Kia kaha Christchurch

A diary from Ōtautahi Christchurch…


My high school in Christchurch appears to be almost completely Pākehā (European New Zealanders) – in our year we have one Chinese and one Sāmoan student. I am not aware of any Māori students, although years later I see in the year book there is a poem by a student on the death of her grandfather, incorporating words in te reo Māori. The school motto is in Latin. We study European languages: French, Latin, and German.

Japanese is introduced as an option in the sixth form, so I sign up in order to avoid Phys Ed.

CGHS door


With its Gothic-style public architecture as well as publicly “English” monoculture, Christchurch is an increasingly popular destination for Japanese tourists and English language students. Souvenir shops have signs in Japanese.

I am teaching English to students from a mix of countries. One Friday a Muslim student asks a Japanese student if he would like to pray with him, just over in Hagley Park. Both students are soccer fans, and the Japanese student hears “play”. I am not sure if he ever repeats his visit to the mosque.


We are in Cathedral Square and take this photo a couple of weeks before the earthquake causes the collapse of the cathedral, which is the symbol of Christchurch to many people.


Of the 144 people killed in the earthquake, 64 are students from Japan, China, Korea, the Philippines, Thailand and Taiwan, in one language school.  Prince William visits after the earthquakes, and is a big hit with his use of the phrase which has become the iconic phrase of support, “Kia kaha” (be strong).

As the whole country scrambles to catch up on earthquake preparedness, Christchurch City Council leads the way in developing strategies for engaging with communities from linguistically diverse communities in times of disaster.


Six years post-earthquake, a memorial wall has been built in conjunction with the local Māori, Ngāi Tahu, who have gifted the name Oi Manawa, “trembling of the heart”.

My old high school has recently adopted a bilingual name in English and Māori, and te reo Māori is now part of the curriculum.


The cathedral is finally being rebuilt. In the Square, a mural on construction hoardings shows the history of Ōtautahi, the original name of Christchurch.

Otautahi origin story

After 50 worshippers are shot and killed in two mosque attacks, an area at the Botanic Gardens is set aside for tributes. When I visit three weeks later the first flowers are withering, but more are still being added. The tributes are in every language of the people now living here.

flower wall

Would this tragedy still have happened if we had remained in our monocultural, monolingual bubble? It was always bound to burst, as the city’s multicultural and multilingual heritage has become acknowledged – and celebrated.

Kia kaha

Kia kaha Christchurch.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s