Hearing students singing waiata as she was passing EIT’s Flaxmere Learning Centre, Christina Wainohu realised how much of her taha Māori she had lost while living overseas.
Of Ngāti Kahungunu descent through her marae – Rongomaraeroa in Pōrangahau and Waipapa ā-iwi in Mohaka – Christina worked for 13 years in shearing sheds throughout Australia, where daughters Romona and Hineraumati, now 13 and eight, were born.
When the family of three moved to Hawke’s Bay in 2009, Christina felt her reo, largely learnt in performing with the Kahurangi Māori Dance Company as it toured New Zealand, Mexico, the USA and Canada, had suffered.
She wanted her children, familiar with the Australian way of life, to grow up knowing their Māori heritage. So Hineraumati started her formal education at kōhanga, progressed to rumaki at primary school and is now enrolled at a kura kaupapa.
It’s been a more challenging journey for Romona, who, her mother says, had “a full-on Australian accent and values” when she came to New Zealand as a six-year-old. Now the teenager loves kapa haka and her developing language skills mean all three family members can converse in te reo at home.
Christina also sought out learning opportunities for herself. Attracted by the singing she heard at the Flaxmere learning centre, she signed up for a Certificate in Māori Studies.
“I thought I’m not doing anything, let’s do it.” Having added that to the Diploma in Māori Performing Arts she completed with the Kahurangi Māori Dance Company, she then progressed to degree studies at EIT’s Te Ūranga Waka.
Ticking off more courses than were needed over two full-time years, she then had 18 months off, working in a Māori-based after-school programme in Flaxmere before returning to EIT to complete her degree.
“I knew if I stayed away another year my learning would slip away yet again.”
For one of her courses, she crafted an imposing taonga pounamu – a task that took six months using traditional methods.
In March, she graduates with her Bachelor of Arts (Māori).
Christina looks back fondly on her time at EIT. “You meet these people and they become part of you,” she says of her lecturers, classmates and their whānau.
She’s also happy about being a role model for her children.
“While I loved my upbringing and working in shearing sheds, I feel I’ve shown them the benefits of a formal education and the potential that has for pursuing job opportunities.
“When I returned to New Zealand, I knew more about Australia than this country but I’ve rectified that. It’s been an emotionally and spiritually fulfilling journey – a very holistic experience.”
Now job-hunting, Christina is hoping for a position which will allow her to apply what she has learnt studying for her degree.
“I’m pleased I did hear that singing that day,” she adds with a smile.