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Vol. 14, no. 2
April - May 2011


Kalo Man 
Story by Alan D. McNarie
Photos by Dana Edmunds

Jerry Konanui sometimes jokingly refers to himself as “Jerry Konanui, LPM,” with the LPM standing for Lepo Popolo Mahi‘ai or “black dirt kalo farmer.” It’s a wry riff on the fact that Jerry has no advanced academic degree—but when botanical gardens need to identify a variety of kalo, they call Konanui. When legislators want to draft laws on kalo, Konanui’s testimony can shape the outcome. When Native Hawaiians are having problems with their kalo crops, they go to one of Konanui’s workshops or invite him to their farms. Konanui can rattle off kalo’s parts and varieties, nutrients and parasites with equal fluency in both scientific nomenclature and in Hawaiian. Talk to him for a few minutes and he may touch on any number of projects he’s involved in: a garden plot at Pu‘uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, a field guide for identifying kalo cultivars, a program called Hanai kï Kalo designed to keep traditional kalo strains alive. When it comes to kalo, Konanui is The Authority.


Even more than that, Konanui is kalo’s advocate and ambassador—which makes him by extension an advocate and ambassador of Hawaiianness itself. The lives of the kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiians) have always been intimately tied to the plant that Hawaiians think of as their elder brother. Kalo, tradition holds, sprang from the grave of Haloa-naka, firstborn son of sky god Wakea and earth goddess Ho‘ohokukalani. Their second son, Haloa, was the father of humanity. Ever since, the families of the brothers have sustained each other.


“It’s a passion of love and care,” says Konanui of his work, “not only for the plant, but for the deep appreciation of my ancestors, for the traditional knowledge that they carried with them.” He is a big man with a mellow baritone voice that doesn’t need to be raised to get attention; he talks with the quiet assuredness of someone who knows exactly who he is and what he’s talking about.