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A New World

It’s been almost two weeks since we landed in Kaua’i and I saw my first palm tree in real life. From that moment on it’s been a whirlwind of new plants, animals, people, and traditions. Hawaii may legally be part of the United States but it looks and feels completely different from my home in North Carolina. A recurring theme that I encounter is the strong cultural significance plants on this island have for native Hawaiians. I can’t help but compare the roles plants have for the community in both Kaua’i and my hometown.

                                                                  The palm tree outside the house we are staying in.

Past Experiences

I was born and raised in a small town in North Carolina where many of the families are from generations of farmers. A large portion of the farmers now are contracted, unrelated people that grow large cash crops to make a living. Most farms are monoculture, where only one crop is grown at a time, meaning they are large fields of only tobacco, soybeans, or corn. These plants are viewed as a product to be harvested and then sold to be processed for stores. And though it may not be representative of my hometown, I have still grown up used to the idea of GMOs and trying to maximize quantity of a product to maximize profits.

Whole New Experiences

From just two weeks of working with our community partner, the Waipa Foundation, I learned that Hawaiian culture is different in a lot of ways. One of the most striking ways that it differs is with their history of food. Every Thursday at Waipa is poi day, where people from the whole community gather in the industrial size kitchen to prepare poi, one of the most important foods to Hawaiians. It takes nearly 24 hours, including the time taken the day before to wash the kalo, a potato-like plant that they grind into poi. I have had the honor to participate in poi day twice now and every time I am reminded of how serious it is by the way that the people in the community treat the kalo. You are not supposed to drop or waste the kalo, or even curse in front of it because it is seen as disrespectful.

Taro fields in Hanalei on a rainy day

This stems from the Hawaiian origin story of the kalo. According to Hawaiian history, Father Sky and Mother Earth had a baby that was sadly stillborn. They buried their baby in the ground and from that spot grew the first kalo plant. The couple later had another child, the first Hawaiian. So, in their culture, the kalo is the older brother to Hawaiians and therefore, must be treated with respect and honor.

Taro plants at Waipa that are used for education

This story fascinates me because it is the reason that the people of Hanalei come together every Thursday at Waipa. They prepare gallons and gallons of poi to give out to the neighborhood, at no cost. One of the elders told me that it is vital that they can provide this service. She told me “if our children stop eating the poi, they will lose the taste for it”. Then they will lose a part of their culture and history. I have never experienced this sense of community fostered by a mutual respect of the plant by everyone. It makes me think about my own food that I eat and the cultural ties I have to it. Food is unique in its ability to give life and bring people together if we understand our dependence on it and respect it as a community.

To learn more about:

Origin of Kalo:

The Waipa Foundation: