Meli Watanuki

Kalaupapa Memories



In this special edition of Long Story Short, we recall our 2009 stay in the Kalaupapa community on Moloka‘i. Members of the dwindling population of former Hawai‘i Hansen’s Disease patients shared what it was like, many years ago, to leave their homes and families. Norbert Kaiama Palea, Elroy Makia Malo, Meli Watanuki and Clarence “Boogie” Kalihihiwa speak of isolation, loss, community, hope and renewal.


This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Apr. 28, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.


More from this program


Clarence “Boogie” Kalihihiwa


Elroy Makia Malo


Norbert Kaiama Palea


Kalaupapa Memories Audio


Download the Transcript




Meli Watanuki:


I pray a lot when I came here.  I pray so much, you know, for sad of me, and take away all that sad to me.  Yeah.


Because you had so much sadness, and you needed it to be gone.  And? Did the sadness go away?


Yes. Now, I’m happy right now.


Elroy Makia Malo:


This young boy asked me: Why you wearing dark glasses?  I said: What?  Why you wearing dark glasses?  I didn’t know what to say.  I said: Oh … you wouldn’t want to know.


Clarence “Boogie” Kahilihiwa:


I met some good people; good people.  I mean, they’re all gone, and you know, we have to carry on what their dreams.  That’s what I feel today.


Norbert Kaiama Palea:


Look around you; look what God gave.  Look around. You know, lots to appreciate for about. You know, I still have a good mind. Thank God for that.  You know what I mean?  It’s the way you think; the way you think, the way you perceive things.


These are four of the last individuals from the dwindling population of Hansen’s Disease patients in the Kalaupapa community on Moloka‘i.  We’ll hear more of their memories, and find out how each found a sense of peace after much sickness and sorrow, coming up next, on a special edition of Long Story Short.


One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawai‘i’s most intriguing people: Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.


Aloha mai kākou. I’m Leslie Wilcox.  On this edition of Long Story Short, we’re recalling our 2009 trip to the remote Kalaupapa Peninsula on the north shore of Moloka‘i, where we talked story with some of the last remaining patients there. Kalaupapa is a place of great natural beauty, and yet, it will always be linked to the once dreaded disease leprosy, also called Hansen’s Disease.  Starting in 1866, thousands of Hawai‘i residents diagnosed with this disease were ripped from their families, and quarantined in Kalaupapa.  When I spoke with these four residents in 2009, they were preparing to travel to Rome for the sainthood ceremony for Father Damien. He was their hero, who cared for patients in Kalaupapa, and ultimately died of leprosy.  First, we visit with Norbert Kaiama Palea, who was just a keiki when he was taken to the old Kalihi Hospital detention center.  His next stop was Kalaupapa, where his father had already been forced to go.


My name Kaiama.  When I was a child, maybe about a year old, my grandfolks told my mom I’m gonna be taken away from her.  Just like that.  So, they said: We going give you the name Kaiama; it means strong.


Like the ama in the ocean, of the canoe.


You’re not gonna fall to the side, and all that.  So, I believed that, you know, the name.


So, when you received the name Kaiama, and they knew you had to be strong, and they said you’d be taken away, what was that all about?


I know my name is Norbert, but all my brothers and sisters, my family, they don’t call me Norbert.  Only the family call me that name.  So, all my brothers and sisters began to call me that every time they come.  You know, so I become it.  I don’t know, but they start calling me that name.


Do you think it was destiny that you came here, fate, or was that just a lucky guess that somebody thought you were gonna be taken away?


It was destiny.  And I have no regrets about it; none whatsoever.  I feel this way: that, you know, when something sad happens to you, you know, you grow from that.  Sadness is a good thing, you know.  Lot of people say: Oh?  Sadness changes your whole outlook in life.  So, my mother said: Don’t turn around.  So, when we got on the plane—I remember that, just before coming—everybody was crying, you know, and I was singing.  Just like their wails, their crying was above my voice.  So, I remember, I just looked back.  And then, I still remember their faces, my mother and my … in fact, before, they was crying, my mother said: Remember now, Kaiama, don’t cry, now.  I said: Ma, how come they’re crying?  But nobody’s crying; I don’t see no tears, but I can feel it.  And she said: Oh, because they love you.  You know, my mother had all the answers for everything. She was a wizard.


Here’s a mom who lost her husband, and the eleventh child.


Yeah; my mother was a very strong lady.  She believed in God and everything, you know.  So, she instilled in me something that no professors of mine that I’ve had over the years can ever give you that kind of value.


Your mom, you say, was very strong.  And of course, she had other children; you were the eleventh.  But I can’t believe she would have been that strong for so long, not being with her little boy.


Every time when I used to go home for funerals—and I just went to two recently. Every year, I’m going down for funerals. There’s so many of us; there’s hundreds of us.  So, I go to the funeral, and then my grandnieces, my great-grandnieces, they always say to me: You know, Uncle, every time Grandma used say she’d cry every single day, even ‘til now.  You know.  My mother used to say: They cheat me of you; they robbed me.  You know, the relationship between us.  And my brothers and sisters, too.  And when I talk about this place, and I want to come back, my brothers and sisters would cry.  My mother said: You didn’t have the sick, you know; remember that, you did not have the sick. You know, you didn’t do anything wrong.


There’s such loneliness here, and yet, such a sense of community, too.


I don’t feel.  And you know something?


You never felt lonely?


Never, ever.  It’s like this; I’m home here in my house.  Now, I know a lot of people that’s here, I’m younger than them; right? So, I look up to them, I respect them. Not because I have a better education, that I’m better than them.  No, I’m not. I’m below them.  So, if I know they’re sick or something, I go and take something to them, or give up some time and go there.  We don’t have time to worry about getting sad.  To me, you know, when you help other people, you’re actually helping yourself.


