'His dream': Waikeri marae a tribute to Sonny Roberts

ELTON SMALLMAN
Last updated 11:55 13/01/2014
 Waikeri Marae, Mere Roberts, Sonny Roberts
Chris Hillock/Fairfax NZ

FINAL LEGACY: Mere Roberts and her whanau fulfilled her husband's dying wishes to build a marae for their hapu.

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PEPEHA - INTRODUCTION

Reko me ona rito te whare tupuna, Te Ko o Mangaheko te wharekai, Waipa ma Waikato nga awa, Ko Waikeri te marae.

Reko me ona rito is the ancestral house, Te Ko o Mangaheko is the dining hall, Waipa and Waikato are the rivers, Waikeri is the marae.

Sonny Roberts never got to see his vision fulfilled.

In 1985, a year after construction of his marae started, the Ngati Reko leader died, leaving it to his whanau to see the project through.

Sonny and his wife Mere Roberts moved back to Ngaruawahia and, while growing crops with their children on a patch of land squeezed between the road and a deep gully, he dreamed that there his people would one day have a marae to call home.

"It started in the dining room, but he died before that was opened so we just carried on from there," Mrs Roberts said.

The land was named Waikeri by the second Maori King Tawhiao who camped there on his travels. It was given to a landless Ngati Reko by Te Puea, and for a time was known as Tangirau.

"When the surveyors came they called it Tangirau and for years they knew it as Tangirau. But when we built this, we had to go back to its original name Waikeri."

There were a few houses and a hall at Tangirau but they were removed in the 1960s and crops were sown in their place.

Sonny Roberts' daughter, Te Aomihi Holland, remembered when her father found inspiration.

"When we were kids we used to have a garden here and our father saw something that we had never ever seen," she said.

He was motivated by a tohu aroha - an otherworldly plea from the whenua and their ancestors to bring life back to the pa.

"He was crying when he called us over and told us if we ever see it, that it was a tupuna. From that time it was his vision, his dream to build this marae."

The whanau rallied together, travelled from afar and lived on site during construction periods and made every effort to complete their task.

"We believe that with his passing it made us stronger and just carry it on," Mrs Holland said.

"It wasn't hard because our vision was to accomplish his vision."

Another year after Mr Roberts died, the wharekai was opened and, in 1992, the whare tupuna was blessed and named. "Out the back that was the first whare to be built, then the wharekai, then the whare tupuna, then the kohanga reo," said Mrs Holland's sister Pikikotuku Tumai.

Ngati Reko were devoid of elders at the time and relied on iwi leaders John Haunui, Tumate Mahuta and Henry Harrison for direction. They scraped together what little they could to fund the marae.

"At first we did raffles and then we had a social and our uncle Henry played in a band, socials in Ngaruawahia and from there we set up a housie in Hamilton."

Sheltered by a large hedge next to the main road, the grounds were ringed by a ponga fence. A cobblestone courtyard leads up to the whare tupuna. The whole marae was completed in 1995.

Their first wharekai was named Te Kahanui to recognise the strength and determination of the people to finish the job they started.

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"I swore I'd never ever come back home because that's all we did - work. Our father made us work until that sun went down, only to find now that the heart is really back home," Mrs Holland said.

Gardens had been sown behind the kohanga reo and Mrs Tumai said it was hoped the next generation would be willing to fulfil their roles on the marae and carry on the legacy.

"For the future we are trying to pull our rangatahi in now to follow through with us. We're ready to go there to the front and for them to take over but of course with our guidance," she said.

Mrs Roberts and her daughters said Sonny was with them in spirit and his legacy could be seen in all of them.

"We are a very close-knit family and he always spoke of manaakitanga [caring]. We speak of him highly now we understand his strict ways. But he taught us well and that will indeed be bestowed into our children."

elton.smallman@waikatotimes.co.nz

- Waikato

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