Game Changer

Billie Brown, 12, represented New Zealand at the first World Indigenous Games in Brazil in 2015. She was the youngest of 2,000 participants and is writing a book about her experiences. She hopes to inspire other young people with diabetes to achieve their dreams, as she explains in her own words.

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I BECAME A MEMBER of the unique and special type 1 diabetes whānau when I was six years old. I cried the first couple of times I needed injections in my puku when I became hospitalised after my initial diagnosis. But by day three I was running around the ward calling the other children to my bedside to watch me getting medicated. It became a fun thing and I loved having my parents and family so close all the time.


Basically not much has changed in my life since then, except testing and medicating several times a day. My dad used to get up twice every night for the first few years to make sure my [blood sugar] levels were kept stable. And immediately after I left hospital he threw in his teaching job to take up work in my primary school classes and follow me through from years two to six. I was in good hands! It was cool having Dad around, he created exciting events in school for myself and my classmates with kites, Māori games and other activities at camps and during lunchtimes. I started high school in year seven and have managed to keep up good numbers independently and be involved in a lot of sports and academic opportunities.


For fun my big sister, Yves, and I came up with the Māori word ngaretahu, an abbreviation of Māori words about diabetes, which translates to type 1 diabetes. I think a distinctive name for type 1 diabetes might be useful so that the ongoing confusion with type-2 diabetes for some people will cease.


I love sports and keeping active. I also like eating veges that dad grows such as cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, strawberries, peas and corn. Dad says I should do what I can to help other ngaretahu children, their parents and people generally become more informed and understanding about type 1 diabetes.

Billie Brown 2-shot.jpg

I think sports diversity is a good way to build up your physicality and life skills and to help in the ongoing ngaretahu pathway that we all tread, including our parents and extended whānau.


Last year, in October, I was selected to represent Aotearoa/New Zealand in the First World Indigenous Games in Palmas, Brazil. It is the indigenous equivalent of the Olympic Games, except in addition to sports it features traditional dances and environmental discussions. It was amazing and we met so many interesting native peoples who were spectacularly dressed. The local Palmas children who lived near our accommodation liked to congregate around us and were super friendly too and I made many friends. We shared accommodation with the indigenous peoples from Mexico, the Philippines, Guinea, Ethiopia and other First Nations tribes from Canada and the US.


Forty people were selected from our country. This opportunity came about because I have been involved in many Ngā Taonga Tākaro (traditional Māori games) initiatives – such as tautoko [support] of the first New Zealand secondary schools tīhae (‘rippa’) kī-o-rahi champs in faraway Uawa. Kī-o-rahi is a traditional ball game played with a small round flax ball called a kī on a circular field. I’ve also attended job inductions for some of our older Kī-o-rahi Akotanga Iho (KAI) club members in Auckland; played against France and Musqueam (Canada) for our New Zealand junior kī-o-rahi reps; helped build the carved kī-o-rahi field at Waitangi, as well as been involved in hosting various overseas groups at our marae; performing kapa haka and volunteering in events like the Manu Aute Kite Festival and Auckland International Cultural Festival. I also keep fit with many other activities like athletics, netball, swimming, indoor basketball, ballet and tennis.


At 12 years of age I was the youngest rep out of the 2,000 international athletes from indigenous tribes in 23 countries including Brazil, Peru, Russia and Finland. I competed in the 100m sprint race making the semis in the open age event, and taronarona (tug’o’war), where we made the Open Women’s quarter finals. We also performed kapa haka daily, taught visitors how to play Māori games like kū, ruru-nei, poi toa, o to rongo, and mahi ringaringa. I was shocked and proud to be selected by our team to represent Ngā Puhi [Billie’s iwi] in the Indigenous Beauty Parade at the games. Each of us could display our cultural uniforms and some quick, basic dance movements like the wiri and pūkana.


I am presently writing a book about my experiences, it is titled Ngaretahu: Good Times in Sport. I hope it enthuses my peers to keep active and to try new and exciting physical experiences like Ngā Taonga Takaro, our 300 traditional Māori games, and indigenous games from around the world. I think sports diversity is a good way to build up your physicality and life skills and to help in the ongoing ngaretahu pathway that we all tread, including our parents and extended whānau.


I have had lots of much-appreciated help from my family, community, iwi and health specialists to be able to experience the many exciting educational/sports opportunities in my life – and to have support with ngaretahu. It is through essays like this and my ongoing involvement with ngaretahu initiatives that I hope to give back. I am even thinking of an occupational pathway to help people with ngaretahu.


Best of health to our ngaretahu whānau, especially those recently diagnosed.


Ngā mihi mahana ki a koutou.
Nā Billie Brown, Kerikeri.

Billie Brown shared her story in the Winter 2016 issue of Diabetes magazine.

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Jo Chapman