interview with Philip McKibbin
Hēmi Kelly (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Tahu-Ngāti Whāoa) is a teacher of te reo Māori, a writer, and a translator. He lives in Tāmaki-makau-rau.
What drives your passion for te reo Māori?
There’s a few things, I suppose. It’s really become a huge part of who I am. My whole life revolves around the language. My work, my social networks are all tied up in the language and the teaching of the language. It probably goes back to being a young person and having a strong desire to want to know the language, and so I think that kept me motivated for a long time, in learning the language. I always wanted to know more about who I was as a Māori person, and also be comfortable in expressing that. And I suppose now that I’ve learnt the language - I mean, I’m still learning, and I still learn every day, but I’m a lot more comfortable in that space and knowing who I am, knowing where I come from, where I’m going through the language - I’m thinking, ‘What is it that keeps me motivated now?’
You've also been exploring Spanish. What motivated that?
I’ve always had an interest in languages - other languages and culture - and I’ve always wanted to travel to South America. So I started learning Spanish a while ago. And then I’d go off and on, knowing that I’d get to South America one day, and so it was gonna be helpful to have Spanish. But I’m also with a Colombian, who is a native Spanish speaker, and I’m going to be travelling with him to meet his family in December for seven weeks, so that’s been another motivator to learn Spanish. I suppose the connection’s a little bit closer now, more intimate now, so you’d think that would drive me to do more, but it hasn’t. (laughs) I’ve kind of just been part-time for a long time, but I’ve got a good grounding in the language. I just need to get there and practise.
I hear you've been making some changes around kai. I'd love to hear about those.
Āe. I grew up on a farm, and our diet was meat and three veg every night - lunch and dinner, so it was meat twice a day. And that was up until two years ago, when I met Jonathan, my partner, who’s vegetarian. I was still eating meat, probably twice a day. But then when we moved in together, it just became a lot easier to not eat meat when cooking for both of us, or when planning what to eat, or going out for dinner. It was a lot easier for me. I think I was more open to the idea of not eating meat than him eating meat - that was never an option for him. I’d always been attracted to that idea of eating less meat, and knowing how my body reacted to that. I’d always felt good. So I decided to stop eating meat because of that, because I know that my body functions better when I don’t eat a lot of meat. I’m not necessarily thinking too much about the way we farm, or animal welfare, or the consequence that has on the planet, but more about my own hauora. That’s why I decided to stop eating meat.
I still do every now and then, it just depends on the situation and context. If I go home and my mum puts meat on the table, I’ll eat it. I would never request anything, or even say that I won’t eat something. I’m not comfortable doing that with my family, just because of the way we were brought up. But I still have the option when I sit down to either eat it or not eat it, and there are times when I still eat it - because I still love the taste, and I respect the person who’s cooked it. Yeah. I’m still having these internal battles about how to navigate my way through this journey which is new to me. But yeah, 99% of the time, I’m meat-free, and in my home I’m meat-free.
How do your decisions around kai relate to your Māori worldview?
One of the reasons it’s still okay for me to eat meat at my parents’ house, but I wouldn’t necessarily go and buy meat at the supermarket, is because I know where that piece of meat came from, and I know how it was farmed, and I know who killed it, and I know who prepared it. I’m not sure if that goes back to my Māori worldview - but something in my mind says that that’s okay. Going out and harvesting and hunting for yourself and for your family is quite different from mass production. Like I said, my concern is not with animal welfare, but I suppose it does go back to the way in which we produce meat. And I think, yeah, that aligns to a Māori worldview of taking what you need, providing for yourself and your whānau, being conscious of how much you’re taking and how much you’re leaving so that it’s sustainable and environmentally-friendly, whether it’s pikopiko or kererū, you know? You think about those things. Or pāua, or mussels. And so it’s that same kind of thinking. I still align to the way I eat meat at home, because it’s done following those tikanga, I suppose - rather than going and buying pork at the supermarket that’s come from wherever it’s come from.
What have been ngā piki me ngā heke so far - have any particular experiences stood out?
I think the piki is probably exploring new foods. In the last year, two years, I’ve eaten and explored more in food than I probably have in my entire life. I’ve eaten foods I never even knew existed. I eat tofu now, which I never ate. I know how to prepare and cook it in many different ways. All sorts of different beans and lentils, which I never really ever ate. So I think the piki is exploring new food, experimenting with cooking, sharing with other people who also eat the same way.
The heke is probably being at social gatherings where there’s not a lot of kai or options for meat-free. I also sympathise with people who are vegan, because sometimes there’s not a lot of options. It’s becoming better, but that can be challenging, when you go to a Māori hui and 80% of the kai on the table has got meat in it.
It can be difficult doing things differently. What keeps you going?
I don’t think it’s difficult. I think it’s quite easy now. It’s the same, right? When you want food at home, you’ve got to go to the supermarket and buy it. So I still have to do that. If I want to go out and eat, there are a lot of options. Every restaurant has a vegetarian option, just about, and there’s a lot of vegan restaurants and meat-free restaurants, and there’s more and more that are popping up. So I don’t find it difficult; I just think that you need to be prepared. I mean, a little bit more prepared than you would have been.
What keeps me going? I don’t know, something in my mind’s changed where I don’t desire meat or want meat. I don’t crave meat anymore. I can’t see myself going back to meat full-time, you know? I have a little bit every now and then, but I think my mind and my body know that it’s not what I need or want.
One thing I really admire about you, Hēmi, is that you accept challenges, and you use those challenges to become better at the things you do. I noticed this when you were my kaiako here at Te Ara Poutama, and I've observed the way your pursuit of excellence in te reo rangatira has led you to become an expert - even though you're still young compared to most of the tohunga reo. How have you grown as a result of the challenges you've accepted around kai?
This is a good question. It's not something I've thought about before. I think the biggest lesson I've learnt on this journey of moving away from meat and slowly moving away from animal products is that it's okay to have these relapse moments every now and again, if I can call it that. There will be that one hui or gathering I attend, where there's very little options and I think, ‘Oh well, a little bit of meat won’t hurt.’ I've been really good. Instead of beating myself up about it I try to say to myself, ‘Okay, no more of that, back on track now. I really didn't need that and I would have survived without it. Next time I’ll be stronger.’ You know, it is hard sometimes. I admire people who are fully committed to their eating lifestyle because we are bombarded with animal products everywhere!
What do you think te ao Māori needs to do here and now to improve our relationship to kai?
There’s been a lot of things that have happened - that I’ve noticed happening - in recent years. The kai has changed, when you go to hui, from what it used to be. There are a lot more healthy options now. People are a lot more conscious. People cooking, people who are in that position of facilitating hui or providing kai, are a lot more conscious, now, about providing healthy options for our people, which is already a big change that’s happening.
It would be really nice to see our people go back to a sustainable way of producing kai, the way we used to. As individuals - that’s something I want to do myself - but also as communities - so marae having gardens. Yeah. That would be nice to see, and I know some people are already doing that, and some marae are already doing that, but across the board, it’s not common practice. It would be going back to the traditions we knew in the past that worked for our grandparents’ generation and the generations before them.
Interviewed: November, 2019
Published: February, 2020
Published: February, 2020