Listen to the life experiences of four patients, Norbert Palea, Clarence “Boogie” Kalihihiwa, Meli Watanuki, and Elroy Makia Malo, in these interviews which first aired in 2009.
Interview with Norbert Palea
Hansen’s disease patient Norbert Palea of Kalaupapa was only five years old when he was sent to Kalaupapa, without even being officially diagnosed with the disease. In spite of that sentence and its hardships, he endured, with no regret. He tells Leslie, “Even if they sent us here… look around. They gave us the most beautiful home in the world.”
Norbert Palea: My mother painted a beautiful picture. She said, Oh no, you’re going up there, and you going see your father and the people, and be taken care. She painted this beautiful picture. So it made it kinda easy for me. But I remember that day when we were going all the children were crying.
Leslie Wilcox: Aloha mai kakou, I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. Welcome to Long Story Short, on location in Kalaupapa, Moloka‘i. This is the lush yard and the home of Norbert Kaiama Palea, who was banished to the Hansen’s Disease settlement here at the age of five, in the year 1947, without, he says, even a diagnosis of leprosy. Just a small mosquito bite that alarmed authorities because of the times of fear and dread in Honolulu. On this lovely day in 2009, Norbert Kaiama Palea is the youngest patient at Kalaupapa, 68 years old. It’s one of the nicest homes in Kalaupapa, a tribute to the nurturing of its owner, Norbert Kaiama Palea. It’s a far cry from his first remembrance of life inside the system, a bad memory of his introduction to life as a Hansen’s Disease patient.
What’s your first memory?
Norbert: My first memory was the old Kalihi Hospital. Think of an old concentration camp, like they had in Stalag 17; that’s what it reminded me of. It was like ten feet high, and it had barbed wires all around the fence. And we were staying there, and because we moved later to Hale Mohalu in Pearl City in 1949 because of the soap factory that was there. So Kalihi was the receiving station for all the people that lived within the islands.
Leslie: First, back up. How did you get to the receiving center in Kalihi?
Norbert: All I know is I was in school one day. And I remember my auntie coming and talking to my mom in Hawaiian and said, Oh, Kaiama has to go to the mai pake place in Kalihi. Mai pake means Hansen’s Disease. I remember that. And next minute I know, I’m already in this hospital. I’m in Kalihi.
Leslie: Was your family scared when they heard you had to go the hospital?
Norbert: No, no. They used to come and visit me, before I came here. I stayed there about three months.
Leslie: And how old are you at this time?
Norbert: I’m five years old. This is February the 10th, 1947.
Leslie: And why did you get sent?
Norbert: Well, because I had a little mosquito bite on my ear, and because I had my father who was here in Kalaupapa, who I never saw in my life, they thought, Oh, it’s leprosy already. So there were about twenty-six of us. We were all sent to Kalihi.
Leslie: And you were there to be diagnosed? Or—
Norbert: No, we were not there to be diagnosed, because there’s hundreds of people. There’s so many patients coming in all the time, constantly.
Leslie: So basically, when you had a mosquito bite, before you had a diagnosis of—
Leslie: —Hansen’s Disease—
Norbert: I wasn’t diagnosed.
Leslie: —you were in a place full of people who—
Norbert: Full of people with Hansen’s Disease. And not only Hansen’s Disease because in the early—late 30s the prevalent disease in Hawaii was tuberculosis. This is why we have the hospital in Leahi.
Norbert: So lot of the patients that came here had tuberculoi—tuber—[INDISTINCT], and leprosy, they called that. It’s two, because it’s combined with tuberculosis and leprosy.
Leslie: So do you think you had Hansen’s Disease? Was that what—
Leslie: —that was?
Norbert: I don’t think it was a mosquito bite, my mom said. I believe that. I don’t believe I had the sickness, because from there, there was a shipman—what I remember about Kalihi was the monkey shows, we called that. And lot of people ‘til this day, the doctors in Hawaii, they don’t like us to remember that.
Leslie: Monkey shows? What’s that?
Norbert: The monkey show is like, they strip you and I have the pictures of it. All you have is a little napkin in the front of you. Women too, they only have just little napkins here. And you would walk this plank. And the doctors would come around and—not doctors—just people who would look around—
Leslie: Look all over you?
Norbert: —and probe all over you. And that was really demeaning. They rob you of all your dignity. So lot of people couldn’t, they would just throw a fit.
Leslie: You remember doing that at age five?
Norbert: I remember doing that. To me, I was nonchalant about it. I just you just go through the motions and get it over with. Because they said, the sooner you get over with it, but you see everybody crying, and oh, I don’t want to go do that.
Leslie: Because they were finding things on their bodies?
Norbert: No; because these were perfect strangers.
Norbert: And the women, especially. So I said, Ah, just go through it and get it over with, because I still remember the older people used to tell me. I guess because I was young and absorb everything real fast. You have to grow up quick.
Leslie: When you were five years old, do you remember thinking—
Norbert: I remember—
Leslie: —I’m not gonna be with my family again? Did you know that?
Norbert: [SIGH] Not at that time.
Leslie: You thought you were going home afterwards?
Norbert: No. Later on when my mom came and visit me, she said, Oh, Kaiama, you’re gonna go to Kalaupapa. [INDISTINCT] Then I said, You mean, where all the leprosy patients are? Now, already, I knew of the place, because in school, they talk about it, when I was a youngster. And then …
Leslie: And they didn’t talk about it like it was a disease. They talked about it like it was a death sentence, and something—
Leslie: —very dirty, right?
Norbert: Something very dirty, unclean. So at that moment, I didn’t really, [INDISTINCT]. Only thing, my mother painted a beautiful picture. She said, Oh, no, you’re going up there, and you going see your father and the people, and be taken care. She painted this beautiful picture. So it made it kinda easy for me. But I remember that day when we were going all the children were crying.
Leslie: You weren’t crying?
Norbert: No. They were screaming. Oh, I don’t want to go there. Because they know they’re gonna die already. They know, and I knew I was gonna go there. But before that happened when my mother used to visit every weekend, she would come here and she would explain things to me.
Leslie: And she already had a husband here, so—
Leslie: —she knew.
Norbert: She knew what that meant. So my mother used to say, Kaiama, the day when you go, when you get on the plane, whatever you do, don’t you turn around, now. And you sing, because you have a beautiful voice. Sing to all these kids. So I used to just be singing to them; I never think anything. And then when I used to go [INDISTINCT] to do all the songs. They tell me [INDISTINCT] sing any song, I would just get all the words and sing to them. So now, the day we were gonna depart I remember, my mother was way over there. They cannot stay close to us, like at least fifty feet away. Even at the visitors place. I’m sitting here, there’s the hedges, another hedges, and then they’re way over there. And you scream across. And there’s a little small chicken wire fence above, but you had to yell across. Because they’re afraid that maybe your saliva might [INDISTINCT].
Leslie: And you—
Norbert: That’s how ignorant people. [chuckle]
Leslie: And you were just a little boy.
Norbert: Yeah; so I kinda was prepared for it. So when I go to the airport, I mean, some of them are still living. Some of them are living outside now. And they say, Norbert [INDISTINCT]. Norbert, you remember that day we was all crying, and you was singing to us, and said, Don’t worry about it. [chuckle] I say, Yeah, maybe I was little too naïve. But no, I didn’t have that. As I said, my name Kaiama. When I was a child, only about a year old my grandfolks told my mom I’m gonna be taken away from her. Just like that. So they said they going give me the name Kaiama, means strong. Like the ama in the ocean—the balance.
Leslie: —on the canoe.
Norbert: Keep things balanced, even though—even you’re not going [INDISTINCT] and all that. And I believe that, of the name.
Leslie: And you had some proud lineage.
Norbert: Yes, because my family and as a youngster, I remember my sister, she says, You know, Norbert, just remember who you are and where you came from. Don’t be high maka maka, you know, [INDISTINCT] you come from alii family. [INDISTINCT] To be alii, you must be humble.
Leslie: What’s the alii connection?
Norbert: My great-grandfather and Queen Lili'uokalani’s mother are brother and sister. That’s our connection.
Leslie: So when you received the name Kaiama, and they knew you had to be strong, and they said you’d be taken away, what was that all about?
Norbert: My name is Norbert, but all my brothers and sisters, my family, they don’t call me Norbert. Only the family call me that name, so all my brothers and sisters begin to call me that every time they come. So I become it you know, but they start calling me that name.
Leslie: Do you think it was destiny that you came here, fate, or was that—
Norbert: It was—
Leslie: —just a lucky guess that somebody thought you were gonna—
Norbert: It was—
Leslie: —be taken away?
Norbert: It was destiny. And I have no regrets about it; none whatsoever. I feel this way; that the more something sad happens to you, you grow from that. Sadness is a good thing. Lot of people say, Oh? Sadness changes your whole outlook in life. So my mother said don’t turn around. So when we got on the plane, I remember that, just before coming everybody was crying. And I was singing. And just like they wail. Their crying was above my voice. So I remember I just looked back. And then I still remember their faces. My mother, they were crying. In fact, before, they was crying. My mother said, Remember now, Kaiama, don’t cry, now. And I said, Ma, how come they crying? But nobody’s crying. I don’t see no tears. But I can feel it. And she said, Oh, because they love you. My mother had all the answers for everything. She was a wizard.
Leslie: Was she putting up a good front for you?
