Soul of Kalaupapa

They loaded us on a boat and
then we headed straight out.
Where am I, what am I doing here,
why am I here?
Then I began to think about home,
my parents and I started to cry.
— Henry Nalaielau, author, patient, resident, 1929-2009; memories as a 7 year old forced into exile

The soul of Kalaupapa: voices of Exile

Literally translated 'Flat Leaf' or 'Flat Plain,' many banned to the Peninsula of Kalaupapa on the island of Moloka'ï have endured decades of pain and suffering, of obscurity and exile.  Beginning in 1866, and for 103 years, the Hawaiian and American governments banned more than 8,000 people to this remote island.  Most of these exiles were afflicted with Hansen's disease, feared by the sickness also known as leprosy.

Imagine early Hawaii, still untouched and thriving in beauty: rich vegetation, crystal-azure waters on ocean shores, fine-grained sand and rock beaches, mango, coconut trees, large opihi shells and an abundance of sea creatures flourishing below the blue surface.

No hotels. No fast food. No shopping malls. Not even a public grocery store. When tourists come, it’s only for a day since permission to stay overnight must be granted by a patient or resident.

This is heaven. This is Kalaupapa.

My journey began in 2006 when I landed on a small runway with BYU Professor Fred Woods in preparation for a documentary project on the patients and survivors of the former Hansen’s disease (leprosy) settlement.

I was an energetic haole (Hawaiian for ‘white boy’), armed with a few books on the subject and full of confidence that every patient I’d encounter would gladly unload their wisdom, insights and emotions into my static camera. Needless to say, I had a lot to learn as a filmmaker. Kalaupapa taught me to turn the camera off. To listen. To slow down.

Over the next four years, my ambitious journey continued. Trust, honesty, sincerity and passion fueled the project as 14 patients opened their hearts and let me in.  The beauty of the island is one thing, but the beauty of the survivors is what makes Kalaupapa a holy place.

Imagine being forced to leave your family at the age of eight because you had an illness. With no cure in sight, and external signs of the sickness slowly bearing light, there was no longer a “you.” Your identity had become the sickness. Doctors, acquaintances and the people around you no longer looked you in the eye, but starred with fear at the sickness. Standing on the peer, you hugged your mother, father, brothers or sisters for the last time and took your spot among the animals on a cargo ship headed to the island of Moloka’i.

Despair and loneliness can do two things: It can destroy you or make you better. The patients alive today have chosen the later, embraced life to its fullest and consequently, survived. Their faith in something bigger, in something beyond themselves is inspiring, and their stories remain unforgettable.

Unfortunately, there are still many who are ignorant about the disease. It is not fatal, nor highly infectious.  Limbs do not fall off.  Hansen's disease (leprosy) is a chronic illness caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium Leprae and curable through antibiotic and multi-drug treatment.

The many memories I have of Kalaupapa are linked to a whole flood of emotions. It is clear that I will never be able to look at the island of Moloka’i, Hawai’i the same way.

On the night before Christmas, my dear friend Auntie Gertude Ka’auwai passed away and her sudden death shook me.  She taught me how to play cribbage, shared her stories freely and on a visit to Vegas won $1,000 on the slot machines while I was filming. I miss her dearly.

The question not fully answered in the documentary remains. What will happen to Kalaupapa when the last patient has left this existence? As of now, the National Park Service has voiced their commitment to honor the legacy of the settlement, but will it really be possible to keep Kalaupapa untouched from the demands of tourism? 

Today, less than 10 patients remain in the settlement, while others receive full medical care on O’ahu.  When visitors are granted permission to enter Kalaupapa, even before they reach the Welcome sign, rows and rows of gravestones are lined to greet them, each one a memory of all those patients who endured isolation and suffered early deaths, because of a feared disease. 

Understanding their legacy is to touch and be touched by the many stories of triumph and overcoming, and to grasp the soul of Kalaupapa.

A Film By: Ethan Vincent
Producers: Fred Woods, Ethan Vincent
Executive Producers: Sterling Van Wagenen, Scott Swofford, Derek Marquis
Cinematography: Brian Wilcox
Narrator: Chris Kendrick
Production Sound: Travis Allen
Titles and Graphics: Beth Pena
Sound Design and Audio Mix: Billy Wirasnik
Music by: Sam Cardon
Featuring: Dr. S Kalani Brady, Patrick Boland, Elizabeth Kuulei Bell, Norbert Palea, Elroy Makia Malo, Edwin Lelepali, Henry Nalaielau, Getrude Ka'auwai, Ishmael W. Stagner II., Dr. Alan D. Tice, Michael Maruyama, Katherine Costales, Kerri A. Inglis, Catherine Puahala, Ka'ohulani McGuire, Fred E. Woods, Most Reverend Clarence Silva, Paul Herada, Ivy Kahilihiwa, Clarance "Boogie" Kahilihiwa
Aerial Footage: Paradise Helicopters, Josh Long
Special Thanks: DK Venkatesh, Aliya Dunstan, Anil Kumar, Angella Berry, Health Catalyst

Total running time: 55 min.
Premiered: Fall 2012