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Friends use humour, fun in bid to save Cook Islands language

Saturday 17 February 2024 | Written by Candice Luke | Published in Art, Features


Friends use humour, fun in bid  to save Cook Islands language
Jay Taivairanga, Tom Harrison Jr, and Charlie Charlie are the team behind Kūki Learning. KŪKI LEARNING/ 24021230

Three friends in Christchurch are using their online platform Kūki Learning to teach Cook Islands Māori language and culture in a fun and engaging way, despite facing challenges with limited time and resources.

Te Reo Māori Kūki ‘Āirani is at risk of disappearing according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Three friends in Christchurch are doing their part to save the reo.

Kūki Learning is a practical and fun educational platform online, that teaches te reo Māori and culture with a side of laughter. 

New Zealand Defence Force soldier Tom Harrison Jr, gantry crane operator Charlie Charlie, and youth worker Jay Taivairanga are passionate protectors of the language. 

“I bring the jokes, the humour, the laughs when teaching our language to the platform and let’s be real, Tom brings the attractiveness,” jokes Charlie about his long-time friend.

Frontmen Harrison and Charlie feature in short videos promoting the use of Cook Islands language in everyday life.

On their platform you can learn how to husk an uto, how to flirt in reo Māori, and cheeky dialect comparisons between Aitutaki and Rarotonga reo. 

The pair attended Araura College and Tereora College together. Taivairanga met them while working in Rarotonga. 

Charlie gives viewers insight to his life as a new parent, bringing up his three-month-old baby girl Oaklee alongside his wife Madison.

“Now that we have Oaklee I one hundred per cent want to incorporate English and Cook Islands Māori into her life so I’ll be learning it at the same time as her,” says Madison.

Harrison was in Aitutaki over the holiday season, giving viewers an insight to life in Araura.

Taivairanga supports in the background, planning and generating ideas for their viewers, with 32,000 followers on Facebook and 11,000 on Instagram.  

Like many initiatives, Kūki Learning was born during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Charlie had been put off from work. So, he came over to my place to catch up since he had plenty of free time. With everyone stuck at home during Covid, a lot of Charlie’s friends and family wanted to learn our reo.”

Interest was already there before the pandemic, but during lockdown Charlie had more time on his hands.

“He started helping them out here and there with translations and sharing phrases,” says Taivairanga. 

Harrison joined shortly after, adding to the creative pot of Kūki Learning, managing Spotify podcasts, website and email hosting. 

This year Kūki Learning will focus their efforts on a younger audience.

“We’re going to release a lot more content for the kids. We need to accommodate our young people because they’re the ones that need to learn the language and carry it,” says Charlie. 

During his trip to Aitutaki and Rarotonga over the holiday season, Harrison hid Kūki Learning playing cards around the island for lucky locals to find.
He was blown away by the response.

“This was a spontaneous action that I did on the last few days in Rarotonga. It was intended to be a treasure hunt. Both the Kūki Learning inbox and my personal account were bombarded with messages requesting more of these.”

Charlie says: “Tom funded and made the cards himself. They’re like normal playing cards but on the cards are reo Māori phrases so they stick in your head.” Profits will be reinvested into the initiative. 

Though passionate about their cause the team is challenged by a lack of time and resources.  

Harrison says: “At face value, Kūki Learning looks fun, interactive and sometimes engaging, however as the cliche saying goes ‘Don't judge a book by its cover. The three members of the Kūki Learning team have had many ups and downs. If I can narrow it down to one factor, it would be time. We all work full time careers and Kūki Learning is a side and unpaid hobby.”  

They’re starting from humble beginnings: “We’re limited. We went and got a Warehouse mic that’s why you can hear (static noises),” jokes Charlie.

“We get a lot of DMs (direct messages) from organisations asking ‘hey can you guys do this’ (promote Cook Islands language). We’re like ‘how about you guys give us the gears and then we can do the work?’”

In 2024 the team from Kūki Learning hope to get support from the Cook Islands Ministry of Education to get their playing cards out in the community, and financial support so that more budding reo Māori speakers can benefit from Kūki Learning.