|Dennis Matsuda, Ilima Moiha,
Henry Dulanand Alfonso Mitchell
(from left) pictured beneath the
banyan tree at the center of Hawi
Dinner with friends last night in Volcano, slept on the floor and then left in the grey dawn to make the 150-mile haul from Volcano Village back around Mauna Loa and up to Hawi. Stinging mist in Volcano, so painful I had to ride with one hand covering my face; then it’s suddenly so clear that Mauna Loa’s summit is visible in the rising day. Next comes Na‘alehu and then the winding climb up into the lava-rock subdivisions of Ocean View; back through South Kona, North Kona and on through the blazing heat of the South Kohala lava fields. All the way back to where I was five days ago, this time to visit with a group of folks who for the most part have lived in the same place for longer than I’ve been alive.
“I still remember the day the last cane truck left,” says David Fuertes, over a burger and fries at the Kohala ‘Ohana Grill. “I was in my classroom and I heard it blowing its horn all the way out of town. The last load.”
That was more than thirty years ago, not long after David transplanted from Kaua‘i. He’s lived in and around North Kohala ever since, but is still the newcomer in this crowd. Also at the table are Henry Dulan, born just up the road in Hala‘ula; Alfonso Mitchell, born a few miles away in coastal Mahukona; and Dennis Matsuda, born here in Hawi. Henry and Alfonso are in their seventies; David and Dennis are a generation younger.
Until 1973, North Kohala was almost entirely dependent on sugar, for both its economy and social structure: Virtually everyone was linked to the plantation in one way or another, and most lived in the “camps”—clusters of housing units that were originally segregated, but eventually became mixed through years of intermarriage.
“When they announced the closing of the plantation, I thought ‘Wow! What’s gonna happen?’ I was really stressed out,” says Henry, who at the time was the president of the plantation worker’s union. Kohala Sugar Company was the first plantation on the Big Island to go down after the industry began its long collapse.
“Fortunately, we didn’t have a problem,” Henry continues, noting that 1973 was the year the Mauna Kea Beach resort opened its doors in South Kohala, soon to be followed by several others. “We found jobs for all of our workers, either for the state or county, or at the hotels.”
At the time of the closing, the sugar company also offered its workers 15,000-square-foot housing lots for what Alfonso calls “a dollar and love.” Meaning that, since it was illegal for the company to simply give the land away, each lot was sold for a dollar.
“In fact, we didn't pay the dollar; they did,” says Alfonso, before mentioning that a house just up the road is currently on the market for $400,000.
“Camp life was good, everybody was real close,” Dennis interjects. “Now local people can’t afford the land prices, so the only new people are outsiders with money. If they make an effort to go out and meet the local people then there’s a good exchange, but some of them don't.”
After five days and nearly 1,000 miles on the road, I've come to realize that this is a central question facing the Big Island these days: Who will determine the shape of its future, and will that future have a place for “local culture” as it still currently exists?
Who knows for sure ... but as far as I'm concerned, Ilima Moiha can have the last word on the subject. Like Henry and Alfonso, Ilima is a North Kohala kupuna, a Pentecostal minister who’s lived in this same region all of her life. In her opinion, it’s the place that changes the people, and not the other way around ... and once the place has got hold of you, there’s no escaping it.
“You don’t hear it too much anymore, but there’s an old saying in Kohala: Ka makani ka‘ili aloha—the wind that blew your love away,” Ilima explains. “The wind isn’t taking your love away from you, but blowing it to someone else. Ka makani ka‘ili aloha: That wind is always blowing here.” HH