Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
It’s an early Saturday morning and all is quiet on Kamoku St. except for the vibrant teal blue 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans Clubhouse, where members are already hard at work. Clubhouse members are gathering to shape Genki Balls, which they’ll toss into the Ala Wai canal on Earth Day, Saturday, April 22.
The clubhouse holds memories of the brave Nisei warriors who fought for the country during World War II. Formed after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack of Pearl Harbor, the 100th IB was composed of mainly second-generation Japanese men from Hawai‘i. While in training on the mainland, the 100th IB’s outstanding performance was a factor that led to the formation of the all-volunteer 442nd Regimental Combat Team – together becoming the most decorated unit in the U.S. for its size and length of service. After the war, the veterans of the 100th IB formed Club 100 (later changing its name to the 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans), contributing $2 every paycheck to fund a gathering place for their families.
“Our fathers of Club 100 picked the motto: ‘For Continuing Service,’” said Arlene Sato, who organized the Genki Ball-making event. “We Charlie chapter descendants take this as our guiding light and decided we’d like to do service projects.”
Initially a project for the 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans Clubhouse Charlie chapter members, other chapters learned of the project and inquired if they could join in, then family and neighbors also requested to participate, and before they knew it, at least 35 members of the clubhouse and community registered for the event, eager to help transform the Ala Wai from polluted waters back to “the good old days.” Sato said since the Ala Wai is a neighbor of the clubhouse, making Genki Balls to help clean the canal was a perfect community-service project.
At the clubhouse, fold-out tables covered with black plastic tarps line a narrow rock-covered alleyway, with the requisite Genki Ball-making materials placed on each table – a large Tupperware bin, plastic bucket, metal sifter, a Ziploc bag of rice bran (generously donated by Sun Noodle) and an open bag of dirt. Jugs filled with a specially mixed dark-colored liquid called EM-1 (Effective Microorganisms) are ready to go – however, there’s a small snag – after weeks of intermittent rain, the dirt is wet with moisture.
Undeterred, the early arrivals carry on, pouring dirt into newspaper-lined cardboard containers in thin layers to dry in the warm spring sun.
“If it crumbles easily, it’s too dry. You don’t want it to get too wet. You don’t want to get all muddy and sticky. You want it just right. The microbes don’t like air, they don’t like oxygen, so make it into a tight rock,” explained Mary Ann Kobayashi, a former teacher who is part of the Genki Ala Wai Project team that is responsible for Ala Wai’s recent improvements. Kobayashi, along with fellow retired educators Diane Iwaoka and Jean Itamoto, came to the clubhouse to teach members proper Genki Ball formation.
Iwaoka says service to others is the healthiest way of living, especially in retirement, and Itamoto enjoys watching others learn to be a good example for future generations.
As the members file into the clubhouse alleyway and find space at a table, Kobayashi pulls out a chart pad with hand-drawn pictures explaining EM and microbes and a volunteer agrees to be the human chart stand while Kobayashi flips the pages. Kobayashi begins to explain:
The Genki Ala Wai Project was nearly 20 years in the making. Around the year 2000, Kobayshi met Hiromichi Nago of EM Hawaii, LLC, who introduced her to Effective Micoroorganisms, a mixture of natural aerobic and anaerobic microoganisms, primarily lactic acid bacteria, yeast and phototrophic bacteria. EM was invented an ocean away, by emeritus in horticulture professor Dr. Teruo Higa at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa, in 1981.
“It was one of those ‘aha’ moments,” said Kobayashi. “That’s when we started to dream that one day, we will clean the Ala Wai. But it took a long time.”
Kobayashi explained they were hit with city, state and federal rules and regulations and kept hitting a stone wall. Finally, in 2019, Kobayashi and Nago met again with the Department of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Initially, the EPA told them that they could not put liquid directly into streams; however, they said Genki Balls were okay, Genki Balls could be tossed in the Ala Wai; and thus, the Genki Ala Wai Project was born, nearly 20 years after their dream was conceived.
The Genki Ala Wai Project is a non-profit under the Hawaii Exemplary State Foundation and EM Hawaii, LLC, and its goal is to work with the community to restore the ecosystem in the Ala Wai’s ahupua‘a and use bioremediation technology to make the Ala Wai canal fishable and swimmable by November 2026.
Genki Balls consist of clay soil, rice bran, molasses, water and EM-1 solution and are the project’s proposed solution to cleaning up the Ala Wai canal. Because the micoroorganisms are used in food production, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration marked them for its GRAS (generally recognized as safe) list. After the Genki Balls are tossed into the Ala Wai, it provides a “home” for EM to digest sludge at the bottom of the canal. The fermented bacteria embed into the sludge’s surface as it digests and oxygenates the sludge while consuming harmful gases and foul odors.
