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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 8, 2007

Going home to Ma'ili for good

By Michael C. DeMattos

It seems that whenever the Wai'anae Coast comes up in conversation, it is because something terrible has happened. To be fair, Wai'anae has its share of problems, not least of which is the rampant poverty. But I would like to tell you a different story.

This is a story of community, family and one man's return home. It is the story of wealth beyond measure. In early June, the University of Hawai'i's School of Social Work hosted a conference for indigenous social workers from the Pacific Rim and beyond at the Makaha Resort.

In the two years leading up to the conference, I lobbied hard for it to be held in my hometown, away from the hustle and bustle of Waikiki and in the heart of one of the largest Hawaiian communities in the state.

I had many responsibilities at the conference, but none so daunting as leading a visit to the Wai'anae Coast Comprehensive Health Center. You see, I was supposed to deliver the oli kahea, the chant requesting entrance.

The truth is, I was distraught. Yes, I could speak the words ... but it did not feel appropriate to oli. I had no leo, no song. Luckily, two kupuna (elders) in the group saw my face, read my mind and offered to perform the oli in my stead. Both are now ho'ohanau or midwives to my experience and hold a special place in my heart.

After the oli kahea and the oli aloha were pau, I sat in the Healing Garden amphitheater and listened to the schedule of events. Within moments I drifted off, and in my mind's eye I saw a giant keawe tree, its branches stretched wide, reaching for the sun hovering just above the waves. But something was wrong: It had no roots.

I realized immediately that the tree was me.

How does one re-enter a community that was left so long ago?

At 18, I began my professional journey. I left Ma'ili and never really returned. Yes, my father still lives on the coast in the same house in which I was raised. And yes, I see him nearly every weekend, a student to the wise old sage. But I have not ventured farther than Longs Drugs in quite some time.

Despite being an advocate for holding the conference at the Makaha resort, I felt like a stranger in my own land.

We toured and visited many programs that day, and with each step, my spirit lifted. The aloha shared by our hosts enveloped me. I felt my lungs fill with ocean mist and my heart beat to the rhythm of an incoming tide.

The best was saved for last. Several kupuna joined Kamaki Kanahele, director of Native Hawaiian traditional healing, as he shared his mana'o (wisdom) about the many plants contained in the Healing Garden.

After the presentation, one kupuna grabbed me by the shoulder. His grip belied his years and I found I had no choice but to face him. He looked at me with the wisdom of generations. He spoke and I listened and breathed. With each exhalation I felt roots extend from below my feet. In my mind, I saw them wrap around hard rock. I had come home.

Later that night, as I shared the experience with my wife, we cried together.

I cried for what was lost, but mostly for what was found. I suspect she cried for me, but that some of the tears were for her. A Hilo girl, her journeys home are fewer and farther between than mine.

For 24 years my father has been welcoming me home every weekend. For five days in early June,Wai'anae welcomed me home for the last time. My spirit will never leave again.

Michael C. DeMattos is a member of the faculty at the University of Hawai'i School of Social Work. He lives in Kane'ohe with his wife, daughter, two dogs and two mice.