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Shortland St stars Ngahuia Piripi and Awhimai Fraser's special bond over te reo Maori

Best friends, co-stars and roommates Ngahuia and Awhimai are changing things up in a way that might surprise you.

By Fleur Mealing

Pop your head into a typical dressing room on the set of Shortland Street and you'll find castmates hanging out, learning lines or taking a quick nap.

But there is one room where things are a little more exciting. Best friends, co-stars and roommates Ngahuia Piripi and Awhimai Fraser are changing things up by only speaking to each other in te reo Maori.

"We've bonded over our love of te reo," explains Ngahuia, 28. "Our love for not just our language, but the culture, our people and who we are."

"It's not just a language – it's a way of living," adds Awhimai, 23. "That's why I love it so much and that's why it changed my life."

The self-described "Girls of Room Three" are on a mission to help normalise the use of their native tongue, especially during Maori Language Week (September 10-16).

Ngahuia, who has played Dr Esther Samuels on the hit TVNZ 2 drama since 2015, explains, "The stigma is that people think te reo Maori is of no use and I just don't agree with that way of thinking. It makes us unique and being bilingual is beneficial."

"And it's one of the official languages of New Zealand!" continues Awhimai.

When the actress arrived on the Shorty set to play nurse Becky Burrows earlier this year, she was a breath of fresh air, recalls Ngahuia. "It was so cool having her speak to me in te reo. She encouraged me to start speaking it more."

And it was just as much of a blessing for Awhimai, who felt limited in who she could converse with.

She smiles, "Being able to practise each day is really special because my fiancé travels a lot and he's almost the only person who I speak to in Maori every day. So it's nice coming to work knowing there's someone else who I can converse with in our native language."

Remarkably, until recently, Awhimai – who is engaged to musician James Tito of the Modern Maori Quartet – didn't speak any te reo at all. It was only after a cultural exchange to China that she realised the importance of learning the language.

"I remember saying to my fiancé, 'I'm actually ashamed that I can't translate these songs.' Chinese delegates would come up to ask what the songs we were singing meant and I couldn't explain the lyrics how they deserved to be explained."

In 2016, Awhimai enrolled in a full-immersion Maori language course.

"It's probably one of the hardest things I'll have to do," she confesses. "But it's 100% the best decision of my life so far."

Unlike her co-star, Ngahuia grew up attending a full-immersion school, but she admits her real love for her culture came through years of kapa haka – something her mother did too, despite not speaking te reo.

"She can say a few sentences here and there, but she isn't fluent," says Ngahuia, adding that normalising Maori is about making it more present in everyday life, even if it is just dropping the odd word in. She and Awhimai have even brought te reo into their workplace, introducing a word of the day on Shorty's communal whiteboard, and their castmates have been extremely supportive.

"We're now in a time where speaking Maori is cool – not just for Maori, but for everyone in New Zealand," says Ngahuia proudly.

Awhimai adds, "You don't have to be Maori to learn Maori. Just give it a go. You never know where it might take you!"

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