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By Tom O'Neill
"Make a difference!" shouted coach Nani Akeo from the stern, her command nearly lost in the huzz of panting breath and slapping waves. The outrigger canoe, a 40-foot sluice of fiberglass, sped through the clear waters off Oahu's windward coast. The team of six, members of the Over 45 Women's Crew for the Waimanalo Canoe Club, were driving their paddles rhythmically into the water.
Few of those paddlers or the other club members practicing for the weekend's island-wide race were thinking just then about big-picture issues like cultural survival or community pride. But for Auntie Nani, as she's known to the club, paddling—or doing anything in the ocean for that matter—leads to bigger, better things, namely making her town of Waimanalo a happier place to live.
"Take a break," Nani, a 57-year-old school custodian, told her crew. "Enjoy the scenery. Look at your beautiful village."
There it is: Waimanalo. The town stretches out lazily along the coast like a sleeping hound, a three-mile reach of homes, shops, and parks penned between ridges of the cloud-catching Koolau Range. Waimanalo is only a half hour's drive from Honolulu, and yet it feels like another planet. The village faces a long, curving white-sand beach, one so luscious that it is used as a backdrop for the television series Baywatch Hawai'i.
Surrounded by suburbs, Waimanalo residents like to say: "We live in the country." Behind the village climb acres of farmland, most of it given to raising ornamental plants. People keep horses and chickens. The salty trade winds spice the air even in the foothills.
Mohala Pokini sensed a difference when she moved to Waimanalo from a Honolulu suburb seven years ago. "I'd never seen so many Hawaiians in one place," said Mohala, a school tutor and native Hawaiian herself. An estimated half of the roughly 9,000 inhabitants in zip code 96795 claim at least 50 percent Hawaiian blood, the legal definition of a native for the Hawaiian homelands program. Many of these native Hawaiians live in the central village on homestead lots. The program entitles them to lease the land and provides low-cost loans for building.
After an aloha and kiss on the cheek, Mohala had invited me into her airy one-story house, typical of Waimanalo's dwellings. Her hair pulled back in a ponytail, she laughed and said she had conformed by dressing 'alu'alu—casual—in shorts and T-shirt. "I'm half Hawaiian, but in the city I was raised Oriental and Caucasian style," Mohala said. "I guess I came off as aggressive. I had to blend here—pull back and relax."
Hawaiian consciousness takes a variety of forms in Waimanalo. Villagers paddle outrigger canoes and grow taro and other traditional staples. An increasing number speak Hawaiian, a language discouraged in schools during pre-statehood days, and some locals even agitate for an independent Hawaiian nation.
One of the first things drivers see when approaching the village on the coast road from Honolulu is a large faded state flag hanging upside down in the "distress" position. It's a defiant symbol of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, a heated subject in Waimanalo's neighborhoods.
Six years earlier a few hundred residents established a protest community in the foothills. They vowed to immerse themselves in traditional Hawaiian culture and to fight for nationhood, however improbable the odds.
"96795 is a stronghold for the whole movement," said Dennis Kanahele, a settlement leader. He showed me the reclusive camp of small homes ringed around a grassy commons. "To live here, you have to do your share of work and believe in the truth of history, that our land was stolen from us," he said. "We're telling our kids that history is more than Columbus and cowboys."
Politics and history usually bow to more easygoing subjects when all across Waimanalo friends and family collect in the cool of evening to eat dinner, potluck style, and to "talk story." Abe Aiona, a retired fireman, waved me into his yard to sit at a picnic table loaded with raw tuna, octopus salad, and a bowl of poi, a thick gray paste made from taro root. Guests of all ages drifted in; the air smelled of diaper and barbecue. Talk this night went the rounds from who's marrying whom, the threat of a four-lane road in town, and weird ghost sightings at the firehouse.
Voices dropped when the subject veered unexpectedly to Waimanalo's rough edges. Drugs have ravaged many families, teenage pregnancies are high, homeless people camp on the beach. The grown-ups sighed: What can be done?
Down at the beach people were fighting back. They were reintroducing their neighbors to Waimanalo's most saving resource, the sea.
Once a week Dr. Patrice Ming-Lei Tim Sing (known to all as Ming) gathers overweight women, some of them 300 pounds or more, to exercise in warm, chest-deep water. "The ocean is healing," said Ming, a pediatrician and internist at the local health clinic. "Some of these women had not been in the ocean for 30 years." Pointing to her subjects bouncing like corks in the water, the superfit Ming gave her diagnosis: "Blood sugar is down, weight is down, self-esteem is up."
Nothing has energized Waimanalo more visibly than the revived canoe club. Its membership has shot up in four years from a couple dozen stalwarts to more than a hundred paddlers, from fourth graders to grandparents. "We wanted to get kids off the streets and bring activity back to Waimanalo," said Nani, letting up on her team as the various crews and their canoes glided back to shore after practice. "Bonding with the ocean is such a positive thing, such a spiritual thing."
The paddlers now pulled the canoes onto the beach, shook out their weary arms, and gave high-fives all around. Before heading to their homes, everyone gathered in a circle, hands piled up in the center, and belted out in Hawaiian their one-two-three cheer: "'Ekahi, 'Elua, 'Ekolu, WAIMANALO!"