Mother's murder and brain tumour can't stop this wāhine

Kyla Campbell-Kamariera is in her first year of a masters in Māori and indigenous studies at Waikato University.  

"I'm privileged to be able to walk in both worlds... walk in the world of academia in Hamilton but I'm always brought back to my Māori world and I'm always taught that I need to be a good Māori person first," says Campbell-Kamariera.

 The seaside settlement of Mitimiti is Kyla's turangawaewae, moving to the Hokianga from Tāmaki Makaurau as a child.

"Mum wanted us to be closer to our great-grandparents. A lot of the people I know don't have that sort of connection with older generations, and I was living with my grandparents. 

My feet may leave but my heart is always here."

Mitimiti is also the final resting place of Kyla's mother, Natanya Campbell. The 37-year-old mother of four, and Kyla's and her grandmother Wendy Campbell-Rodgers, were killed in a random act of violence three years ago.

Wendy - a property manager - had taken Natanya along to a routine inspection of a rental just outside of Whangarei. But the tenant opened fire on the pair with a semi-automatic weapon.

 After a standoff with the armed offenders squad, the gunman burned the property to the ground.

Police at the scene of the crime.
Police at the scene of the crime. Photo credit: The Hui

The 22-year-old spoke to The Hui for the first time about the impact of that horrific tragedy on her and her whanau.

"I never imagined my life without my mum. Trauma is so isolating, it even isolates you away from the people you experience it with. When that's your Mum, you experience something that you can't even fathom, you can't even describe or explain to people.

"It hits hard to know that I have to travel six hours from Hamilton to see my Mum, to not even be able to see her or touch her, just look at a name on a cross. It shouldn't be that way... and so I'll always have a connection to this place... by having my whakapapa... but forever more I'll have this connection because this is where Mum lays."

Kyla's mother and grandmother.
Kyla's mother and grandmother. Photo credit: The Hui

Kyla, the eldest of Natanya Campbell's four girls, was 19 at the time of the shooting. Her youngest sister was just three years old.  

"I had moved out of home. Mum had taught me how to cook, she taught me how to clean, she taught me how to take care of people, to be independent, to be money-smart. But my sisters weren't at that stage yet and so they weren't as lucky, and so over the last three years I have been the one to share that with them because it's directly from Mum."

Losing both her mother and grandmother in such a tragic way could have spelt the end of Kyla's studies, but instead she's used her grief to drive her success.

"I took about eight weeks off University. I then came back in the last two or three weeks and just smashed all of my mahi. It was really a testament to Mum and the strength and the independence she gave us."

Campbell-Kamariera has needed all of that strength. Just months after losing her Mum, Kyla had to undergo surgery to remove a brain tumour. 

"With her health scare she just carried on. There was a strength behind her, she just carries on. Don't look back, look forward and go for it," says Kyla's aunt Tish Campbell.

Kyla's mother also instilled the importance of education, and Te Kura O Mātihetihe was where Kyla's love of learning began.

"I'm still the same little girl who went to this school and were taught by her aunties and uncles and schooled with my cousins.

"We never had role models as such to give inspirational kōrero and to open the eyes of the children to be able to see outside of the community and what opportunities existed in the big wide world, but also remain strong in the fact that we come from such a rich place of Māoritanga and belief and value," says Kyla.

Kyla Campbell-Kamariera.
Kyla Campbell-Kamariera. Photo credit: The Hui

When Kyla graduated last year she became the first member of her whānau to receive a university degree.

Dr Sarah-Jane Tiakiwai is the deputy vice chancellor Māori at Waikato University, and says Kyla exemplifies mana wāhine.

"I was just amazed. Most adults would just crumble under that sort of trauma, but it's almost like she's internalised into something of strength. You can see that there is a steeliness. She's very ngāwari (easygoing) the way she comes across but there is strength, there is strong resolve," says Tiakiwai.

That resolve has seen her elected as Waikato student president this year, a leadership role she's passionate about as a wāhine Māori.

"I feel really privileged because I'm in amongst a group of rangatahi who are able to articulate and have a voice, and represent rangatahi Māori. We have a particular platform we're able to use and advocate for tauira, for rangatahi Māori and I think that's really powerful," Kyla says.

There's no doubt that Kyla has a big future ahead of her, and while her Mum is no longer here, her legacy lives on through her loved ones.

"My mum was the single mum of four daughters, and raising four daughters in this world is crazy. She wanted us to grow up to be the best Māori women that we could be. She sought education for me and I owe her everything."