Issue 5.4: August/September 2002

Triumph of Laughter


by Stu Dawrs
color photos by Monte Costa


Makia Malo's laugh is improbable for two reasons. For one, it's at least an octave higher than you'd expect for such a big man—the laugh of a boy, really, heartfelt and disarming. For another, it comes so easily—the laugh of a man who is honestly enjoying himself, and it tends to amaze everyone who knows him ... even his wife of thirteen years.

"To this day, I don't know how he comes up smelling like a rose," says Ann Malo. "He wakes up singing. By the time I'm brushing my teeth, he's dancing a hula or doing a tap dance I mean, he's just got joy all over the place."

And why not? He's traveled the world, from Scotland (where he performed in a play staged by Honolulu's Kumu Kahua Theatre), to New York (where he composed and performed a Hawaiian chant for the opening of a photographic exhibition at the United Nations), to Spain (where he was a guest artist at the World Expo), as well as throughout Hawaii and much of the Pacific as a storyteller of ever-increasing renown. He plays the piano and composes poetry; has earned two college degrees; and has a good job, working as an artist-in-residence with the nonprofit Pacific Resources for Education and Learning (also known as PREL).

It sounds like a charmed life, and it is ... but it hasn't come easy. In 1947, Makia was diagnosed with Hansen's Disease (then known as leprosy), separated from his parents in Honolulu's Papakolea district and sent to the quarantine facility at Molokai's isolated Kalaupapa peninsula. There he joined three other family members—his oldest brother, who had gone in 1939 at the age of sixteen; a younger brother, who was seven when he went in 1943; and a sister, who was twenty-three when she arrived in 1945.

Makia was one week shy of his thirteenth birthday at the time, and though the first cures for Hansen's Disease were then becoming available (medications had been introduced in the continental United States in 1941, and in Hawaii in 1945), the trip to Kalaupapa in those days was still considered a one-way journey.

Kalaupapa roots

"Up to that time there was only one end, and often it was very short," says Makia, who turned sixty-seven last October. "Not many people lasted very long; those who did, it was just a miracle—their systems were just stronger than the disease itself."

Even so, once the medications began working and the disease was controlled, few of those sent to Kalaupapa returned to their former communities: After more than 100 years of fear and misperception (the first documented case of Hansen's Disease in Hawaii was diagnosed in 1835), the prejudice against former patients was just too great. Further, Kalaupapa had become a society unto itself: a fully functioning town that provided not just for its residents physical needs, but gave them a social framework in which each member was recognized first and foremost as a human being.

"Over the years, there were patients who reached the point where there was no medical evidence of bacteria in their blood samples," Makia explains. "In the old days, these people were called 'parolees'—we were in fact prisoners, medical prisoners—but not many actually left. And when they did leave, they didn't emerge into the community. In a sense, they were buried ... they wouldn't talk about their history; they never talked about their past."

Makia chose to leave Kalaupapa in 1971, at the age of thirty-seven. His disease had been arrested, but not before it had taken portions of several fingers, two toes, the feeling in both hands and feet, and his body's ability to properly regulate its temperature. Seven years earlier, he had also gone blind.

 Makia at the United Nations,1997
photo courtesy Makia and Ann Malo

Asked about his first meeting with Makia, Jeff Gere chuckles. Twelve years ago, Gere, a nationally known storyteller who works as the City and County of Honolulu's official drama specialist, was teaching a class for employees of the city's Department of Parks and Recreation—of which Makia was one, having been hired as part of a program to employ people with disabilities.

"So this big mountain of a Hawaiian shows up, and I don't know who he is," Gere says. "I pair him off with this woman ... they're all going to learn an Aesop's fable to start off. Pretty soon, I notice the lady with Makia is laughing; in fact, she doesn't want to leave--—wants to hear it again. And then everyone is listening to this dude who's transforming a classical fable into a local, Pidgin-type scene. And I'm thinking, Who is this guy? "

Not long after, Makia appeared with Gere and a few other storytellers at a Bishop Museum event. "He thought he was telling stories to ten people," says Gere with a mischievous laugh, "but there were actually more than eighty people there, and they were just digging it."

It wasn't until a few weeks later that Makia learned the truth. Today, he laughs about it, but it was a different story then: "Ho, I got so scared! Jeff couldn't understand how I felt, being in front of that many people. But slow by slow, you know, the idea sunk in: They didn't leave, and they were laughing! After that, my boss put me in Jeff's department."

In the years that followed, Makia and Gere traveled in the United States and throughout the Pacific together, sharing the stage and becoming fast friends. Makia also went on to travel solo to such disparate points as New Zealand and Tennessee, serving at the latter as the Western regional representative to the National Storytelling Festival of 1994—the only Hawaiian ever to receive that honor. Throughout, he has made his mark by telling the stories he knows: Pidgin-English tales of his time growing up in Honolulu and Kalaupapa; stories that emphasize not how different or difficult his life has been, but how much it has in common with his audience's own experiences.


