29 Jul 2019

Pio Terei on loss, laughter and living off the grid

From Nine To Noon, 10:11 am on 29 July 2019

New Zealand is ripe for living off the grid, says Pio Terei.

“I've always been a big fan of this and being from rural Northland sometimes we’ve been off the grid without being in the planning of things.

“I think a lot of people are beginning to look for a lifestyle that’s good for them, good for their spirit.”

Pio has also returned to television with a new TV series on Maori Television about returning to your roots and living off the land. He tells Kathryn about how it's given him a taste of - and a desire for - the tiny home life.

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Photo: Maori Television

“It’s that typical number 8 wire, ingenuity, New Zealand spirit that you see when you visit these people.”

People have a range of ways of going off the grid; they’re converting agitator washing machines, looking into wind turbines or using solar to power their homes.

Most people on the show believed in the longterm this way of life would be better for them and better for their whānau. 

“Now people are thinking no, my wealth is not going to be completely measured by what I’ve accumulated and it’s measured about my standard of living, what I can give my tamariki, just building resilience, patience within kids is sometimes worth more than a qualification.”

This kind of thinking has turbo-charged people into this way of life, Terei says.

He says he was part of the rural-urban drift in the 1960s.

“The whole back yard would be planted, my dad would plant fruit trees and we had the best nectarines and golden queen peaches and of course the by-product of living like this is really good strong whānau relationships and what it does, it builds your spirit because for me as a Māori, you know a lot of people say it’s a final poverty but it’s a spiritual poverty that really gets us down, gets anybody down to be honest.”

Terei has had a any number of highs in his career as a comedian, actor and presenter - but his personal low was the loss of his 17-year-old son Teina three years ago to leukaemia.

Teina used to play in Mitimiti, and it’s now where he and his wife are going to build a tiny house.

But Terei says building is not a strong point for him.

“To put it mildly, I suck at this stuff.

“I want to up-cycle materials from Northland, so when you sit in this tiny house and you look out the window right out onto the ocean, the house has a whakapapa or genealogy. A house should be a warm place that wraps around you, not just a number on your rates demands.”

They’re planning on using the tiny house as a place where people can repair from grief, or trauma, and any money people pay will be put in the trust he and his wife Deb set up aimed at encouraging Māori and Pacific Island men to donate bone marrow. The number of potential donors for Māori and Pasifika leukaemia or blood disorder patients is very low.

“We have to contribute to this because we’re the ones who are needing the medical help,” he says.

“I remembered this story of Maui Tikitiki and I said to a couple of these guys, I said, ‘What did Maui Tikitiki do in mythology?’ and he says 'Well he fished up the North Island bro’, and I said ‘Yeah ,and what did that do?’, ‘It created life’, ‘And, what did he use for a hook? And everybody went quiet, because they actually used his grandmothers jawbone and I said ‘well if that isn’t organ donorship to create life, what is?’

Terei says he parents have been his greatest influences in life.

“My father adopted my brother and I when he was in his late-40s and our life was a Māori life in a Pākehā world. He looked after us in that Māori sense, so I never had any doubt of who I was, I never had any thought that I was better than anybody else but I always knew I was as good as anybody. Those things from that Māori world gave me a foundation for growth.”

But not everyone has what he had, Terei says, while noting that his father didn’t have money.

“My adoption, I was still within the whakapapa lines, I was still within the marae, so my mum, who gifted me birth, my mum who brought me up, they were aunty and niece so it’s the same sort of thing.”

Aroha and honesty conquers in a good environment, he says.

Before Terei was in broadcasting, he was selling trucks. He says his skills of being quick-witted come from a Māori world.

"On the marae, my father was a great speaker, he could turn a whole room, and I used to sit there as a little kid in the Hokianga, watching him turn a room of people crying at a funeral, into people laughing and I thought, wow, that's an amazing thing to do."

But, he says, "Comedy's been quite hard for me as a Māori."

He says as a broadcaster you're in charge of a brand, but who's in charge of the Māori brand?

"If you mention the world Māori, what comes up, what conjures up in middle-New Zealand's mind? All of the wonderful stories about how Ngai Tahu's doing business, how our kids are doing, all of that, those stories get buried and I still find it unbalanced and that affects the brand."

"If Māoridom was Coca Cola, there'd be a hundred people getting paid huge buckets to be looking after the brand."

He says he didn't want to do anything that would compromise his taha Māori, which made the road more challenging.