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Ready for the water on the Waianae Coast
Vol. 6, No. 5
October/November 2003


Into the West 

story by Stu Dawrs
photos by Monte Costa

Solomon Enos (left) and Gary Maunakea-
Forth stand their ground at the Mala Ai Opio.

T-shirt, surf shorts, calf-length rubber boots: It’s the only logical outfit for farming on Oahu’s baking leeward coast. Still, it’s hard not to chuckle following Gary Maunakea-Forth through a row of nearly mature asparagus. It’s not the fashion statement; it’s just that I’ve known the man for a long time now, and it’s still a bit of a stretch to place this big, gregarious New Zealander as a Waianae farmer. I mean, I know it’s a memory that’s been drastically altered by the passing years, but I’m so sure that the first time I met him, back in our University of Hawaii days—his rugby days—he was carrying a keg on one shoulder and a drunken friend on another. Or maybe it was two kegs. Or two friends.

Anyway, the thing is that though he grew up in farm country, up until a year and a half ago he was never technically a farmer himself. And the last we talked, he was working behind a desk as a "business development specialist"—that is, helping to secure funding for cash-strapped individuals and organizations.

But it had admittedly been a while since we’d seen each other, and Gary’s the kind of man who gets an idea in his head and then follows through on it. That, and he’s always had a strong sense of commitment to Hawaii’s land and its people—particularly those who live in his adopted West Oahu hometown. So it wasn’t any huge surprise when we ran into each other downtown one day and he said, "You oughta come out to Waianae, mate—there’s a lot of really exciting things going on."

Even so, when he said, "I want to show you the farm," I thought it was one of those New Zealand turns of phrase. I didn’t think he was speaking literally.

When photographer Monte Costa first
pulled up at Channels in Nanakuli,
she was quietly "checked out" and then
befriended by, from left, Talimalo Vai,
Kunah Kepaa, Keala Kepaa, Dean
Hashimoto and Justin Delossantos.

Nanakuli to Lualualei; Maili to Waianae; Makaha to Makua to the tip of Kaena Point, which divides Oahu’s western and northern shores. The trip along coastal Farrington Highway from one end to the other of what’s usually referred to simply as "Waianae" or the "West Side" takes twenty minutes maximum when the traffic is light. The scattering of houses, occasional mom-n-pop storefronts, fast food joints and slightly larger mini-malls that line the highway between Nanakuli and Makaha belie the fact that more than 42,000 people live along the coast and in the four major valleys that back up to the Waianae Mountains.

Throughout history, outsiders’ reactions to the area have covered the entire spectrum, but they never seem to be muted. Captain George Vancouver, anchoring off the coast in 1793, looked upon Waianae from the sea and noted that the region "was composed of one barren rocky waste, nearly destitute of verdure, cultivation or inhabitants." Thirty years later, Levi Chamberlain came upon the same spot after a hard day’s overland trek and noted that Waianae "is a very beautiful place."

More recently, eminent linguist and historian Mary Kawena Pukui recorded a traditional story linking one of several possible meanings for the name "Nanakuli" to yet another malihini (stranger) misperception. According to this account, water was so scarce in the area that, rather than suffer the shame of appearing inhospitable when they had none to share, residents "just looked at strangers with expressionless faces and acted as though they were stone deaf and did not hear the greeting." Hence, Pukui writes, "the place where they lived was called nana, or look, and kuli, deaf—that is, deaf mutes who just look."

Some claim that among residents of the leeward coast are kanaka maoli (native Hawaiian) descendents of those who fled Kamehameha the Great’s conquering warriors in 1795; that the vanquished were allowed to retreat to this arid district because it was deemed of little worth by the victors. Others point to evidence that the region was inhabited at least 800 years before that date. In either case, all agree that it is a place of great mana: In Hawaiian cosmology, Maui—the famed demigod who appears in historical chants throughout Polynesia—is said to have been born on this coast; his mother, the goddess Hina, also resided here, pounding kapa in a cave to the south of Waianae. Archaeologists have documented scores of heiau and other religious sites up and down the coast and deep into its valleys; the tip of Ka‘ena Point is sacred ground—a jumping-off point for souls departing this world for the next.