A March 2020 Hawai‘i Herald article followed the Genki Ala Wai Project’s beginnings as they worked with Lori Kwee’s fourth-grade class at Ala Wai Elementary, just before the project hit the unexpected obstacle of COVID-19 sweeping the globe, only three months after the project began.
But the Genki Ala Wai project continued, albeit slower than expected, adding public and private schools, companies, clubs and work groups to make and toss Genki Balls into the canal.
Despite the COVID-19 shutdown and two years of limited get-togethers, the Ala Wai waters has already shown signs of repair. Earlier this year, a manta ray and a sea lion were spotted floating through the water – a sighting unheard of in recent decades.
The Ala Wai canal, a man-made estuary, was constructed in the 1920s to drain Mänoa, Makiki and Pälolo Valley streams and to keep heavy rains from flooding the burgeoning tourist destination of Waikïkï. The area’s wetlands contained duck ponds, fishponds, taro patches and rice fields, and territorial government leaders feared the marshy landscape were potential breeding ground for diseases and a threat to public health, according to a 2013 Civil Beat article. The canal took seven years to construct, extending two miles long and 250-feet wide along the border of Waikïkï and empties into the ocean. Initially the project intended to have two outlets, with a second output near Kaimana Beach, but the idea was nixed as developers worried the pollution would flow back into the popular swimming area. The dredging from the inside canal was used to fill the Waikïkï wetlands, making the ground suitable for building apartments and hotels.
The Ala Wai transformed Waikïkï, as tourists began visiting in droves, but the canal itself became a destination. Residents fished and clammed in the canal waters. Families gathered to watch boat races. Community organizations planted trees along the borders. Social dances were held at the Ala Wai clubhouse, and no one complained of the smell.
“I remember crabbing in the Ala Wai with my father,” said Sato. “There was even a concession that rented boats, run by one of our members. I remember a floating restaurant that sold ramen.”
But as urbanization transformed island lifestyle, the Ala Wai canal changed with it. Apartments replaced farmland and runoff from growing neighborhoods, as well as the natural mud and sediment that flowed into the canal, and the Ala Wai became a depository for not just mud, but also trash and organic debris.
“If we do not take care of the Ala Wai and continue to pour in pesticides and fertilizer, all it has is chemicals,” Kobayashi said. “If we don’t take care of the microbes, what happens is you have bad microbes taking over. All that decayed material will just pile up and pile up and pile up because there’s not enough oxygen, and you have sludge forming.”
When the Genki Balls are thrown into the canal, it sinks straight down to the bottom and breaks down the sludge, layer by layer, Kobayashi explained.
Eventually, said Kobayashi, the Ala Wai will return to a stable condition if the microbes are balanced and healthy. That also means educating people upstream by throwing Genki Balls in the stream, so it’ll break down the sludge before it even gets to the Ala Wai. “It takes the whole ahapua‘a to get involved and keep the area clean,” she said.
With that, she claps her hands together and smiles. “So, are we ready to make Genki Balls today?”
The clubhouse members cheer, ready to mix up some microbes and get their hands (or gloves) dirty.
After a couple of hours of warming in the sun, the once-moist soil is dry enough for Genki Ball construction. Some volunteers shake soil through metal sifters, removing large sticks and stones while others mix the rice bran, soil and EM-1 solution, shaping the concoction into malasada-sized balls.
For four hours, the clubhouse members and volunteers work steadily, chatting and laughing in the shade of the 100th Infantry Battalion Clubhouse until all the soil is gone.
“Laulima,” said Iwaoka as the final Genki Ball tray is completed. “Many hands coming together.”
By the end of the day, 35 members and volunteers shaped 490 balls. After waiting two weeks for the microbes to grow, they’ll gather again to toss their balls into the Ala Wai on Earth Day.
Sato said this is not the last time they’ll be making Genki Balls – in fact, plans are already in the works for a clubhouse member who is also part of the electricians’ union to put together a Genki Ball-making event of its own.
Kobayashi said repeat Genki Ball making is a great way to help the project reach its goals of 8,000 balls in the Ala Wai a month to help them reach its overall goal of 300,000 Genki Balls in seven years. She said they plan to start having at least two community events twice a month and the project is always open to booking private events.
Kobayashi said she would love to have more public and private schools from all over the island participate and for students to know what happens at the Ala Wai also affects them in some way.
“If the Ala Wai is dirty, then the ocean is polluted. That water then circulates around the island to other areas,” said Kobayashi. “We’re such a small place that no matter where you are, your problems will impact everybody else. We need to help each other. Let’s get the Ala Wai clean first, let’s prove that it can be done – then we can start addressing other streams and waterways. With each ball, you’re making a difference.”
For more information about the Genki Ala Wai Project and how you can get involved, please visit genkialawai.org.