They are tales that speak of an island lifestyle that in many cases has all but disappeared: Of catching and killing his first chicken ("Me, I like act macho, right? Twelve years old, thirteen ... I nevah know how for kill chicken, but I no can tell them so I act cool, yeah?"); of re-enacting the traditional art of hee holua (land sledding) on the slopes of Honolulu s Punchbowl ("We didn t have the old holua sled—ours resembled the ones kids used on the Mainland to ride in snow. But ours was made out of wood that we borrowed from people's picket fences when they re not watching, yeah?"); or of an encounter with a runaway pig near Kalaupapa ("How many of you climb guava tree when you young kid? Evah try climb one when no more branches? The buggah slippery! ... Ended up, I was sitting on the ground hugging the hell out of that tree, I was so scared!"). In every one of them, even the tale of a haunting in Kalaupapa, storyteller and audience are invariably overcome with laughter. Again, it's Makia's way of establishing common ground.

"Makia is a living piece of history, and his stories are so relevant to all people, but specifically to growing up on islands, whether it be in Hawaii or the Pacific region," says Lori Phillips, an artist who oversees Makia's job at PREL, collaborating with him to develop curriculum for teachers and visiting classrooms to work with children directly. "There's not a bad thing in him—he just comes from a real innocent place, and kids pick that up. I mean, being in his presence is just amazing."

This sense of amazement is one that's common to everyone who comes into contact with the man, and it follows a predictable pattern. "People always say, 'It's wonderful you saw his potential,'" Gere notes. "Well, talk to himvthe guy's a sitting thesaurus of things about Hawaii, starting with Kalaupapa. I mean, he's brilliant: He earned a B.A. in Hawaiian Studies and then a teaching certification by memory."

Even so, it was by no means easy. "It was scary," Makia says today of his decision to leave the community he'd grown up in. "Even more so because I was blind—so vulnerable, you know? And when I first went out, I used to hide my hands under my shirt, like I'd swiped something. I was so shame."

Old warehouse at the
Kalaupapa's boat landing

Still, as he's saying this he begins to laugh again. "I remember somebody at Kalaupapa asking me, 'Eh, you not scared, walking around with only that stick?' I said, 'Yeah, but I think I'd rather die crossing the street with a stick than stay home doing nothing.'"

So he went, and began his coursework in Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Without feeling in his fingertips, he was unable to read Braille; instead, he recorded every one of his lectures with the help of a UH program for students with disabilities known as "KOKUA"—the Hawaiian word for "help" and also an acronym for Kahi O Ka Ulu Ana (the growing place).

"Two courses, that was the max I could handle per semester because the tapes would just pile up. When we had exams, I would have been taping notes from my lectures, but my fear was that I might have missed something. So I didn't listen only to my notes, I listened to all my lectures, just played them over and over."

It took seven years, but he graduated in 1979 with a bachelor's degree in Hawaiian Studies. Then he went back to school and earned a teaching certificate. It was during this period that a friend gave him a bit of advice that would change his perception.

"He was up at the university," says Ann, "and another student said, 'Makia, are you going to go down to the swimming pool?' And Makia said, 'Heck no—with all my scars? I m not going to have all those people stare at me.'"

Here, Makia finishes the story: "So my friend said, 'Makia, don t let other people's hang-ups stop you from doing what you want to do.' I was stunned: I thought, 'My god, I thought it was my hang-ups.' So slowly it changed: I figured, 'Well, if I'm ugly, that's not my problemvI don t need to look at me. If somebody else no can handle, that's their problem, not mine."

Ann Malo often points out to people that it takes away from Makia to define him solely as a man who has overcome a disease. There's a separation buried in that definition, she says, one that might cloud what she sees as a universal lesson: "This is Makia s story, but in a larger sense it's the story of 'Everyman.' Makia has been to hell and back a hundred times and survived. Something in us wants to know how he did that. We are different from the skin-side out, but on the inside the human journey is the samevthere is nobody walking around in a body that has it all made. But that's what being alive is: Having certain things you're excellent at, and certain things you struggle with."

With this understanding in mind, Makia and Ann last year established a scholarship fund for Native Hawaiians pursuing the fields of medicine, law or dentistry. There are two requirements: The first stipulates that, though students can pursue their studies wherever they choose, once they've graduated they have to return to Hawaii for a minimum of two years. The other, Ann notes, requires that the scholarship s investment pay dividends to the community: "The applicants have to show a particular program designed for giving back to Hawaiians, so that Hawaiians will have a role model—so it wouldn't just be a non-Hawaiian in these higher paying positions." The first scholarship was awarded in June 2001 to Paul Kaiwi—a father of four originally from Kipahulu, in Maui s Hana district, who plans to combine his family knowledge of laau lapaau (Hawaiian herbal medicine) and lomilomi massage with an education in Western medicine at the University of Hawaii to serve the Hana area as its only resident physician.

Meanwhile, Makia continues to find joy in the details. Last November, he received his first Social Security check—an accomplishment many take for granted. "You don t know the pride," he beams. "All of a sudden I had a job and I was paying taxes and I could stand tall: 'Eh, I m not on a free ride all the time!' And then, two years ago, I get a letter: 'Dear Mr. Malo, you soon will be sixty-five and you can begin the process of preparing for your Social Security.' Ho! I couldn't believe it man!"

Again, he's laughing as he says this, but then his voice goes gentler. "Often I'm humbled when I hear that I've touched other people's lives. Over the years, I had no sense of self-worth: Now, the feedback of how the storytelling has helped peoplevthat just feels fabulous."

For information on applying for, or donating money to, the Makia and Ann Malo Scholarship, call the Hawaii Community Foundation at (808) 566-5570 or toll-free at 1-888-731-3863; or visit


Kalaupapa community pool hall