Norbert: My mother was a very strong lady. My mother—she could see anything coming, before it even happens, she can tell you what’s gonna happen tomorrow.
Leslie: Here’s a mom who lost her husband and the eleventh—
Norbert: So then my mother was a very strong lady. She believed in God and everything. So she instilled in me something that no professors of mine that I had over the years can ever give you that kind of value.
Leslie: With medication that arrested Hansen’s Disease, Norbert Kaiama Palea went to college, became a fashion designer, made money, travelled widely—he owns a condo in Honolulu. But, for him, this, is home. And, it’s a form of heaven.
Norbert: I went to school, and I got my masters in design. And then that’s when I went out, go all over in Louisiana and then opened up a shop. But then, I had a boutique shop [INDISTINCT] at Kahala. Had [INDISTINCT] the Ilikai. Was the first time I opened up there. So I was doing business [INDISTINCT] and then helping my family, supported them. [INDISTINCT] But the only thing was, when my mother got older, she said, Oh I used to run away to go and visit her. And I always was watching the time, ‘cause when the next shift, they’re gonna make bed check. [chuckle] We used to live in this individual ones. They would shine with the light and shine on your bed to see if you’re in. But we escaped already. And then you get caught, so I faced the judge about three times [INDISTINCT]. It’s you again, Mr. [INDISTINCT]. [chuckle] He said, what is it this time? I said, I ran away, [INDISTINCT] nowhere to be found. I said, No, I heard them. They have the intercom. How come they [INDISTINCT]? How come, where were you? [chuckle] They were looking for you. [INDISTINCT] But I’m a real good actor. I said, Well, I went onto the top of the building. You’ve seen Hale Mohalu?
Norbert: That old—
Leslie: The old building.
Norbert: So I said, I climbed to the top of the building, so I couldn’t hear the [INDISTINCT] on top of the building, right? What were you doing up there? [INDISTINCT] I missed my family.
Norbert: I said, You do anything you want with me. I used that term. Do anything you want with me, it doesn’t matter, ‘cause I’m wanted to commit suicide. I wasn’t going commit suicide. I’m too ornery to do that. [chuckle] I said, I wanted to commit suicide. So you know what the judge did? He says, I’ll pardon you. And Mr. [INDISTINCT] was so angry because he knew; he’s lying, he’s lying. I says, Well, I have no excuse for myself. [INDISTINCT] You do anything you want. And he pardoned me.
Leslie: That worked more than once? Norbert: Yes. Leslie: [chuckle]
Norbert: About three—
Leslie: Bad boy.
Norbert: —four times. [chuckle] But yet, I’m the ringleader for all this.
Leslie: Your mom, you say, was very strong, and of course, she had other children; you were the eleventh. But I can’t believe she would have been that strong for—
Leslie: —so long, not being with her little boy.
Norbert: Every time when I used to go home for funerals—and I just went to two recently. Every year, I’m going down for funerals, there’s so many of us. There’s hundreds of us. So I go to the funeral, and then my grandnieces, my great-grandnieces, they say to me, Uncle, every time Grandma used to say, she cry every single day, even ‘til now. And she—my mother [INDISTINCT], They cheat me of you. They robbed me.
Leslie: M-hm. Norbert: The relationship [INDISTINCT]. But my brothers and sisters too. And I said, When I talk about this place and I want to come back, my brothers and sisters, they going cry. My mother said, You didn’t have the sick, now, remember that. You did not have the sick. You didn’t do anything wrong. Leslie: Can you compare the stigma to something else? ‘Cause, those of us around today don’t know what it was like then, the fear of leprosy at this time.
Norbert: I cannot compare anything like that. The thing is this. The worst thing was when my father was [INDISTINCT]. Norbert, do you know [INDISTINCT]. And he’s talking to me [INDISTINCT]. Talking story, we’re drinking and we’re drinking [INDISTINCT]. He said, Norbert, the worst pain I ever had in my life? I said, What? He said, I remember being on a sampan with the cattle.
Norbert: And the cattle would mess up, we [INDISTINCT] on them, and they’re on this boat to come to Kalaupapa. He said, When I look back, my mother was pregnant to my younger brother, I was holding her hand. She says all my brothers and sisters were there, and my sisters … they were just waiting for my father. And that was at that time, you were exiled, you’re here to die, never to see them again. So when you have a funeral and you pass away, at least you have closure. But this, to be living here knowing that you have children and family out, and there’s no phones before. Used to have the crank phones. We had no phones to call to Honolulu. And we couldn’t write letters. They stopped us. You know that?
Leslie: They stopped you from writing letters?
Norbert: Well, they used to fumigate everything. [INDISTINCT] they used to cut the corners and they used to fumigate it overnight in the fumigation room. And my father said all the times that they would sterilize them, so they don’t get children again.
Leslie: Wow. So how did he do here? He was older and less resilient. Norbert: No, no, my father was— Leslie: He had more invested in—
Norbert: My father was highly respected. [INDISTINCT] I’m blessed. The best parents in the world. My father was a very intelligent man. And he was a musician, and he could play any instrument. And then everybody looked up to him. He was a very humble, soft spoken man. Not like me, I’m kind of talkative. But he was very soft spoken, and a very humble man.
Leslie: It sounds like you’ve made the very best of this, and you have appreciation of abundance, not scarcity. But what about some of the folks who were here at the same time, who—
Leslie: How … I mean—
Leslie: —it can’t be that common a reaction, just acceptance. You must have seen a lot of defiance—
Norbert: Oh, I’ve seen—
Norbert: —a lot of cry—oh it’s heartbreaking. I’ve seen it. But then, as the years go by, because we have all these great neighbors here, one word from them, and they can calm everybody down. Aole, they would say. Don’t think, and don’t feel that way. This is just a new beginning. Death is a beginning. And while we’re here, we are not to question why you’re here. It’s not for you or me to say, Oh, why did you give me this sick? You know what I mean? The thing is, you accept it and make the best out of it. And then appreciate everything that’s around you and then one day, you’re gonna see the beauty. Even if they sent us here look around. He gave us the most beautiful home in the world. That’s the icing on the cake. I would never [INDISTINCT] change your life. I say, No, I would never. I’ve learned how to be more loving towards others, be more compassionate, more wisdom and knowledge. And try to be an inspiration to others. Not because [INDISTINCT] and then this way I can see somebody walking by, and I know if something’s wrong with them. I can feel it. I’ve met thousands of people in my life. [INDISTINCT] Why are you worrying so much? [INDISTINCT] And they would start talking to me [INDISTINCT] get a divorce. You can see it on their face.
Leslie: Kalaupapa patient Norbert Kaiama Palea has attended the funerals of hundreds of fellow Kalauapapa patients who passed on. He says death is a new beginning, and funerals are not to be missed. Can you still feel strong when you go to the funerals? And I know you go to many, of people you’ve met in the settlement.
Norbert: Thousands. I go to my—well, let me see. I have seventy-six nieces and nephews, and one hundred and twenty-six great-grandnieces and nephews, and another hundred—there’s three hundred and forty-eight nieces and nephews from my brothers and sisters. My mother has thirty grandchildren from my three older sisters; one has ten, one has nine, one has eleven. And greatgrands, there’s so many. And I have many, many uncle and aunties, because my father comes from a family of eighteen.
Leslie: So you’re saying—
Leslie: —people die of whatever cause, and it’s not just—
Leslie: —going to funerals of those who had the disease.
Norbert: When you die, you’re just escalating to another higher level.
Leslie: You don’t fear death?
Norbert: You should accept it. Whether you like it or not—you don’t have to accept it, but whether you like it or not, you don’t know when you’re gonna die, but we’re all gonna go. But the thing is, why people fear death is they don’t have that love of caring and sharing to other people. When you’re there, you don’t even think about it. If I should die tomorrow, so what, as long I know I’ve been good to every, single human being that you meet, complete strangers. And that’s the key to me [INDISTINCT] fear. I don’t fear death. It’s inevitable. I mean, knowing that, if people can accept that thought, it’s inevitable, whether you like it or not. I don’t care if you’re a king, queen, or whatever; you’re gonna go. When He calls you, you’re gonna have to go.
Leslie: Okay; so I’m having trouble grasping that.
Leslie: You don’t feel bitterness that you got banished to Kalaupapa, even though—
Norbert: I don’t—I don’t—
Leslie: —you weren’t a diagnosed patient at the time. Right? I mean, you don’t feel—
Norbert: My mother; my mother is the one that wrote letters, she was so mad. She said, I feel like come over there and bomb that place, I want to bomb that hospital and kill all those people there. My mother. And the more she would say, I said, Mom, no, don’t feel like that. Because I was taught … I guess [INDISTINCT] from my grandfolks, Sister Mary [INDISTINCT] because she’s from … [INDISTINCT]. They say this, The worst thing anybody can do, why you feel all this kind of pain, anxiety, and all that, is number one there’s three days of fast. The first day, you forgive yourself for all the people that you hurt. Even those that you cannot remember, because we say things sometimes we don’t know that we hurt people’s feelings. And if you take all that back, and then the next day we fast, and we [INDISTINCT]. I mean, it’s something. My mom is in Honolulu, she’s [INDISTINCT]. Because simultaneously, we before they even read, we communicate. So it’s, ESP, whatever you want to call it. But because we’re living here, my senses are so keen, I can tell if somebody’s sick out there.
