story by Sheila Sarhangi
photo by Chris McDonough
It’s 10 a.m. at Kailua Elementary School, and a few dozen fourth-graders are on the lawn moving a stack of kiawe wood into a massive freshly dug pit. One boy—short, strong and dripping beads of sweat—is balancing a thick log on each palm, like a waiter presenting dinner. A petite girl sporting a white beret and pink jeans looks hesitantly at the stack of wood, reaches for the slimmest piece and carries it as if it’s crawling with beetles.
Forget hawking chocolate or selling magazine subscriptions—these students are raising funds in a uniquely Polynesian way. They’re building an imu, an underground oven of the type perfected by native Hawaiians. Most of the kids at Kailua Elementary have never seen an imu before, let alone built one. Their excitement and curiosity are everywhere: To move a wheelbarrow across the grass, for example, eight small hands feel the need to get involved. When the imu is complete, community members will bring aluminum trays of food—fish, taro, breadfruit, whatever—and pay to have it slow-cooked in the oven. Two hundred trays will fill this imu, and at $15 a tray, it will net $3,000—money that will fund the fourth grade’s three-day field trip around O‘ahu.
The mastermind behind all the activity is Todd Hendricks, “the imu guy,” a retired marine science teacher from nearby Kailua High School. For the last fourteen years, Hendricks has put together three to eight imu fundraisers annually, most at the high school where they raise money for the sports programs—boys’ baseball, girls’ volleyball, the canoe club.
Each time Hendricks and his volunteers teach students to make an imu, it takes them about six days to collect supplies, cook and clean up. Why do it? “I get that question a lot,” he says. “It’s for the kids. Imu is a tradition that’s not just in Hawaii, it’s throughout the whole Pacific. For some, this is a part of their heritage, and I want them to understand what it is and how it’s done. So in their future life, even if they do a small one, then it’s a tradition that they’re carrying on.”