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Bound by Poi: Community poi-pounding day with Kauai's Waipa Foundation

The wetland taro terraces of Waipa ahupuaa. Photo by Mike Coots for HAWAII Magazine.

Working through a bucket of fresh-cut kalo waiting to be peeled, Aunty “Honey Girl” Hoomanawanui shakes her head and scolds me, not once gazing up at me.
“You not listening,” she says.

Irritated, she grabs the wet chunk of kalo (the Hawaiian word for “taro”) from my hand and yanks out her butter knife. She then demonstrates how I should be scraping off the pocket rot, thick skin and hard tops from the taro to prepare them for an industrial grinder, which will turn the starchy root into poi.

“Here!” she says, handing the cleaned taro back to me. “Do it right next time.”

I can’t blame Aunty Honey Girl for her gruffness. Her family has lived on Kaua‘i’s north shore—specifically, in Wainiha, a verdant valley between Hanalei and end-of-Kuhio-Highway Haena State Park—for more than five generations. In that time, her family has seen the area—Hanalei, in particular—transform from a sleepy rural community at the Napali Coast’s eastern end into a popular visitor destination with coffee bars, art galleries, restaurants and small retailers. I am just a visitor for the day, learning the task at hand, then leaving. But if I’m going to help Aunty today, she’s going to make sure I don’t waste her time.

We’re cleaning our taro in Waipa, a small ahupuaa stretching from the western shoreline of Hanalei Bay to the summit of 2,500-foot Mamalahoa mountain overlooking the bay. Their boundaries determined by Hawaiian ali‘i (royalty), ahupuaa were mountain-to-seashore land divisions established on each island to protect, maintain and distribute land and ocean resources for residents living within them. Some ahupuaa claimed massive acreage; others, like Waipā, were relatively small. 

Waipa is one of few remaining ahupua‘a in the Islands still virtually untouched by modern civilization. Its 1,600 acres span unblemished native mountain forests and meandering streams, a two-acre loi kalo (irrigated taro terrace) and partially restored seven-acre Halulu Fishpond, which teems with mullet and tilapia. The land is owned by Kamehameha Schools and managed by the community-based nonprofit Waipa Foundation. The foundation serves as Waipā’s steward, developing projects and programs aimed toward restoring the health of the ahupuaa’s native ecosystems and lands, involving the community in stewardship and restoration efforts (like the weekly Poi Day I’m participating in), and encouraging social, economic and environmental sustainability in the management of Waipa’s resources.

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Check out these related HawaiiMagazine.com posts:
4th annual Waipa Kalo Festival celebrates taro and land that nurtures it
Bali Hai calls again! Mitzi Gaynor Kauai bound for South Pacific celebration
Alaska Airlines adds more Hawaii flights

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