By Frances H. Kakugawa
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
History is repeating itself in the small, rural village of Pähoa, where I grew up on the Big Island of Hawai‘i.
Fifty-four years ago, another village in the island’s Puna District — Kapoho, where I was born — was covered over with lava. Once again, our respect for the fire goddess Pele is heard over and over again as seen in the excerpts below. I hope everyone will be there to support the people of Pähoa, just as they were for us when we fled Kapoho and relocated in Pähoa. Once again, our hearts are broken as we watch mother nature at work.
I described the feeling in my 2011 book, “Kapoho: Memoir of a Modern Pompeii,” never imagining that the little town where so many of us sought refuge would someday face the same fate.
“Did you hear? Someone saw Pele facing Pähoa. I think Pähoa is going to be next.”
I was away in college, buried under my studies to get pidgin out of my mouth on my way to becoming a famous writer. I had no way of learning firsthand what was happening to my family and friends in or out of Kapoho. That panic later turned into anger as I shot bombastic arrows into my speech class. Instead of giving my prepared speech that day, I tossed it aside and gave vent to some improvised rage.
“Kapoho, my hometown, is being destroyed by lava as I stand here. In the snack bar downstairs, in the media and in conversations among many of you who have taken helicopter rides to view the eruption, I hear you saying things like ‘spectacular,’ ‘awesome’ and even ‘inspiring.’ The camera lenses and the firsthand sightings from low-flying helicopter rides only show Pele’s fire. That can be awesome. Spectacular, even, if Kapoho were just a piece of dirt, a nowhere place that nobody cares about. But Kapoho is where I grew up.
“My family has evacuated to my aunt’s house. I was there last weekend when my father’s name shrieked from the radio to identify the next house that was destroyed. My father’s response made me feel afraid for him as I watched his disbelief. I was afraid that his mind could crack like the land beneath our house, cracked wide open by earthquakes.
“My father looked at us and said, ‘That can’t be me. That must be another Sadame Kakugawa.’ It was spooky to hear him say that.
“My father is a plantation worker. He earns minimum wage to support our family of seven and sends me to school. We depend on our thirteen acres of cane land to pay off our debts. Losing our home would just kill him.
“When my mother told him, ‘It is your house. There is no other Sadame Kakugawa,’ my father just sat there. I could see him looking for some way out. The hardest thing I had to watch that sad day was his resignation. He said, ‘If Pele wants my house, she can have it.’
“And that’s just one story, mine. There’s a village full of stories like this, and the saddest part is that there isn’t even a village anymore. You want spectacle? There’s a spectacle for you.”
I sat abruptly down. At least one person had heard me that day, because for the rest of the year, my lunches were paid for at the snack bar. All I knew about my benefactor was that he was a veteran.
FIFTY-FOUR YEARS LATER . . .
I’m sitting here on your Old West-style “sidewalk.”
You were always unique to me because of this boardwalk fronting the village shops. It took me back to those old Western movies. Even as I sat there, I could hear the sound of cowboy boots and a single-instrument band filling the otherwise quiet town with rhythmic musical notes.
It was from here, too, that Pähoa residents sat and watched the quiet world go by, waving to neighbors as they drove by. I hope I will be able to return to this very spot after Pele reaches the sea.
I visited our old neighbors from Kapoho, who are now living in Pähoa and facing the same disaster they did 54 years ago when Kapoho was destroyed by Pele’s flows. It’s déjà vu all over again. Many are in disbelief that Pele is visiting for a second time. Surely, she will spare them.
You were there for us, Pähoa, when we evacuated from Kapoho. We found new homes with you — and you welcomed us with open arms. You gave us new P.O. Box numbers, flush toilets, in-door plumbing and, for the first time, lit our houses with electricity.
You gave us paved roads, Hara Store, Toma’s Bakery and so many other businesses to ease our transition. We were like refugees and still you left vegetables on our back porches and welcomed us into your homes. You helped us forge new lives in Pähoa.
Pähoa has always been “home” to me — even after 1998, when my mother could no longer live in the same house that was moved from Kapoho to Pähoa after the eruption.
There were many stories to preserve about life in Kapoho, and I know there will be just as many stories to savor and honor about life Pähoa. Some of these stories are already happening. I was asked by a journalist recently, “What happens to a community when a disaster like this strikes?”
I had one answer: We turn into philosophers and humanists, not only because of our respect and belief in Goddess Pele, but because we are part of this humanity that resides in each of us. Here’s a story that supports this.
Many of the younger generations who grew up in old Pähoa but no longer live there returned to their old hometown to visit the Pähoa Cemetery for possibly one last tribute to generations of family who lay buried there. As in Kapoho, nature could bury them once again. Some chose to remove gravestones as a way of remembering and honoring those who will be left. It was heartbreaking to see that flow snake its way through the graves — a second burial, but heartwarming to see the younger generation pay homage to their ancestors.
Times have changed, but I hope that help will be available to Pähoa’s residents, as it was to us when we fled Kapoho. Back then, the American Red Cross moved our house and reassembled it at no cost to us. We were offered state land at minimal prices at an auction. I hope that any auction of relocation property will be limited to Pähoa residents only. Back in the 1960s, non-Kapoho residents were allowed to bid on the parcels during the auction, which raised the prices for the Kapoho residents.
To residents of Pähoa, past and present, there are no words to explain what is happening. This is Pele’s will. We can only send our heartfelt expressions of support. I hope that we who live outside of Pähoa will stand with you and support you, as you did for Kapoho in 1960, so that you may rise once again as a community.
sounds of winter . . .
thick grey fog, softens metallic eyes,
blurring edges along its wake
last leaf of autumn, a final grasp ere
spiraling, to its fall
golden persimmon, a moveable feast . . .
when winter hunger growls
naked black limbs, inked into art
silencing moans of winter blues
the deafening sounds of winter
bring peace and good will.
May the new year bring many moments of joy and laughter and may the silence that surrounds us bring peace and comfort. Thank you, everyone.
Frances Kakugawa grew up in the Big Island communities of Kapoho and Pähoa and now lives in Sacramento, Calif. Most Herald readers know of Frances because of her monthly “Dear Frances” caregiving advice and thoughts column.