Leslie: You said three things. What’s the third thing? The fast, the dream.
Norbert: And [INDISTINCT] for everything that you do. And He gives you everything. [INDISTINCT] how I’m gonna pay my bill? [INDISTINCT] I don’t do that. I don’t even worry about that kinda stuff. I used to. But through my years of growing up, from people that I’ve met through my life I guess [INDISTINCT] they tell me these things, so I take it to heart. And I never forget what people tell me.
Leslie: It’s so interesting that there’s such loneliness here, and yet, such a sense of community too.
Norbert: You know something?
Leslie: You never felt lonely?
Norbert: Never; ever. It’s like this. I’m home here now. Now, I know lot of the people that’s here. I’m younger than them, right? So I look up to them, I respect them. Not because I have a better education that I’m better than them; no, I’m not. I’m their [INDISTINCT], I’m below them. So if I know they’re sick or something, I go and take something to them. Or give up some of my time and go there. You don’t have time to grow up by getting sad. To me, when you help other people, you’re actually helping yourself.
Leslie: M-m; that makes a lot of sense.
Norbert: When you do other things for others—like now, I said, Oh, I’m gonna eat lunch, I don’t want Leslie to [INDISTINCT].
Leslie: Norbbert Kaiama Palea, taken from his family at the age of five, and banished to the Hansen’s Disease settlement in Kalaupapa, Moloka’i. He grew into a man who sees abundance, not loss, and for every ending, a new begining. I’d like to thank Norbert for sharing his life and his life lessons on Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox from PBS Hawaii. A hui hou kakou!
Norbert: You get so caught up into yourself that... look around you. [INDISTINCT] You forget what’s around—what’s around you that’s more important.
Leslie: Don’t worry about the semantics?
Leslie: The words.
Norbert: Look around you look what God gave. Look around. Appreciate [INDISTINCT]. I still have a good mind. Thank God for that. You know what I mean? It’s the way you think, the way you perceive things.
Interview with Clarence “Boogie” Kahilihiwa
Hansen’s disease patient Clarence “Boogie” Kahilihiwa decided to move to Kalaupapa after patients were no longer forced to live there. Today, there are fewer than twenty Hansen’s disease patients living in Kalaupapa, but he remembers when there were more than five hundred patients on the peninsula.
Clarence “Boogie” Kahilihiwa: Was all right, you know. Nobody tell me what for do. We go down the beach, no fences around. Only thing, we have to be home at a certain time, you know. There was a little bit--little control on uh ... don't stay up late, and we have to need our nap in the afternoons, you know. Was good. I like it. I met a lot of good people, and um ...
Leslie: As a boy he had no say, no choice. He was sent to live in Kalaupapa. A place where so many had been sent to die.
As a man, he had the opportunity to leave this place with a history of suffering and untimely deaths. But that's not how he viewed his home.
While the past regards this spit of land on the North Shore of Moloka’i as a place where so many went unwillingly, this man saw it as a place for Hawaiians to go and be Hawaiian... a place to enjoy the bounty of the land and sea, in the bosom of a loving community. He chose to stay in Kalaupapa. Meet Clarence “Boogie” Kahilihiwa, next, on Long Story Short.
Aloha Mai Kakou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. In this edition of Long Story Short, you’ll meet a man who chose to live his life in a place that so many others before him had yearned to leave. Instead, Clarence “Boogie” Kahilihiwa, found happiness and a fulfilled life in the isolated settlement of Kalaupapa, Moloka’i. This is where, for 100 years, those who were found to carry the dreaded Hansen’s Disease— leprosy— were sent to live and die. By the time Boogie was diagnosed at the age of eight, many Hansen’s Disease patients were living at the Hale Mohalu facility in Pearl City, Oahu. But Boogie's long story short starts on Hawaii Island in his hometown which would later be overrun by lava from Kilauea volcano.
Boogie: Well, this happened back in Kalapana in 1949. And they had this district— they used to have district nurses. And Dr. Hitchcock, which was the doctor at Hale Mohalu at that time, she was there, and two of her aides. And I had a brother and sister. I had two sisters in here, my brother, and an uncle, way back in 1934. I didn't see one sister; she died in 1942. But I used to ask my mother, who was this, who was this boy in this picture? That's your brother and your sister. But I was one small kid that time, it didn't ...
Leslie: You don't remember them being sent to Kalaupapa?
Boogie: I don't remember, no. So in 1949, when they took a [INDISTINCT]. I don't know what—I forgot where. But I had a rosy blemish over here or something. And [CLEARS THROAT] ... couple weeks later, the nurse came back again, and she talked to my mother. And then when they left, my mother said, Well, you gotta go to Honolulu. You see?
Leslie: Was your mom worried?
Boogie: Yeah; she knew all about it already. But ... to me, I feel, wow, I'm gonna ride a plane.
Leslie: But did your mom know at that point, that when you get sent to Honolulu—
Boogie: Yes, she did, she did.
Leslie:—you probably won't come back?
Leslie: Because you go to the receiving center, and that's where they process you?
Boogie: Yeah, and everything was all right, since it didn't bother me when I went to Hale Mohalu. But the thing was, when I stepped into Hale Mohalu, I couldn't go back out. Then I knew, oh—
Leslie: Did you actually get diagnosed?
Boogie: Yes, I did. Yeah.
Leslie: And how old were you?
Boogie: I was about nine. Yeah.
Boogie: Or maybe I was eight in '49.
Leslie: Was there a lot of worry on your part, on your family's part, that you were going away to be checked out for a blemish, and—
Boogie: No, I think—
Leslie: When your sister and brother went, they didn't come back, they went into—
Boogie: I think it was more on my mom's side. And in fact, I was kinda happy that I was in Honolulu. Because, Honolulu was a different island to me, and it didn't bother me, really, that I was separated at that time, until maybe about two, three days. Then when my mom them left me there, and then they came back short while afterwards, maybe about a month they came back to Honolulu. And that's when I really saw my mother crying. But ...
Leslie: And you were the third child she had lost to isolation.
Boogie: I was the fourth.
Leslie: Fourth child.
Boogie: Fourth; yeah.
Leslie: So at that point, you were living in Hale Mohalu in Pearl City. Didn't they have a fence around it?
Boogie: Oh, shucks. [chuckle] To me, look like one prison. You remember that picturel, Stalag 17, I think was. They got the fence up like this, and they got the barbed wire this way. But ... even then, I made friends easily.
Leslie: Were there other kids your age, nine years old?
Boogie: No, Norbert came in not too long afterwards. Then another week, couple. In fact, three more came in, and in fact, when I went to Hale Mohalu, it looked like they just moved into Hale Mohalu not too long ago. And of course, the way I heard it, they said they about 1949, I think was. And so a short while I was there, maybe my mom them left. I stayed there about ... maybe a month. Then my sister and my brother-in-law came down here. Then I don't know what happened. My brother-in-law stayed in Honolulu with me. After a while, I came up here. And we rode on the [INDISTINCT] airline. It was a four-seater. Similar to Kamaka Air type airplane, but it was you know, a fourseater. And uh, there wasn't any airport.
Leslie: Did anybody tell you, you're going there, and it's in effect a death sentence, there is no cure, people get terribly sick, and—
Boogie: No, not when I was young.
Leslie: —you'll never come back?
Boogie: [CLEARS THROAT] No, no. Not when I was young. Because I knew I was coming here to see my sister and my brother. And I knew I was going back.
Leslie: Boogie Kahilihiwa lived at a time when Hansen’s Disease patients were treated very paternally by the State. Their care was shifted from the old Kalihi Hospital to a new facility at Hale Mohalu. There, he met patients who became activists, like Bernard Punika’ia, Henry Nalaielua, and Richard Marks.
Boogie: Then I met some good people, good people. I mean, they're all gone, we have to carry on their dreams. That's what I feel today. In the case of Bernard, and you get people like Henry, you get people like Richard Marks, or people who died earlier, a long time ago. All our age, they died young. They died maybe about twenty-two, twenty-four.
Leslie: Did they die of Hansen's Disease?
Boogie: No, not really actually. But I think because of Hansen's Disease, the complications—
Boogie: —becomes uh, worse.
Leslie: I see.
Boogie: You know.
Leslie: Okay; so you're at Hale Mohalu, and you're deciding whether you should go to Kalaupapa. You're telling me you weren't banished to Kalaupapa, you decided to move here.
Boogie: Well [CLEARS THROAT], I knew I had a brother and sister, and they wanted I'm not saying the authorities didn't want me to come up here—It's the patients themselves didn't want me to come. Some of our own people said, Don't go there, and I said, Well ... I have a brother and sister here, and then good thing I came up here. And then I really got down to learning about Father Damien, and although I heard about him too at Hale Mohalu, around the time we used to come up here.
Leslie: What was it like meeting your brother and sister that you'd only seen in pictures before?
Boogie: Well, I didn't believe that was my brother when I first saw him. And— well, he took the—, You know, I'm the big brother, and so anything I did, he scolded me. And then I said, Oh, okay, okay. But he got his own gang, their own clique, so I don't mingle with them too much. So ...
Leslie: How about your sister?
Boogie: Oh, no after we come up here, my brother-in-law and I, I don't know what happened, but we stayed at my sister's house. And they had a fight. Well anyway, long story short, we moved out, and then I moved back. Then afterwards, when I came back to Kalaupapa again, I stayed with my friend's mom.
