Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.
Many moons ago, the shaky isles of New Zealand were discovered by sea-faring warriors from Hawaiki: the Māori people. They developed customs (tikanga) and language (te reo), and lived in tribes until the arrival of the first colonial settlers some five centuries later.
Their way of life soon became overwhelmed by imperial changes, and by the 1980s only a tiny number of fluent speakers in te reo Māori remained. It was commonplace for Māori children to be punished for speaking their mother tongue at school, and the fragmentation of traditional society through urbanisation saw further decline of their language and culture.
Seeing the marginalisation and suffering of her people, Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi spearheaded the Kohanga Reo movement, the “language nest,” to help young children and their family rediscover their lost identity. Kohanga reo centres fully immerse children in te reo Māori through community and play, saving a language that very nearly disappeared into the unknown. Now in her mid-eighties, Iritana is a Dame Companion of The New Zealand Order of Merit, a 2014 finalist for New Zealander of the year, and has been knighted by the Queen (an offer she very nearly refused.) When we speak, she is humble about Kohanga Reo, which over 30 years after its inception is still teaching thousands of children around the country the language of their roots.