Ex-NZDF soldier Damien Nepata on personal mission to learn te reo Māori

After battling the New Zealand Defence Force for more than half of his life, Damien Nepata is now on a personal mission to learn te reo Māori.

"Ko te haeranga e te Te Reo Māori. It's not a short journey, and it's one for the entirety of my life. As much of a crappy year as 2020 turned out to be for me, for me it closed a lot of doors and opened up many more," says former soldier Damien Nepata.

For Nepata, learning te reo Māori has been an emotional exercise.  

"It kind of brought in an element of pōuritanga because it sort of opened my eyes to actually how much te ao Māori that I've missed out on. It just lay a little bit heavy on the old heart," he says.

At 49, Nepata's enrolled in the Rumaki Reo programme at Te Wananga Takiura in Tāmaki Makaurau.

"From day one there's kōrero around kotahitanga and manaaki and tautoko. Even when there are the downs, everyone in the classroom comes together to support that person," Nepata says.

"There are ups and downs in every journey that anybody takes but this particular one I'd like to say there's been more ups than there have been downs for people."

Being able to speak on the paepae at Matahiwi Marae has been his motivation to learn.

"It's been in the back of my mind for a long time. I went home a couple, three years ago for the tangi of my nanny's brothers at Matahiwi Marae in Napier and there were one three kaumatua e noho a rongo i te paepae tapu te taha o tangata whenua, and I think that really brought it home for me," Nepata says.

He regrets not learning more when he lived with his grandparents who were both fluent Te Reo speakers.

"When I reflect on that now I think, 'Man, I could have learned so much from them'. If I'd have just insisted. I was taking Reo lessons at school, I was there in the fifth form, and they knew I was doing that but they still didn't korero te reo ki au," he adds.

Nepata works as a Customs officer, and it was through his employer, Te Mana Ārai o Aotearoa, that he received a scholarship to take a year's leave to study te reo Māori.

"The main purpose is to offer Māori staff an opportunity to immerse themselves in te reo Māori and tikanga Māori for an entire year. It's an opportunity for our staff, in particular, to engage and start using te reo Māori as part of their everyday business or everyday work they do in the office," says Thomas Tawhiri, Pou Whakahaere Kaupapa Māori at New Zealand Customs.

"Whether it's to begin a meeting with a karakia, learn their pepeha, learn a few phrases in te reo Māori, that sort of gives them an insight into what they potentially can do. So Damien taking the opportunity to be in the Rumaki Reo this year, he'll be a key part of that."

Damien Nepata.
Damien Nepata. Photo credit: The Hui

Nepata and his brother George Nepata were both soldiers who served in the Army before two separate training exercises cut short their military careers.

His brother was left a tetraplegic and Nepata survived burns to 40 percent of his body.

Last year, the Nepata brothers finally received an apology from the Government.

After more than two decades of seeking compensation for their injuries, George was awarded a six-figure payout and the pair were finally able to put the past behind them. 

"That was a heavy kaupapa in of itself and it soaked up a lot of our personal space and mental space so to have it over and done with it freed up a lot of energy to focus it in another direction," says Damien Nepata.

Having been through so much together, the brothers also both decided to study Te Reo this year.

"It was totally coincidental. I gave George a ring and I let him know what was going on and he just mentioned he'd just signed up at Te Wananga o Aotearoa for an immersion course at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa in Ōtautahi. It might have been our ancestors speaking to us. It's been great that we've been able to kind of go through the journey together," says Nepata.

And that journey has been made harder because of the Delta outbreak.

"I think we went into lockdown about two to three days before we were due to go to the Koroneihana. Everybody was literally looking forward to that and then lockdown. I was thinking of it as a way of measuring how much my Reo has grown by the amount of understanding during the whaikorero, but that opportunity's gone so I know my reo has grown over the years, but for me, it was going to be a real test of how much it had grown, so then I could understand how much more I need to do," he adds.

But regardless of the pandemic, and learning later in life, Nepata's making up for lost time, showing others that it's never too late to reclaim your reo.

"Don't leave it behind because like me you weren't taught the language when you were young, and you're feeling a bit whakamā about that, just do it. Don't let that be a barrier. Don't let those thoughts overwhelm you, it's your culture, it's your Reo, go out there and take it in," Nepata says.

Made with support from Te Māngai Pāho and NZ On Air.

Ex-NZDF soldier Damien Nepata on personal mission to learn te reo Māori