Fourteen people stand together on a shady path in a tropical forest. Half are men and half are women; they wear flip-flops, tee-shirts and shorts. They take a deep breath in unison, close their eyes, and begin to sing. The song is breathy and low, a tumble of words coming quiet at first, then building momentum.
The song is a request for permission to enter an ancient shrine, or heiau – a cluster of bamboo buildings built on low stone platforms among the trees. Just a few minutes from here are fast food restaurants, tumbledown houses and beaches full of partiers and surfers. But these people aren’t thinking about those places now. They’re thinking about their kupuna, or ancestors, and hoping for a sign that their own presence here is wanted.
When they’re done with their chant, a breeze comes from nowhere and rustles the leaves. “Did you feel that?” asks Momi Cruz Losano, the cheerful woman who has brought them here. “You didn’t believe it, did you?”
The singers are drug addicts, most of them sent by the courts or social service agencies to live, study, and heal at Ho’omau Ke Ola. Ho’omau Ke Ola is a non-profit, residential and outpatient substance abuse treatment program based in Waianae, on the west (or leeward) coast of Oahu. Waianae is one of the most depressed communities in Hawaii. The center was founded by community members in 1987 to help confront an enormous drug problem in the area, particularly among native Hawaiians. From the outset, it used traditional Hawaiian teachings as part of its therapeutic program. This spring Ho’omau Ke Ola went a step further, converting the cultural component into the program’s central feature.
The clients study Hawaiian history and genealogy, cooking and craft-making, storytelling and navigation. They work at a local demonstration farm, and take intensive language lessons. And they learn key concepts of Hawaiian philosophy and spirituality: the importance of ohana (family), malama ‘aina (care for the land), kuleana (responsibility), and pono (balance). The idea, program officials say, is to help the clients see that they are connected to something larger than themselves – that they are heirs to a sophisticated civilization, and that that civilization has lessons to teach them about making their way in the modern world.
Program director Jim Lutte, who spent 15 years with substance abuse programs in Pennsylvania, says the approach works. “Even though they’re in a treatment setting and they’re from different families, they’re from the same area and they consider themselves ohana, which means family. There seems to be a sense of safeness to take emotional risks that you don’t usually see in traditional programs.”
The biggest challenge for clients is to apply what they learn in treatment to their lives on the outside. Lutte says it helps that family, feasting, and fellowship are central to everyday life in Hawaii. “It’s not like they go through treatment and they have all this cultural awareness and now they’re back out in society and it’s not applicable. They actually fit in better when they go through this, because this is part of the way people live here.”
But for generations, people in Waianae have also lived with drugs, alcohol, poverty, violence, and despair. Those are difficult cycles to break. The drug of choice in Waianae – crystal methamphetamine, or “ice” – is extremely addictive. Like substance abuse programs everywhere that serve low-income clients, Ho’omau Ke Ola is chronically underfunded. Federal and state grants, which used to fund up to six months of residential treatment, now cover only 60-75 days – rarely enough for full recovery. Not to mention that the number of clients Ho’omau Ke Ola does serve is only a tiny fraction of the thousands of Hawaiians in need of help.
While treating addiction under these conditions is hard enough, there is an even more ambitious idea behind the center’s work. Ho’omau Ke Ola is part of a broader movement that seeks not just to help Hawaiians cope in society, but to make that society more sustainable and humane. All over the islands, natives and non-natives are studying the old ways – from farming and fishing to building canoes and dancing hula. The goal is not to escape the modern world, they say, but to change it.
“There’s no magic bullet,” says Eric Enos, director of Ka’ala Farm, a “cultural learning center” where Ho’omau Ke Ola’s clients come once a week to work in the taro patches, move rocks or clear brush. “Drugs are what you turn to when there’s a vacuum to fill. When you’re full of purpose, when life has a meaning, then you’re filling yourself up with something else, something positive. And when you’re filled with positive things then the junk doesn’t have as much room to enter.”
– Jonathan Miller