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Recolonizing Kalihi

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I thought that this was a very interesting article and project to help immigrants get back to their roots/way of life, have food and become healthy at the same time.

Recolonizing Kalihi

Pacific isle women get a workout and healthy harvests through an innovative agricultural initiative

Source: Honolulu Star Bulletin

Sakrina Wainit works on clearing the undergrowth from a plot of land to make room for a garden at the back of Kalihi Valley. Wainit and other women originally from Micronesia hope to grow fruits and vegetables to supplement their families' diets. The project was developed by Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Health Services, to improve the women's health and return them to their cultural roots.


Merlain Yerten never misses the opportunity to garden with her female companions from Chuuk. Every Monday morning, about 11 of them gather at the back of Kalihi Valley, dressed in muumuus and tennis shoes. They say a prayer, sharpen machetes against files or nearby stones, and clear overgrowth to prepare an acre of land for fruits and vegetables -- foods they can't afford to buy in the supermarket.

"That's my work," Yerten said through an interpreter. "(Back in Chuuk) I planted taro, sugar cane, tapioca, potato. I used to go with my dad, so when I come here, it reminds me of that. I also like to meet all of these Micronesian ladies; we have a good time."

Like many Micronesians, Yerten moved to Hawaii about a year ago to seek better health care but had difficulty adjusting to the fast pace, language barrier and high cost of living.

Another member of the gardening group, Helping Ruben, said she's received better medical attention since moving to Hawaii from Chuuk in December, but her nutrition has suffered. "The store very expensive," she said. "We cannot afford." Consequently, the women eat only what's available -- even when it's nothing more than rice.

Enter Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Services, a Hawaii-based nonprofit organization with diverse components that are changing the face of Kalihi Valley and reconnecting people of diverse cultures with their land-based roots. The gardening program is run through KKV's Health Center.

Most of the Micronesian women suffer from diabetes, hypertension and high blood pressure. Exercise is an important part of changing this medical history. Dietitian Sheryl Raneses tried to start a walking program, but it failed miserably.

"To them there's no reason to walk," Raneses said. "Why would you go walk? Why don't you just clean the house or do something that produces results?" Gardening with the intention of planting and harvesting their own food -- bananas, papaya, cucumber, eggplant and tomatoes -- motivates these women.

"It gets them reconnected with what they've been doing for thousands of years," said caretaker and community liaison Solomon Enos.

Many of the women reside in public housing and lack a connection to the community; as a result, they suffer from depression. This exacerbates their poor physical health and strains Hawaii's health-care system.

The gardening, however, is beginning to change that. Their blood pressure is coming down, and some are losing weight. "They report that they feel better," said Raneses. "Now they feel like they belong here. Their pride is coming back."

Roseinda Doone takes a long set of garden clippers to a tangle of weeds and invasive plants. Many of the women find the outdoor work helps control their blood pressure and bring down their weight.


Kokua Kalihi Valley recently received a $40,000 grant from Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and has progressed with additional grants from the Hawaii Community Foundation, Group 70 International and the Kalakaua Lions Club, among others. According to grant writer Mark Hamamoto, "this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of culturally based activities, and this place provides a place to practice it."

"This place" is 100 untamed acres of state land in the back of Kalihi Valley overrun with albizia, bamboo and other invasive plants. Kokua Kalihi Valley's 20-year lease carries with it the responsibility of developing the area into a park.

The Micronesian women work the land alongside many other nonprofit groups.

On one day, Halau Lokahi, a native Hawaiian charter school, builds a thatched shelter next to a massive fallen albizia tree. Sesario Sewralur, son of famed navigator Mau Piailug of Yap, instructs students lashing together long bamboo poles.

Later, he will guide them through the process of carving a fishing canoe from the tree. Sewralur believes it's essential for students to work outside the classroom. Kealii Bright, the kumu of the group, agreed. "You don't really understand it until you do it with your hands and you get dirty."

When Gary Gill took over as coordinator of KKV's Active Living by Design program about a year ago, a house that artist Charles Marek had built on the land "was just a ruin," he said. The roof was falling in, walls were rotting, squatters had left rubbish everywhere and the yard hadn't been cut back in nearly 15 years. Few thought the home was worth saving. But Gill saw potential.

With the help of carpentry students from Honolulu Community College, as well as many other volunteers, the roof was rebuilt, plumbing and electricity fixed and the house remodeled. Gill, former deputy director of environmental health for the state, completed the tile work in the bathroom himself.

Enine William brings a smile to the task of preparing an overgrown section of Kalihi Valley for gardening. Plans for the area also include a hula mound, hiking trails and a camp.


The modest structure is now the Active Living Center, with a functional classroom setting for retreats and seminars dedicated to cross-cultural medical interpretation, to help people navigate interactions between, for example, a "haole doctor, a Filipino nurse and a Chuukese patient," said Gill.

Farrington High School students have cleared and planted another area as part of Jenny Hoof's 10th-grade science class. They germinated native plants in the classroom, conducted water and soil tests, cleared a plot and gently replanted their shoots.

Hoof wants her students to do more than talk about environmental issues. She wants them to "participate ... and give back to the community." A place like Kalihi Valley makes this possible. "I really appreciate that the organization allows schools to have outdoor classrooms, because I think students really need to have an authentic experience," she said.

Plans for a hula mound, a large field for community gatherings and a dirt and gravel parking lot are moving forward. Various nonprofit groups will help organize and monitor community gardens, possibly as part of rehabilitation programs. But the gardens will comprise a large, shared effort rather than dozens of small, privately monitored plots.

Archeological sites add educational value to the variety of hiking trails volunteers have cleared. Gill also envisions transforming an abandoned plantation-style house in the back of the valley into an overnight camp for Boy Scouts or company retreats, with an archery range, ropes course and station for woodcarving.

Of course, nobody in the community wants a fleet of tour buses, said Gill. Kokua Kalihi Valley's objective is to make the space available to teachers, residents and nonprofit partners willing to improve the area for their own use and enjoy the added benefit of connecting with the land.

The exhaustive cleanup effort, along with a group of women carrying machetes and wearing smiles, confirms those plans are well under way. And, according to Gill, "that's just one element of the recolonization of Kalihi Valley."

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