Mama Knows Best at MIT

With the Cook Islands language under threat of extinction, legendary language advocate Mama Tupou Manapori has come out of retirement to teach students at the Manukau Institute of Technology




“Go slow, take your time, look forward to the future. You will get there.”


It’s a Kuki ‘Āirani proverb that Mama Tupou Manapori, long time teacher and advocate for the language, lives by.


“That, to me, is beautiful. I’m probably slow in accepting anything unless I know where it’s going to lead, because that’s how I was taught,” she says.


It’s something Mama Tupou tells her language students at the Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT) where she teaches the New Zealand Certificate in Pacific Language (Cook Island Māori).


“We are blessed to have Mama Tupou’s wisdom and experience at MIT. She has been a courageous champion to preserve the Kuki ‘Āirani language and culture in Auckland,” says Deputy CE Pasifika, Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga.


“We were honoured that Mama Tupou answered our call to come out of retirement and continue her life’s work with us,” he adds, saying Mama’s contribution to culture and the community spans decades. It includes serving as a Manukau City Councillor, helping to establish Polyfest and teaching at Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate for nearly 40 years.


“I retired in 2016 just before my husband Te Ariki passed away. I thought, ‘my place is with him to make sure he is ok at the hospital. So I decided, it is very hard to ask your boss to go to the hospital. Once is ok. But when my husband rings and he needs me there to talk to the doctors, because he can’t explain. I felt, ‘my place is there.’ Family comes first for me,” she says.


When the call came from MIT, Mama Tupou hesitated, feeling she had moved on to a new phase. But she changed her mind after church elders spoke of the great need for teachers of Kuki ‘Āirani Māori to foster the next generation of speakers.


Cook Islands Māori is the second largest Pacific ethnic group in this country. In 2013, there were 62,000 living here, but only 8,121 spoke the language.


Those numbers leave Mama Tupou shaking her head.



“In my mind, what has happened is our people came here in the 50s and 60s to look for employment and a better life. Therefore, they fitted themselves into the New Zealand way of life. When they do that, they forget they are speaking another language instead of their own.”


This trend has accelerated, she believes, because the increased cost of living has seen both parents in a household needing to work to put food on the table and pay rent, leaving less time to teach in the home.


“I made it quite clear for my children from day one, ‘this is who you are and this is what’s going to happen.’ Maybe I was too hard. But I’m proud of them. They need to show that respect for where they come from. My mother doesn’t speak English. This language is the way we communicate.”


Mama Tupou practices what she preaches, putting particular emphasis on everyone sitting down at the kitchen table for meals. Her open door policy for young people in the neighbourhood has seen numbers under her roof swell to 20 people at a time.


We caught up with Mama after her first class at MIT’s Pasifika Community Centre. By the end of the course, she aims to have students able to introduce themselves, hold basic conversations, while also learning something of the protocols and culture of the Islands.


Kuki ‘Āirani Māori is the latest in a suite of Pacific language courses that has been rolled out at MIT in the last 12 months. Samoan and Tongan are already being taught, with a view to engaging more learners from these communities as well as connect with the growing interest in cultural competency training in the world’s largest Polynesian city.


“Manukau Institute of Technology is also the largest educator of Pasifika peoples at tertiary level in the country. Our Pasifika team is responsible for supporting the aspirations and hopes of our community through helping students get valuable work skills and gain meaningful employment,” says Peseta Sam. “Placing language and culture at the center of education is a major step towards achieving the best results.”


Mama adds that she’s “grateful for the vision they have at MIT.”


“There are a large number of Pasifika students here. Opening their doors to the Pasifika languages is huge. Not many institutions would be as kind. I’m also grateful it’s happening in Ōtara,” she says.


At her first class at MIT, Mama Tupou met a woman who first studied with her 27 years ago at school.


It’s the deep connection in the community with a strong word of mouth that Mama Tupou is back and MIT is the place to continue your Kuki Airani language journey with her.


Mama says to reconnect with your roots at MIT.


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