelyn’s dedication to language comes from her Pakeha father, who moved to Fiji at the age of six.

He learnt to speak Hindi, Punjabi and many Fijian dialects, including Naitasiri, which Evelyn speaks to her children.

Erina Henare-Aperahama taught Usaia between the ages of five to 11.

He enrolled to attend Te Uru Karaka, a full immersion te reo Māori programme at Newton Central School in Auckland Central.

Henare-Aperahama says Usaia has always carried himself strongly, being non-Māori in a Māori setting.

“It’s not easy to be in a setting where everyone is strongly one culture and you’re not,” Henare-Aperahama says.

“But just the way he’s always carried himself, when he’s been challenged, but he stands firm and says ‘no I’m supposed to be here’.

”The programme only takes up to 51 students with entry criteria including competency in te reo Māori and a strong support network of te reo Māori speakers outside of the speakers outside of the classroom.

At Te Uru Karaka, Usaia played an essential role within the school.

He led the kapa haka group which performed at events including the Grey Lynn Park Festival and Auckland Primary Principal’s Association’s music festival.

Usaia says “the wairua you feel… letting all the emotions out” is what he enjoys about kapa haka.“

I remember me having my dreads and always having to tie it up [for kapa haka]” Usaia says.

Usaia’s te ao Māori passion expands beyond the classroom and has inspired other whanau to enrol in kura kaupapa Māori.

His mother says that at the age of eight, Usaia was translating Māori television news programme Te Karere for his 80 year old Fijian grandmother.

There have been challenges - Usaia has found himself ineligible for secondary school Māori units as he is not Māori.

However, he sees it as one of many life challenges he’ll have to overcome being non-Māori in Māori spaces, and says it will not stop him from practising the second culture that has become part of who he is.

Hero Image: Usaia Wacavai Matanibukaca Rhodes is a proud Fijian who is fluent in te reo Māori.

Image 2: Usaia  with Erina Henare-Aperahama, who  taught him between the ages of five to 11.

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