Boogie: He and I used to come up every time.
Leslie: So you came here for your sister and brother, but that didn't really work out as ... they didn't feel like family so much.
Boogie: Well, my brother was staying at the Bayview Home. And was packed. Bayview Home was packed. Over here had, oh, so many people.
Leslie: How many people were here when you came?
Boogie: When the first time I came here, I would say about ... over five hundred.
Leslie: And now, fewer than twenty at this day in—
Boogie: I would say over. But those days, people was dying too, see? When you hear the bell, you know who's that.
Leslie: What was it like living here? When you were a kid, what was it like?
Boogie: Was all right. Nobody tell me what for do. We go down the beach, no fences around. Only thing, we have to be home at a certain time. There was a little bit—little control on... don't stay up late, and we have to need our nap in the afternoons. Was good. I like it. I met a lot of good people.
Leslie: Was there a lot of sickness?
Boogie: Yeah, there were a lot of people really ... I mean ... a lot of them at that time had... kidney problems, heart failures. Lot of them was blind. We had a lot of blind people, blind patients.
Leslie: Did that make you afraid of what was ahead for you?
Boogie: No, I didn't think that way. In fact, some of them became very good friends, and they began to tell us stories about their time, like Steven Dawson. I think you heard of him.
Boogie: And he used to tell us stories. Well, they listened to this…they used have the uh, talking book. Remember that?
Leslie: Yeah, I remember the talking books.
Boogie: For the blinds. And I mean, I'm only listening, I can imagine. They put us to sleep. All these stories, he told us the story of the Mohicans and Lewis and Clark ... before I ever read the book.
Leslie: A master storyteller.
Boogie: Yeah; it was one of the people I met there.
Leslie: While many of the waters of these islands have suffered terribly from over fishing, the remote point of land that is Kalaupapa, Moloka‘i has a wellstocked fishery. Booogie Kahilihiwa says it’s because the people of Kalaupapa practice Hawaiian ways and maintain a sustainable harvest. Tell me about fishing. That's what all of us from Honolulu want to hear about. 'Cause we heard you're the master fisherman of—
Boogie: No, no, no, no, no, no, no.
Leslie: And we haven't seen the kind of fish resources you have here in our depleted waters.
Boogie: I know that. I was up at topside not too long ago for the sustainable meeting. And they have a good idea about keeping Moloka‘i, Moloka‘i. And I see, during the summer months, especially when April-May, you have about seven boats over here, you have about eight boats in the back. And lot of these boats all come from Honolulu or Maui. What they do is, they come with their big boat, then send in two small boats. And for this side, you can see they only going pound opihi or whatever; dive. The other side, some guys going hunt, some guys going in the river because I see that in Honolulu. What you call that ... the river opihi … they call 'em hihiwai. It's not openly sold, but they sell 'em in Honolulu. And it's all on Moloka‘i. And they're ripping off our island over here. It's too bad, they cannot control. I like the national park, where maybe off limits at this time, let 'em replenish and ...
Leslie: Which has a cultural background, at least for—
Boogie: Because in the Hawaiian system, I think they did the same too. Well, this place is kapu, and then just like cattle, yeah? You let 'em grow and let other side grow, let 'em graze on this side. But the fishing, I tell you, boy. Let them go. I tell you, the fishing ground over here was really immaculate. Even 'til now. That's our icebox, so we go and then you take what you want.
Leslie: What do you get out there?
Boogie: Not what you can.
Leslie: Not what you can.
Leslie: Because you can—
Boogie: You take what you want, and not what you can.
Leslie: And you've been fishing these waters since you were a kid. Can you tell me a little bit about what the fishing was like then, what it's like now?
Boogie: Well, that time, was really plentiful. I mean moi. I mean, the old folks, you gotta listen to the old folks. Go catch me some moi, and you just go. I mean you know where all the fishes stay, so ...
Leslie: You fish from shore?
Boogie: Yeah, from shore. And then later on, we go on the boat. Yeah, we used to have a group of guys, and we all put two dollar every month, and just to buy rubbers, like that, for diving. Then what we do—mostly I did was—pounding opihi, diving.
Leslie: How big are the opihi? Well, how big were they, how big are they? Opihi.
Boogie: Oh, I don't see the bigger ones now. And we don't pick up the real big ones. Just about, I would say about three inches. Sometimes get more. But those are the mamas, we call. Those are the ones at low tide then you can see them. But we don't pick that up. I mean, that's the grandpa, the grandmamas, and that's how we all have all our baby opihis come up. But fishing, I think that's all we could do, fishing and hunting. And then later on, people got boats, then everybody, Eh, I think maybe I can get one boat too. And the first thing you know, we making crab, Kona crab.
Leslie: How about lobsters?
Boogie: Lobsters all right. But I rather have Kona crab.
Leslie: [chuckle] And did you catch ulua, big ulua?
Boogie: Not really big. Uh, in the medium range, maybe about forty pounds.
Leslie: Change is coming to Kalaupapa, and it's just over the horizon. Before the National Park Service takes over entirely from the State Department of Health, it’s a longtime goal of Boogie Kahilihiwa and many other patients to create a monument to the thousands who lived, and died, on the peninsula.
Boogie: I think our struggle right now, for me, being the president of the Ka Ohana ... we have a nonprofit organization. We're looking to establish a monument in Kalaupapa. And so our group, our team is a little upset, because I think the National Park didn't want any monument in Kalaupapa, to begin with. But before, before all of this happened, all the patients wanted in 1985, we talked about having a monument, something to recognize all those who have passed on, the eight thousand names. And right now, we get about-- about six thousand something names.
Leslie: Oh, you want to have a—it's a large monument with the names of everybody?
Boogie: If we can, yeah. Maybe it could be one or two rocks, or something like that.
Leslie: Now, why would the National Park Service object to that?
Boogie: Well, I think it's the location that they're against. And ...
Leslie: I see.
Boogie: So we have one location that most of us, the patients feel like in the old boarding home at Kalawao. And that was right in front of Damien's church. And we know that there wasn't any graveyard, there was buildings there. On the side of the same side of the Catholic church, all that area, it looks like corral, which was afterwards. That was all graveyards. That was all graveyards. And I don't know what letter it was when Father Damien…children were playing on on the graves, like that. And Father Damien loved children. And that's my other thing that I wanted ... to bring the children, forget about the age group. There's no kids over here. I think Norbert and I are the youngest over here.
Leslie: He says he's—
Leslie:—younger than you by forty days.
Boogie: Yeah, a month or so.
Boogie: But by the same token, I feel for me, I like to see children come, here before before all of us gone. Because when we're gone, they're gonna have children here, walking these streets. They'll be on these streets, walking, but where's the Hawaiian family, where's the Hawaiian children?
Leslie: They haven't been here for ... as long as—
Leslie:—the settlement has, unless you—
Boogie: I want—
Leslie: Unless you have—
Boogie: —the Hawaiian children to come here while we're living. And I want to—but some of our people, our own people who talk about compassion and all that, they're strongly against having children here.
Leslie: That was a bitter division, and—
Leslie:—the folks like you who wanted the children here lost that battle.
Boogie: Yes. But I still am in fact, I having a hard time even to talk to Dr. [INDISTINCT] because they think the council—we have a council here.
Boogie: Which is the chair. And to me, the council doesn't run the settlement. They're only advisory. But they get in their heads, that they run the settlement. No, they don't. I go—that's why—the one reason I'm outside of the box. And you may think we have conflicts. That's the only thing I'm against about. I'd like to see not only the patients' children, but the workers'. And eh, bring 'em down now.
Leslie: On October 11th 2009, Father Damien who lived, worked, and died among the patients at Kalaupapa, was sainted by the Roman Catholic Church. Our conversation with Boogie was taped two months before Damien’s canonization in Rome.
Boogie: I never thought that Father Damien was going be saint this soon.
Leslie: You didn't think you'd live to see it?
Boogie: Well, yeah. Well, you can put it that way.
Leslie: And did you have doubts about whether he would be accepted as a saint?
Boogie: No, because I think there were a lot of small incidents where things happened, and it wasn't even recorded. Where people said, I prayed to Father Damien, and he helped me in a small way, maybe, but when people believe that, then something must be happening. I mean, you gotta believe that. There gotta be something. If you believe you going be sick, then you going be sick. Yeah? If you believe you going get well, and at least, you know, that you just go for it, and you going be well. But I think it's mind over matter too. I believe in Damien. And oh ... that will be an exciting time.
Leslie: And it's coming up.
Leslie: We're right before that event.
Boogie: That's true; that's true. And a lot of people, too bad they're not here now. And I think our going to Rome and to see this, I will do it for them too. A lot of them wanted to see this day come. Leslie: You've been to a lot of funerals in your life.
Boogie: Oh, yeah; yeah.
Leslie: More so than the average person who does not live in Kalaupapa.
Boogie: I think so too, because you gotta go, because that's the last time you going see him, whether he's lying in a coffin or what. People have this thing about, they don't want to see a dead man because they want to see how—I know that, but it's the same when you have a photo. You wish you could have said something.
Leslie: So you go—
Leslie:—even though it takes—
Boogie: Yeah, it takes—
Leslie:—takes a lot of you.
Boogie: Yeah. You have to go. I mean Norbert, not only Norbert, not only Norbert now. I think Gloria ... of all, I think Meli is older--oldest. Let me see, now. Meli is older than ...
