When people say Merle Hohaia (Whaea Merle) was the face of Te Wānanga o Aotearoa in Kaikohe, they are underplaying the significance of her contribution.
Merle, who passed away recently, was instrumental in establishing Te Wānanga o Aotearoa in Te Tai Tokerau and long-serving kaimahi Hoeta Maxwell says she was “the first person you’d see when you came in the door and the last person you’d see when you left”.
But she and her late husband Hone were also responsible for Hoeta and several other Northland kaimahi having jobs with Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, he says.
“Merle and Hone brought Te Ara Reo Māori to Kaikohe in 2002-2003. They had 150-200 tauira every week and that’s how we all got employed, they needed kaimahi. We got sent down by WINZ. I was straight out of the bush and into the wānanga. I - along with the other originals here - owe her directly for my job,” he says.
Hoeta has now been with TWoA for 14 years and says Whaea Merle’s contribution over the years is hard to describe.
“She made a massive contribution. She had a unique way about her and everything she did was done in a mana-enhancing way. She was all about the reo and any other initiatives that benefited the north.”
Whaea Merle and Hone started teaching Te Ara Reo Māori in Whangarei in 2001 and two years later took the programme to Kaikohe and Kaitaia,
Hoeta says the programme proved hugely successful.
“Te Ara Reo Māori was a new way of learning. It wasn’t just ‘sit down and listen’, it was interactive and it was great. People came streaming in from everywhere for it. I went to many marae where it was standing room only to hear them present.”
He says Whaea Merle also had huge whānau support.
“Her mother Maggie and grandmother Meri were both well-known and much respected and that no doubt helped. Between 1990 and 2000 the whānau also were involved in instigating Te Ataarangi te reo Māori movement within Te Tai Tokerau. She had a massive and supportive whānau behind her. We owe them a lot. Ngāpuhi reo me ōna Tīkanga is flourishing and alive and much of that is from them. Many of our marae have got their speakers back thanks to them.”
He says when TWoA was first established in Kaikohe, Whaea Merle immediately made her presence felt.
“We were all males up here and she certainly kept us in line”.
“We saw a few changes over the years and while she may have disagreed with some of them, her heart was always for the wānanga, that never changed. She was always about what the wānanga was doing for our people and what impact we, as a wānanga, were having on people. She was all about upskilling and getting people into work.”
Merle and Hone are survived by their son Heta, daughter in-law Tiffany and 3 mokopuna
With her work now done, it falls to people such as Hoeta to carry that burden.
“We have to deal with it now she’s gone. We have to keep going and do what we do. That’s how Merle would’ve wanted it. She’s left a huge gap here. It will take a while but we’ll take it day by day. The way forward is inside us all. “