Cook Islands Language Week – Reconnecting with my culture

Kia orana! Cook Islands Language Week runs from 31 July until 6 August. In New Zealand, just over 20% of our Pacific population are Cook Islanders (61,839 people), our second largest Pacific ethnic group. UC currently has around 50 students with Cook Islands heritage.

We asked one of our Cook Islands students, MahMah Timoteo, to talk about why the week is important to her.

– by MahMah Timoteo

Cook Islands Language Week means different things for different people. For me, the week symbolises a means to rediscover and reconnect. The first time I realised I was a Cook Islander was the day my mother gave me a stuffed bear with a little palm tree on the front of it. I later learned that my father was born in the Cook Islands. I however, was born in Australia along with my sister and brother. Growing up, I was completely disconnected from any form of Cook Island culture or heritage. When I moved to New Zealand, I felt what little Pacific Island identity I had was slowly weltering away.

I spent 13 years living on the West Coast of the South Island. My siblings and I were some of the only Pacific Island students at the school. That was up until Year 12, when I was blessed to make the acquaintance of my still good friend Catherine, a girl from the Solomon Islands. I first found out about her arrival when one of my friends burst through the common room doors and shouted: “There is someone here that’s blacker than you!” To this day, that comment still makes my stomach turn. Looking back now, I realise just how narrow minded some people can be when it comes to embracing people from various ethnic backgrounds.

I came to the University of Canterbury in 2014. Here, the Pacific Development Team welcomed me with open arms and a great deal of food. This was the first time in my life that I found a community of people that were willing to accept me for who I am and where I come from.

MahMah Timoteo (in the red t-shirt)
MahMah Timoteo (in the red t-shirt)

Today, I am proud to say that I identify as a Cook Islander and yes, sometimes it is a bit disheartening not being able to speak the language or understand certain cultural practices. Nevertheless, this is what Cook Islands Language Week is all about. It is about celebrating your Cook Islands identity, whilst also embracing the language and culture. But this week is not only for Pacific Islanders. This week is about exploring diversity from the hearts and minds of different people all over New Zealand. This week is an opportunity to educate people and learn from one another, to bring our future generation of children up to be accepting and tolerant of individuals from all walks of life and to avoid situations like my friend Catherine had to endure.

New Zealand is a beautiful and diverse place, take every opportunity you can to embrace this to its fullest. Be proud of who you are and where you come from and if you aren’t willing to embrace the language, at least embrace the food. It is no secret that food makes the world a better place, especially if you’re a Pacific Islander.