Leslie: Meli is seventy-four, as we speak.
Boogie: Yeah; something like that.
Leslie: Is she one of the older ones?
Boogie: She's one of the well, I think Pauline older by months.
Leslie: What about Gertrude?
Boogie: I don't know. I think Nancy Chang—you know Nancy Chang?
Leslie: I don't know Nancy.
Boogie: Yeah. I think she's the oldest, though. Because Edwin is about eighty-two, eighty ...
Leslie: Well, right now, it seems though, there's only one patient in the convalescent center.
Boogie: That's right.
Leslie: It seems like everybody's doing okay at this moment in time, in 2009. Is that your impression? All of the remaining patients are doing pretty—
Leslie: —pretty well.
Boogie: Pretty well, pretty well. Except for, I guess for some of our patients, they have to go to the hospital to take some kind of injections or what. But not to be uh, bedridden or hospital bound. But I think most of us know that there's a place down there that if anything goes wrong, you can always reflect back to that home or what. But if they, I guess, like Leahi, we have two patients, but they cannot come back now. Because otherwise, people have to go down and carry them from the plane. I think they can do that.
Leslie: For many years now, patients have been free to leave Kalaupapa... some have saved up their State benefits and traveled the world. I hope you’ve enjoyed our visit with Clarence “Boogie” Kahili-hiwa, …and that you’ve gained some insight into why, for some patients, Kalaupapa was not always a place to dread, but, an inviting place they called “home.” For Long Story Short and PBS-Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.
Leslie: Why do they call you Boogie?
Leslie: The real story.
Boogie: Long story short, long story short. Okay, World War II, I think I was about three years old when we come from Kalapana. And we had the old type gas masks. I don't know if you folks ever ... we had the megaphone type, see, where the canister was in the front here. And going school, even kindergarten, we still had to carry our own gas mask. But my sister them used to scare me, and then we call it boogeyman, boogeyman. And so then that's how I got the name.
Boogie: My older sister gave me that name.
Interview with Meli Watanuki
Like many Hansen’s disease patients at Kalaupapa, Meli Watanuki experienced loss from a very early age. Diagnosed with Hansen’s disease at eighteen, she was abandoned by her husband who took their young son with him. Years later, their bond could not be reconnected. Yet she explains how she found happiness and a new love by choosing to live in Kalaupapa. She and fellow Hansen’s disease patient Boogie Kahilihiwa voice their contrasting views on whether or not children should be allowed into Kalaupapa.
Meli Watanuki: It’s funny to me. I get big family and only me. Maybe God try to tell me something to you know, it better you stay, you know, prayer. Prayer it’s the only you get through. So I think, I’m not too sure, only God knows what… why they would make me sick. And my family is not.
Leslie Wilcox: She’s lived what most folks would call a tough life and diagnosed at 18 with Hansen’s Disease. A husband who left her and took their young son with him, surviving the passing of her second husband. But with her deep faith in God, Meli Watanuki found comfort. Today her enveloping smile conveys a sense of peace and happiness. She stays busy as manager of the Kalaupapa Store and she and her third husband have two homes, one right on the beach. But life in the settlement is not without controversy. Later, we will also talk with Bookstore Operator, patient Clearance “Boogie” Kahilihiwa, and compare the patients thoughts on the long-standing ban against allowing children into Kalaupapa. But first let’s meet Meli Watanuki on Long Story Short.
Narrator: Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, produced with Sony technology is Hawai’i’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in HD, high definition, it’s in Sony’s DNA.
Leslie: Ahola Mai Kakou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. In this addition of Long Story Short, you’ll meet the woman behind the counter at Kalaupapa’s Store. She’s a central figure in a town of about 100 people, mostly state and federal workers. There are fewer than 20 Hansen’s Disease patients left. Sooner or later, if you are in Kalaupapa, you’ll drop in on the store, for a snack or a drink, or just to talk story like we did, which is where we met Meli Watanuki. After a quick visit at her store, she drives me to her beach house. There are so many vacant state homes, some patients maintain two. Here on the outskirts of town, on a hot summer day in 2009, we take seats on the lanai. This is Meli Watanuki’s Long Story Short, which begins in her native Samoa. What was your early life like, before Hansen’s Disease?
Meli: Go to school, and those days America Samoa… my family’s poor. So I was in the school, [INDISTINCT] school in America Somoa. My uh, my father and my sister, you know, they cannot get money to pay my school those days it was about 50 cents, you know, those days. Then they would take me away from school because you know I was about 6th grade but they would take me away. So I go you know public school and after that I, I never finished my school, so I stay home to ah, to help you know my nephew and my nieces to clean their, wash their clothes, cook for them, you know, and I helped my sisters.
Leslie: How old were you then when you dropped out of school?
Meli: I think I was, you know, at the time I was about 14, yeah.
Leslie: And when did Hansen’s Disease enter your life?
Meli: It was 1952, I was about 18, I was 18 already at that time.
Leslie: How much fear was there in your town about leprosy?
Meli: I thought that you know when you go in the hospital [INDISTINCT] and then it’s just a come out about you know 3-4 days. When I found out at that time, you know, you cannot come out, you know until maybe you know according to doctor they tell me the first time, you know, maybe you are going to stay a few months. And that’s when it went click in my mind, I started to really cry because you know it’s the first time I you know, I get I’m sick, but I don’t know how I went [INDISTINCT]. So my sisters they come and visit me. So then I stay about you know 6 months and then in uh 1952… and all the Hansen’s Disease in America Samoa there was [INDISTINCT] island
Leslie: Because there was treatment—
Leslie: —There was a way to arrest the disease
Meli: They had already had, you know, the medicine. Yeah. So—
Leslie: So you never had to worry that you were going to die because of Hansen’s Disease?
Meli: No, I just worried about because you know it’s like a jail, know what I mean? And America Samoa is so strictly [INDISTINCT] they get the cage out. All around the hospital, when the doctor come in, you know to go inside the hospital [INDISTINCT]. Whenever they go in, you know, in the compound, where all the patient—
Meli: —When they go out, they take out their shoes, they go on top and stand inside the top with the you know clean the feet.
Leslie: How did that make you feel when you saw that?
Meli: That would make me more scared.
Leslie: Was your family afraid of you?
Meli: No. My family, because when I came back from Western Samoa, they take me in the hospital. And then I found out that my sister, she died. So her kids had to come see me. They never get scared. They just come hug me. In the days before there was effective treatment, a woman with Hansen’s Disease had to give up her child, to be raised by others.
Leslie: In the 1960s, there was hope that you could be cured of the disease, and that someday, you’d be reunited with your child. In the case of Meli Watanuki, it was NOT her disease that kept her from re-connecting with her son... So how did you get to Honolulu?
Meli: Okay. [chuckle] So when I parole, when—
Leslie: They called it a parole?
Meli: Yeah, parole, just like you're discharged from the sickness.
Meli: Yeah, the Hansen's Disease. So my stepsister was here, and my stepmother. They know that I went discharge from October the 19th,1958. So they told me to come here in Hawaii. And I said, Well, I'm not too sure, but they said, You come, come, I will ... you just come out from the hospital. So that's why I came Hawaii. And then I married, and then I moved out. So ...
Leslie: You thought all your troubles were behind you. You got married?
Meli: Yes; yeah.
Leslie: Did you have a baby?
Meli: Yeah. I have one child, and it's a boy. So 1964, I just see because when I come Samoa, I don't know where to go pick up my medicine. So I thought it's finished already. And they said you're supposed to go take your medicine. I said, No, I did not, because I don't know the hospital. So I went to go take test, and just few weeks and then they call me. I said, Yeah. You set up something with your baby, and your husband, and then you gotta go Hale Mohalu. I said, Oh, fine. And I feel that I better not stay there, because with my baby, I don't want my baby to get sick, because he's too young, I think only three years old. So I set up things, and I talked to my husband. And my husband think, just like you go hospital, and few days come back. [chuckle] But end up that was not. Then he came visit me with my son, and they see all the fence around. But they get plenty other Filipino there too at Hale Mohalu. So they was talking about—and he say, They talk Filipino. And then end up that was the last day I see him and my son. They never come back. So ...
Leslie: They saw the fence, they—
Leslie: They heard the talk.
Leslie: And your husband took your son away?
Meli: Yeah. He take my son away.
Leslie: So you didn't see your son from the time he was three—
Leslie: —'til the time he was in college?
Leslie: Did you have contact?
Meli: Yeah; we never contact, because—
Leslie: 'Cause you could not find them.
Meli: —don't know how, you know. But that lady was so nice to me. And the mayor did send me his picture, and his address. When I look, was my son. But big already, the boy. So then I went go try to contact the social worker, the State social worker. Then her and I, we worked together. So finally, we contact him. I called him in Philippines. And end up, he wants to come back. So I told him, Fine. Uh, what I gonna do, so I ask what's happened uh, the father. He said the father went remarry, and they buy one house, and the father died. And end up the stepmother went kick him out from the house.
Meli: I said, I think so that lady [INDISTINCT]. So okay, I try to bring you back. I bring him back here. And the social worker, we was work together that time, so he came. And then me and my husband, we tried to take him back to college to finish up here in Hawaii. But when you are not taking care of your son when small and grow up and just like they won't listen to me, because it's different life. Leslie: Did you ever achieve—
Leslie: —a bond with him?
