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A taste of Hawai‘i

Ka Papa Lo‘i O Kānewai: Not your classic Waikīkī luau

  • 3 min to read
Lo’i

If you plan to volunteer in the lo’i, wear clothes you can get dirty.

College students can experience traditional Hawaiian cuisine, learn about the culture and work in one of the oldest irrigation systems in the world, all without leaving the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa campus.

Bordered by the Hawaiian Studies complex, college student dorms and the nonstop rush of cars on Dole Street, Ka Papa Lo‘i O Kānewai is a cultural garden that sustains one of the largest collections of native Hawaiian taro in existence according to the director of the site, Edward Cashman Jr. Students and members of the community are welcome to engage and immerse themselves in Hawaiian culture.

“We try to create a space for university students to practice Hawaiian things or to get a taste for what Hawaiian things are,” Cashman said. “Whether it be the language, the actual art or working with different practitioners, students get that opportunity to learn.”

A community workday is hosted on site every first Saturday of the month, except for January. Volunteers learn stories of the origin and importance of the taro plant and the history of the site. A short hike along with a lesson explains the water system and how the water is diverted to the taro ponds or lo‘i. Then work begins with picking leaves for fertilizer. 

This is followed by a complimentary meal, which usually includes kalua pig, rice pudding, opae salad and taro, if available. 

History and Philosophy

The lo‘i was established in 1980 by a group of Hawaiian language students with the intent of creating a space where university students could practice Hawaiian culture: the language, the food and traditional practices. As a result of the efdforts of that small group of students 37 years ago, the lo‘i patch became a department within the university. 

The lo‘i is now one of three departments under Hawai‘inuiākea, the School of Hawaiian Knowledge. While the other two schools are mostly classroom based, Ka Papa Lo‘i O Kānewai Cultural Garden provides an avenue for students to apply what they have learned.

“We believe in Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike,” Cashman said. “In the doing, that’s where you learn the most. We are the place where you actually come to practice.” 

The lo‘i is open to everyone, whether it be to students enrolled in the School of Hawaiian Knowledge, students trying to fulfill service learning requirements or just anyone interested in learning more about the Hawaiian culture. 

Methods

Primarily traditional methods are used at the lo‘i to farm crops. Taro is grown in ponds, which are fed by a network of streams known as the ‘auwai system, which dates back to 1400 A.D. This method of farming produces taro with a stickier texture, which is ideal for making poi, a Hawaiian staple food. The moon is also a major factor in determining when to plant. 

“Because I’m not using fertilizer, it’s very important that I follow these traditional ways and practices,” Cashman said. “It’s a long process and usually the longer the process of the food, it’s healthier as opposed to fast food.” 

In addition to teaching students sustainable planting methods, a place like the lo‘i is necessary to sustain the Hawaiian culture. By talking about the different varieties of taro and the methods used to grow them, the language and culture can thrive. 

“When you talk about the different varieties, you’re already talking about language and different practices because each one is different,” Cashman said. “Once taro farmers come in and they start asking about the varieties, an exchange happens. That’s where native intelligence is critical to sustainability.”

None of the crops harvested from the lo‘i are sold, instead they are given back to the community. 

“Community groups like preschools will ask for some taro,” Cashman said. “And sometimes we’ll have a booth and people can come and taste the different varieties.”

According to Cashman, the site has about 20,000 to 25,000 visitors each year. 

Ka Papa Lo‘i O Kānewai is not your classic Waikīkī luau. Do not expect to find plastic lei or dancing hula girls here. What you will find is a place where you have the opportunity to talk to locals, try their food and practice their traditions alongside them. 

How to Get Involved

Community workdays are held every first Saturday of the month and are open to anyone in the community looking for an opportunity to experience traditional farming methods, converse with Hawaiian Language speakers, talk story with practitioners  or enjoy the day with family and friends.  This is also a good opportunity for students who need to fulfill community service hours for scholarships or put in a few hours for course extra credit.  No reservations are required.  The lo‘i will provide light refreshments for volunteers to enjoy. Additionally, a Third Saturday program at Ka Papa Lo‘i ‘o Punalu‘u during the school year is available.