Leslie: So you lost your son at three.
Leslie: And even though you tried, he was never part of a bond again.
Leslie: You seem so matter-of-fact when you talk about it. How much does it still hurt? I know you've talked about it, you've had time to deal with it, but—
Leslie: How are you with it?
Meli: I feel hurt. It's hard for me, trying to ... go help him and tell him, your mom love you. You know, that ... you can do whatever you want to do, but you find a job, supposed to work over here at that time. But ...
Leslie: And now, nothing?
Meli: Nothing. He never come back, he never call, no write. So I just let it go.
Leslie: Like other patients living at Kalaupapa in 2009, Meli Watanuki is free to go, but chooses to live there. She was deprived of her liberty for years. And when the cure came, she was exposed to the stigma, fear, and prejudice that Hansen’s disease patients of the 1960s encountered. Out of that experience, patients came to view a life at Kalaupapa with state support—not as exile, but as refuge. Now, why did you come to Kalaupapa? You weren't banished, you didn't have to live here.
Meli: Well, because I feel that ... I feel happy. Because when I came here, they was really good, and they tell me, Anytime you can go Honolulu, you can go, Las Vegas, you can call anyplace, but this is your home. So, oh, okay. And I really, really happy to stay here. Yeah.
Leslie: And how's your health?
Meli: My health is okay. Only I have asthma. So it's taken care, you know, every time I go see the doctor, yes.
Leslie: So the Hansen's Disease is not a problem?
Meli: Oh, no. It's finished already. Yeah. 'Cause nothing, just like how before.
Leslie: So you've had so much loss in your life. Is that how you see it?
Meli: Well, I really [INDISTINCT] happen with all these thing. I go—you know, I pray a lot when I came here. I pray so much, for set up me and take away all that sad to me. Yeah.
Leslie: Because you had so much sadness, and you needed it to be gone?
Leslie: And did the sadness go away?
Meli: Yes. Now, I'm happy right now. Plus my husband there, and they're so nice to me.
Leslie: 'Cause you remarried another time.
Leslie: This is your third husband.
Meli: Yeah, this is the third husband.
Leslie: And he's not a patient.
Leslie: How did you meet him?
Meli: Over here. He came here, you know, '81. And '81, my husband, he died.
Leslie: So your third husband was already here as a worker, not a patient?
Meli: No, no. He came over here eighteen—1981. So he just start work, and—
Leslie: Oh, you had met him in Honolulu?
Leslie: Your third—
Meli: Because me, I no go around Honolulu. I scared.
Leslie: Okay; so how did—
Leslie: So you met him here?
Meli: In Kalaupapa, yes.
Leslie: What was he doing? What was up?
Meli: Um, anyway, he in 1981, and he just start work. He just came work here. So him the one that was doing… my other husband's graveyards. And after that, they was helping me, uh other things for anything I need. And those days, when— 1981 when one kokua they come in patient's house, they gotta go in the office to sign. You know, I going be at a patient's house. And then gotta put the name, who's patient, yeah. That's how those days. Yeah, 1981.
Leslie: So he happened to be the kokua—
Leslie: —who was cleaning your husband's grave, and then who was helping you out—
Meli: And I never ask, because I don't know him. But I saw his work. He's a carpenter.
Meli: Yeah. And so after that, uh everything, and then he said, Okay, if you need anything, I can come and help you whatever you need. I can help you. That's what he said. So you know, I no need help because they get the State workers. But he work in the State too. Yeah, at that time.
Leslie: So when did romance blossom? [chuckle]
Meli: Oh, Leslie. [chuckle] That was um, '82 to uh ... 1995. Then that's why and I told him that, Okay, you know what? Time for me. Either you marry me or not, then you stay. You go, you move out, and I stay my house. And I never know that Father Damien was going be [INDISTINCT]. I really don't know, so and I told him, Okay, um, all this time, I never take communion, because I cannot take communion, and I live with somebody. I cannot do that. So ... 1995 ... the first week of April, I told him, Okay today is the day. Either you move out ... or we marry. If we not marry, you move out. If we marry, then you stay. That's all you know, I cannot do this, no communion, I only go church and pray. And then he said ... I want to marry you. No kidding? Are you sure?
Leslie: [chuckle] And he wasn't kidding. [chuckle]
Meli: He was not kidding.
Leslie: In May of 1995, the newly married Meli Watanuki and her husband Randy were accorded the honor of visiting Rome and meeting the Pope, and bringing back home to Hawaii a relic of the beloved Damien. Meli and Randy had only just returned from their honeymoon, when they were encouraged to go to Vatican. That was quite an honor, wasn't it? Were you chosen for that?
Meli: We never know.
Leslie: The pope chose you?
Meli: Yeah. The pope was... what the story uh, you know. After we came back, and I wanted to find out how we went come through with this. And so they said the pope went uh, tell the uh, the bishop... you know, for take me and my husband, we just got marry. So I said, that's why I get all this thing? They said, Yeah.
Leslie: And what was the relic?
Meli: The relic?
Meli: The relic was a nice koa. Was really nice. And they get his hand was inside. And when we stand over there with the pope and you know, all them. And then they bring, uh, you know, so just put our hand on top, me and my husband. I said, Okay. And then they went bless us.
Leslie: What did you feel when you held the relic, which was—
Meli: Well, I—
Leslie: —Damien's hand?
Meli: I really feel just—you know, all that time, just I only chicken skin. My face was funny, was all uh, you know. Because I never know is something is going be like this. I never know in my life I gonna, you know, see the pope, face-to-face with him. Oh, and ... I kissed two times, on his ring. Oh, the man is ...
Leslie: You know, so many people have done good things at Kalaupapa for the patients. So many--just people have sacrificed. What does Father Damien mean to you?
Meli: Well, Father Damien's mean to me because he was a priest, and he work hard for the people. He work hard for the poor, poor people. And, you know, really love to God and take of the Hansen's Disease. He no care what ... either become sick, but that's how his ... his heart is for God, and take care of the people. Take care of the poor. Yeah. And I know he, just like he is a local boy in Hawaii. Even though he come from Belgium.
Leslie: Children are a very sensitive subject in Kalaupapa. At this time, in 2009, children under the age of 16 are not allowed in the settlement. This age-old rule was first put in place to protect children from the disease, and to save patients from ridicule and embarrassment. Times have changed, with some patients pressing to hear the sound of children in their midst. Meli Watanuki and Clarence “Boogie” Kahilihiwa are on opposite sides of this debate.
Boogie: I'd like to see the children before I pass. I'd like to see the children come here and visit, and stay like a normal visitor, like if they say, Well, you have your own house, you can stay in your ... whoever invite. They're gonna be your sole responsibility, because anything go wrong, everything gonna fall on you. And I'd like to see that. Not only for the patients, but for everybody who's working here.
Leslie: We were talking about the controversy that broke out when one of the patients wanted children to live here.
Boogie: Father Damien loved the children especially. And to ban the children over here, maybe their own thoughts. You see, before, couple years back, we had people who just followed the next friend; they couldn't think for themselves. If you said no, then I will say no. I don't look at it that way. I look it as for myself, how I see everything. And the majority over here say no, well, I'll go along with that. But not in my heart.
Meli: When I came here, all the old folks, they talk about, they no like children to come here, because some of the kids, they no understand the sick. Even though, it's no more sick, they still might get scared of the people. They might… they going make fun on the people. And another thing—the kids, they get sick, and there's no more medicine here for the kids. No more doctor. And over here, they no more school for the kids. What they gonna do over here? They no more nothing here. That's why we went block that. And they was going take us to court. Yeah. She was going to take us to court because of that. And we said, No. So what's happen, she went call her niece to bring her baby down at her house. But I don't know who when the reporter that went take the pictures. And the little kid, they was on the carpet. We be careful on that. And that's when show on the TV, I feel myself that was not right. Because no can tell there might—the kids, they going get the sick. Even though they no more the sick, but they gotta remember that so long they get the person to sore on the feet, gotta be watch out. If they get the kids, because the kids is soft, the body, and the blood is. And that's why that is no-no. And that's why they was told us they going take us to court. I said, Okay, that's fine.
Leslie: Very rare for Kalaupapa to have this—
Leslie: —kind of division.
Meli: Yes. How many times they threaten us. And we said no.
Leslie: Yeah; the folks who didn’t want children here—
Leslie: That long-time rule prevailed.
Meli: Yeah; that's right. Because when I came over here and I hear a lot about all the rule about the kids, they no allow that here. I forget what year after that, they went open up, went open up one year. The couple was a patient here, they went bring the kids. Just about ten years old, ten and nine. So what they do, right in the front our house ... they use that dakine, the skateboard. And one of old man, they coming from the other side, up, they go, pick up the [INDISTINCT]. You what's happened? The kids went go right in the front of my house. They went go like this. The old man, they went go straight to the stone, he went cut up.
Meli: And smash his car.
Leslie: Yeah; and we were advised when we came to be very careful in—
Leslie: —driving, or watch out around you, because patients may not have good visual or they—
Leslie: —they may be slow to react, because of—
Leslie: —physical impairment.
Meli: Right; right.
Leslie: If you go to Kalaupapa where gravestones are never far away, where history is alive, you can imagine Saint Damien walking the same pathways, seeing the same beautiful views, breathing the same ocean breeze. In a life full of twists and turns Meli Watanuki’s faith never wavered. Faced with so much tragedy, she found comfort in God and with the canonization of the priest she always regarded as a saint, Meli’s faith is made even deeper. Thank you Meli, and Boogie, for sharing. For Long Story Short, and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox, A hui hou kakou!
Narrator: Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is produced in HD by PBS Hawaii with Sony technology, high definition, it’s in Sony’s DNA.
Meli: I’m happy, and just like I come more close to Father Damien, because you know I prayer a lot for him. Every day, every morning, I go over there, I go talk story with Father Damien, I say Father Damien, please to um, help this settlement, people got to behave themselves and be kind to one another.
Interview with Makia Malo
Makia Malo is an award-winning, native Hawaiian storyteller who has traveled the world, sharing his stories about Hawaii and especially Kalaupapa, where he lived until recently. Makia talks about being diagnosed with Hansen’s disease and sent to Kalauapapa where he joined three other siblings. He also recalls some of his experiences there and how, after leaving Molokai and earning a degree in Hawaiian Studies, he met his wife Anne.
Makia Malo: I walk past Katie’s store on my way to the hospital. The dark awning inside the open door intrigues me. But I hurry past. I have no money, yet I know beyond a doubt, past a doubt, that all my favorites, ice cream, soda, candy. Suddenly, I see a face, an almost featureless face. A face whose eye show the discoloration of going blind. A face whose nose has been ravaged, flattened. And the skin, mottled with so many scars.
Leslie Wilcox: He’s a native Hawaiian storyteller, known internationally. His stories are personal, sometimes in pidgin English, and they’re always embellished for fun—mostly about growing up in Kalaupapa where he spent most of his youth as a Hansen’s disease patient. Elroy Makia Malo, next on Long Story Short. Aloha mai kakou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Welcome to “Long Story Short.” The Belgian priest, Father Damien, served people with Hansen’s Disease in Kalaupapa a full half-century before Makia Malo was banished there as a child. Yet Makia feels very close to Saint Damien across the span of time…because Damien treated patients like people. And even though there was no cure at that time for the dreaded disease, Damien was not afraid to embrace patients spiritually and physically. Makia Malo was once a boy living happily with his family in the Hawaiian homestead of Papakolea, near punchbowl national cemetery. He probably had leprosy or Hansen’s disease as we call it in Hawaii, years before it was diagnosed.
Makia Malo: When we kids used to—we cut short through then, we ran around bare feet. We rarely wore shoes. At least I rarely did. And so what happened was, one day I stepped on this glass and I didn’t know.
Leslie: How old were you then? Was that shortly before you went to Kalaupapa?
Makia Malo: Oh, no. I was about third grade, maybe.
Leslie: Because that’s one of the signs of Hansen’s Disease—
Makia Malo: Right.
Leslie: —right? Loss of sensation.
Makia Malo: Right. And so that was the first time. But then later on, under the same spot of my foot, I remember I went with Daddy up Tantalus, they had this place where they get the gravel from the kind of pumice from the lava flow. And they had—I guess they call it, black sand—way up Tantalus. And they would haul it off in these big trucks. So we went up there and I was running around inside. The next day, oh, my leg hurt so bad, and Daddy … I went to him, he called me out in the yard, we’re sitting on this table. He said, Look, eh, put your foot up on this table. And I see him sharpening his knife. And then he was prodding and probing at something, and then this darn thing hurt. It just popped out. And it was an ulcer, I didn’t know the word applied, but there was a hole under my heel. And after that, that took care of it, and it healed. And years later when I was Kalaupapa, I realized way back how young I was then, that the sign of the disease was already on me. I was losing sensation.
Leslie: At what point did Hansen’s Disease come into your life? What do you remember?
Makia Malo: When it first happened, I didn’t know what it was. Mama … one day, she said, Makia, tomorrow, you’re not going to school. I said, Oh yeah, Mama? How come? Never mind question. I always needed to know why about things. And the next day, Friday morning, Mama takes me and my kid brother, Pilipili, to the old Kapahulu Theater. Are you familiar with—
Leslie: I remember, long time ago.
Makia Malo: Yeah.
Makia Malo: Okay; the Kapahulu Theater. And we went there, and the movie, I still remember until today; They Died With Their Boots On, when it first came out. And so we went to the movie, and then next, she took us to eat ice cream, and then she took us home. Next morning, we had to get on the car, my brother and I, and then I didn’t know Daddy went in the back of the car, and then he got in the car. I heard something slam behind. And then we were on the car, we were driving out. Mama didn’t say anything. And we went straight down to this place. I didn’t know it then, but this was the Kalihi Hospital. We drove right through the open gate and took a right, and then we took a left, and we stopped right in front of this long building. And then Mama says, Pilipili, get out this car, and you stand right here. She’s pointing right outside of her door. And Mama turns and looks behind, and goes like that. [INDISTINCT] And then he gets out of the car and closes the door and stands in front Mama. And then I hear the thing slam in the back again, and I see Daddy putting the small suitcase next to him. Then he gets around the car, get in, and we drive straight down, and turns around, and coming back, and my kid brother is like this; his face up in the sky, and he starts crying, the tears just come. And we were together so often, when one cry, the other one, oh, just automatically cried. And I’m crying; I’m calling, Pilipili, Pilipili. And he’s looking up the sky [INDISTINCT]. And what I saw next was this man coming off the porch of that long building, right across from where we dropped him off, and that man was walking on the steps to get him. And then we went home, and didn’t see him for almost a week.
Leslie: What did your parents say to you? What happened?
Makia Malo: Nothing.
Leslie: Nothing? Did you say, Why are we leaving—
Makia Malo: No.
Leslie: —Pili there?
Makia Malo: No. Well, like I say, when I ask questions you know Mama’s response.
Leslie: What little Makia Malo did not know, and what Mama was not saying, was that having Hansen’s disease or leprosy was actually considered a crime in Hawaii! If you had the disease, or even if you were suspected of having it, you had to turn yourself in, or you’d be arrested. Beginning in 1865, Hawaii law required that people with the disease, then incurable, be banished to Kalaupapa, an isolated peninsula on the island of Molokai. It was a place of no return.
Makia Malo: And then when it happened to me, all Daddy said was, Makia, tomorrow … you’re not going to school. I said, Oh, how come, Daddy? Don’t ask questions.. I was thinking, oh, jeez, how come? So the next day, we got on the car, and we drove down to Dr. Chun Hoon’s office. He was the head of the Health Department at the time. And we stayed there for about two hours. But when we first got in, we sat down for a while, and then he came out and he took snips from our ears, taking blood sample. They nick the ear. And so he took the blood, and about two hours, we stayed there waiting, and waiting. And when he came out, he said, Oh, Mr. Malo, I got good news for you. You don’t have the disease, but I’m afraid your son, Elroy, does. And he has to go to Kalaupapa next week. He said, He has to go to Kalaupapa. And Daddy jumped up and he said, Doctor, I like my boy go Kalaupapa tomorrow to be with his brothers and sister. And Dr. Chun Hoon said, Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Malo, the flight is full. But he can go next week Friday. But he go next week Friday, he can stay at home. But he cannot go to school. In my young mind, the only part I heard was I didn’t have to go to school.
Leslie: And did anyone tell you they didn’t expect you to ever leave Kalaupapa, based on the state of the disease?
Makia Malo: Oh, that’s what we were told.
Leslie: You knew that, that—
Makia Malo: Oh, yeah.
Leslie: They were really banishing you as a kid.
Makia Malo: Oh, yeah. But nobody said stuff like that to us. We were just there, we’re locked up. We were never told we had choices. And so for me, as I was a teenager, oh, god, I loved that place. I was doing more hunting than anything. Even if I didn’t catch anything, it didn’t matter.
Leslie: Well, what exactly did you experience and know you were experiencing when you were in Kalaupapa?
Makia Malo:: Oh, I used to go hunting. I love hunting. And in [INDISTINCT] Valley, the first valley that’s directly opposite from the crater, oh, every day, I can go hunting, even if I had pain in my feet. And I had an ulcer under my heel, and I’d still go hunting, and I’m running in the dry riverbed, jumping on stone to stone. In the morning, I can run free, but by evening, I’m having so much pain that years later, I had five ulcers on my feet, three on one, two on the other. And so the dressings every day. And then we would try to take pain pills on days. The only thing we took [INDISTINCT —I can’t think of the name.]
Leslie: Codeine? No?
Makia Malo: No, they never gave us codeine then.
Leslie: Did you not feel the pain until it went deep?
Makia Malo: Oh, yeah.
Makia Malo: That’s right.
Makia Malo: But in the beginning, you couldn’t feel it, because it was surface—
Makia Malo: No, it—
Makia Malo: Yeah, it wasn’t as bad. In the morning, I get up, there’s no pain, so I just get dressed, I go hunting. But when I come back from all that running, and climbing, I just get so much pain in the evenings. And that never stopped me from doing that kinda stuff. And then I’d jump in the water, and in salt water. That’s bad for the wound if you go swimming every day, because then, like running around up on the mountain, they don’t heal. And for years, I think no, not seventeen years. Maybe thirteen or fifteen years, I had those ulcers under my foot.
Leslie: So you were a young guy living an active lifestyle—
Makia Malo: Yeah, very. And we never had that kind place in Honolulu. No place to hunt. We used to go hunt for birds.
Leslie: So you were going crazy with hunting, but meanwhile, the disease was making itself felt?
Makia Malo: Yeah.
Leslie: In the sense that you couldn’t feel in your outer extremities?
Makia Malo: Yeah. The skin level, and being unaware of it. And there was no one telling you how to be careful. They don’t caution you about what things to do, what not to do.
Leslie: I thought there were—
Makia Malo: So I—
Leslie: —medical people.
Makia Malo: Oh, yeah, there were.
Leslie: But they didn’t tell you about lifestyle—
Makia Malo: No.
Leslie:—changes you should make?
Makia Malo: No. And even the time too, I wouldn’t listen to them too.
Makia Malo: But what I’m saying is that they never cautioned the new patients, no one was cautioned about doing things. It’s after you did it, and it happened to you; then they tell you, because you went—did this, and did that, and that’s why it happened. And that’s it.
Leslie: So you learned by pain.
Makia Malo: You learn it on your own, you had to. Because there wasn’t anything around to really stop you.
Leslie: I’ve heard there was a needle test, to see if you’d lost sensation in your face, in your hands, your feet.
Makia Malo: Yeah, they would do that at the hospital.
Leslie: Your hands, you don’t have full fingers, right?
Makia Malo: That’s right. Because I don’t feel, they were damaged. Starting a blister, and because they don’t feel, you keep using your hand. Even you have it dressed. Sometimes you get the pain, but it doesn’t last forever. And then next thing you know, you lose one finger, you lose the second finger, and you always have these slits on the bottom. Bottom of the base of the finger, in the palm. And ulcers in the feet. So those two places on the body suffer the most damages.
Leslie: A drug cure for Hansen’s disease came to Kalaupapa in the late 1950s. It was great news for the newly diagnosed. But for Makia Malo and those who developed the disease before the cure, the nerve and other physical damage to their bodies was irreversible. Is going blind a
Makia Malo: — Oh.
Leslie: —a common effect of Hansen’s Disease?
Makia Malo: For many. Well, it’s one of the things. Not everybody came blind, but many.
Leslie: When you felt yourself going blind, and knowing that others at the settlement tended to be shut-ins once they were blind, did you tell anyone?
Makia Malo: No; not even the doctor.
Leslie: You were trying to keep it a secret, so that you could be—
Makia Malo: I didn’t know I was blind. And I thought this was just temporary. So the doctor asked me how I was doing. I said, Okay. A whole week, I couldn’t see. But like I say, in my mind was only temporary. So I find my way to the bathroom by just hanging onto the wall, and crossing the floor, by counting the doors where I know the bathroom is.
Makia Malo: I go in the bathroom, I take a bath. And the soap, because my hand didn’t feel it, it kept dropping all over the damn shower while I’m taking a shower. Oh, god, was so hard. And then after that, I bathed in a bathtub. So then, I’m in my bed. I’m thinking, how the heck I going tell my parents? Oh, man. Oh, jeez, I know. So that evening I got up, and I’m looking around. I listening, rather. Nobody in the hallway. I walk out to the hallway. I come by the nurse’s station, and nobody in there. And right across the nurse’s station right alongside the continuing hallway down to the outside is this pillar. I can see the light inside the telephone booth. I walked straight to the light. I walked inside, close the door. I turned off the light, and I thought, How the heck I going call Mama them? And then I thought, I know what. When I used to dial, I didn’t even bother looking at the telephone, so I going try the same thing. I did and I got through. I said, Oh, Mama, Mama, this is Makia. Mama, can you and Daddy come down tomorrow? She said, Oh, yeah, okay, son. They came down and Daddy end up sitting at the end of the bed, Mama sits on my right. And Mama always did this; she sit by me and she grab my arm, she rubs my arm. You know, rubs my arm. And then I said, Mama, I have something to say. And Mama says, Yes, son. Mama, I blind. Yes, son. And keep rubbing. Mama, you heard me? She said, Yes, son. She continues rubbing; each time it’s getting harder and harder. Mama, Mama, I’m blind. And I could hear her sobbing and she was rubbing harder and harder. And my daddy, I can tell when he’s crying; he starts sniffling. And that was how I told my parents how I was blind. And then I spent the rest of the time trying to figure out how to survive.
Leslie: Makia Malo summoned up personal resilience and inventiveness, and he persevered. In 1971, after the drug cure, Makia bravely set off for Honolulu. He rented an apartment and earned a bachelor’s degree in Hawaiian studies, plus a teaching certificate. He also started his career as a Hawaiian storyteller. That’s when a cultural treasure whose name often turns up in recollections on this program, the late Auntie Nona Beamer, introduced Makia to somebody named Ann Grant. Indeed, Makia Malo fell in love with Ann. She had eyesight and she had never had Hansen’s disease…they got married. Who made the first move?
Makia Malo: Oh, her.
Makia Malo: She wanted to take me to her apartment, and I was thinking, Oh, jeez, how I going get home? And anyway, she finally Auntie went tell me. She said, After we finished performing, Oh, Makia, I have to go to this, birthday party, so I going drop you off with Ann, okay? I said, Okay. She dropped me off with Ann. Went into the house, and Ann had these videos she wanted me to listen to. It was some professor. I forget what kind videos. And I was listening, and by the time I went back to Hale Mohalu, was after eleven. And it was from that day on. We just kept in touch and I just couldn’t see this Haole girl from the mainland. I thought she crazy.
Makia Malo: I’m blind, I’m all jammed up. I have an embarrassing history. Didn’t matter to her. But I felt bad for her.
Leslie: Sounds like she didn’t complain.
Makia Malo: No.
Leslie: Her whole long marriage with you.
Makia Malo: No, she didn’t complain. She got angry often. And now and then, I would get angry too. But she was my angel, man. Oh, god. What a life she helped me into.
Leslie: Ann Grant Malo managed her husband’s career as a storyteller. What kind of stories? Here’s one of his favorite tales…he’s refined it over the years.
Makia Malo: It came out of one of the kids asking me one day, and I was waiting for my turn. ‘Cause Ann was starting to talk to open up our program. And this young boy asking me, Why you wearing dark glasses? I said, What? Why you wearing dark glasses? And I didn’t know what to say. I said, Oh you wouldn’t want to know. And then I walked away. And then I kept thinking about it, then I had a fabulous line. And my line was, The reason why I’m wearing dark glasses is that I’m so ugly, I stop traffic. And the kids all laugh. I say, You guys believe me? No. I say, Oh, good. If you guys believe me, then I no can tell you the story. But if you no believe me, then I gotta prove it to you guys, right? And when I say, right, I waiting for answer. Then the kids, they start thinking. Oh … something up, you know. [chuckle] And so then, that’s when I really pace. So here’s what I—I going count ‘til three. If you’re not scared, please look and enjoy yourself. But please, if you’re scared, please do not look. And by this time, I told them guys and they were kinda scared already. By this time, I says, Oh, by the way, you boys, if you’re scared, you can jump in the girls’ lap.
Makia Malo: Ann told me after that, the girls all grabbed their chairs—
Makia Malo: —moved to the other end of … so when the time, I started counting. Oooooone …
Makia Malo: Twoooooooooo …
Makia Malo: I scream. Oh, they all scream. Then I yank off my glasses and they look at me.
Leslie: What’s the biggest mistake people make when they’re reacting to someone who, today, is a former patient?
Makia Malo: Well, it’s not only us. The same thing happened to those who had AIDS. Another of that kind of contagion, you know. But for us we ended up in the Bible. And that’s where so many people, I believe, use that as almost like a right to call us by that L-word.
Leslie: I know what the L-word is.
Makia Malo: M-hm
Leslie: I think the reason it is such a horrible word to residents and patients of Kalaupapa is because it describes a person in terms of the disease.
Makia Malo: Right; right. You’re not a person anymore; you’re a disease.
Leslie: What about the term leprosy, the disease?
Makia Malo: Well, they know the word. They know the word, but that other word describes you.
Leslie: So calling the disease leprosy or Hansen’s Disease, no big deal. But it’s describing—
Makia Malo: The person.
Leslie: —the person as a leper.
Makia Malo: Yeah.
Leslie: Has somebody said to you, You leper? Have they done that?
Makia Malo: Not me personally, but describe me as part of Kalaupapa. You lepers of Kalaupapa.
Leslie: Do you say anything when they say that? Do you correct them?
Makia Malo: Oh, yeah.
Leslie: What do you say?
Makia Malo: I cuss them all out by saying, F you.
Leslie: Very succinct. [chuckle]
Makia Malo: Yeah. And I say, you and your family too.
Leslie: It’s that terrible a word.
Makia Malo: Oh, it is.
Leslie: ‘Cause it reduces you to a disease.
Makia Malo: To a disease. And it’s out of hate or fear. It’s not because they embrace anything. Just because hate or fear, that’s it.
Leslie: These days, the disease that for so long separated so many Hawaii families is treated in office visits, with drug therapy. But patients say the stigma remains. Thank you Makia Malo, for your candor, and thank you for watching Long Story Short. For PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou. But at the time the patients have all passed, and it is what would you like to see happen to the settlement?
Makia Malo: My preference is that Kalaupapa go back to the Hawaiians, as intended. When the program started to take over Kalaupapa, the Health Department, no, I think the Homestead program offered the Hawaiians who were given designated spots in Kalaupapa. They gave them homes on other islands.
Leslie: I see.
Makia Malo: Wherever—whichever island they wanted.