You know, it sounds like you’ve made the very best of this, and you have appreciation of abundance, not scarcity. But what about some of the folks who were here at the same time?  I mean, that can’t be that common a reaction, just acceptance.  You must have seen a lot of defiance and—


Oh, I’ve seen a lot of—oh, it’s heartbreaking.  I’ve seen it.  But then, as the years go by, because we have all these great leaders here, you know, one word from them, they can calm everybody down.  A‘ole!, they would say.  Don’t think, and don’t feel that way.  This is just a new beginning.  That is a beginning.  And why we’re here, we are not to question God; why you’re here.  It’s not for or me to say: Oh, why did you give me this sick? You know, the thing is to accept it, and make the best out of it.  And then, appreciate everything that’s around you, and then one day, you’re gonna see the beauty.  You see? Even if he sent us here, but look around.  You know what I mean?  Look, he gave us the most beautiful woman in the world.  That’s the icing on the cake.


Thanks to the discovery of effective treatment in the late 1940s, Norbert Kaiama Palea was eventually able to leave Kalaupapa to attend college, and pursue a successful career in fashion design.  He traveled widely, and returned.  He told me several times during our conversation that he was kolohe, or a rascal; not a typical patient.  Not long after we spoke near the large breadfruit trees in his yard in Kalaupapa, he was arrested.  The Feds took him into custody on suspicion of possession of meth amphetamine, with intent to distribute it.  He pleaded guilty in August of 2010, and served almost five years before his release in 2015.


Next, we chat with Clarence Kahilihiwa, better known by his nickname, Boogie.  Just a bit older than Norbert, he was diagnosed two years later, and by then, many patients were being treated at the Hale Mohalu facility in Central O‘ahu. Still, that meant uprooting the eight-year-old boy from his home in Kalapana on the Big Island.  Boogie had already said goodbye to three siblings, and eventually, he would follow them to Kalaupapa.


Why do they call you Boogie?


The real story.


Long story short; long story short.  Okay.  World War II … I think I was about three years old.  You know, we come from Kalapana, and we had the old type gas masks. And going school, even kindergarten, we still had to carry our gas mask.  But my sister them used to, you know, scare me, and then they call me Boogieman, Boogieman.  That’s how I got the name.


Did you actually get diagnosed?


Yes, I did.  Yeah.


And how old were you?


I was about nine.  Yeah. Or maybe I was eight in ’49, you know.


Was there a lot of worry on your part, on your family’s part, that you were going away to be checked out for a blemish, and when your sister and brother went, they didn’t come back.


I think it was more on my mom’s side.  In fact, in a way, I was kinda happy that I was in Honolulu, because you know, Honolulu was a different island to me.  And it didn’t bother me, really, that I was separated at that time, until maybe about two, three days.  Then my mom them left me there, and then they came back a short while afterwards. Maybe about a month, they came back to Honolulu.  And that’s when I really … I saw my mother crying.


And you were the third child she had lost to isolation.


I was the fourth.


Fourth child.


Fourth; yeah.


So, at that point, you were living in Hale Mohalu in Pearl City.  Didn’t they have a fence around it?


Oh, shucks.   To me, looked like one prison.  You remember the picture, Stalag 17, I think it was.  You know, they got the fence up like this, and they got the barbed wire this way.


Were there other kids your age, nine years old?


Norbert came in not too long afterwards.  Then, another week, a few more came in.  In fact, when I went to Hale Mohalu, looked like they just moved into Mohalu not too long ago.  After a while, I came up here.


Did anybody tell you you’re going there, and it’s in effect a death sentence, there is no cure, people get terribly sick?


No, not when I was young.


And you’ll never come back.


No, no; not when I was young.  Because I knew I was coming here to see my sister and my brother.  And I knew I was going back.


How many people were here when you came?


When I came, well, the first time I came here, I would say about over five hundred.





And now, fewer than twenty, this day in 2009.


I would say over.  But those days, people was dying too, see?  You know.  When you hear the bell, you know who’s that.


What was it like living here?  When were you a kid, what was it like?


It’s all right.  You know. Nobody tells me what for do.  We go down the beach, no fences around.  Only thing, we have to be home at a certain time, you know.  There was a little control on the staying up late, we need our nap in the afternoon. You know.  Was good.  I liked it. I met a lot of good people.


Was there a lot of sickness?


Yeah; there were a lot of people.  I mean, a lot of them at that time had kidney problems, heart failure.  Yeah.  A lot of them was blind; we had a lot of blind people, blind patients.


Did that make you afraid of what was ahead for you?


No; I didn’t think that way.  In fact, some of them became very good friends, and you know, they began to tell us stories about their time.


You’ve been to a lot of funerals in your life.


Oh, yes.


More so than the average person who does not live in Kalaupapa.


I think so too.  You gotta go, because that’s the last time you going see him, whether he’s lying in the coffin or what.  People have this thing about they don’t want to see a dead man.  I know that, but it’s the same when you have a photo.  You wish you could have said something, or you know.


So, you go, even though it takes it out of you.


Yeah; yeah.  You have to go.


In the fall of 2018, Boogie Kahilihiwa remains active in the Kalaupapa community.  He still runs the bookstore, and is president of Ka ‘Ohana O Kalaupapa, a nonprofit organization advocating on a variety of issues, developing a new memorial for patients, and perpetuating Hawaiian culture in the community.


Next, we meet a man who arrived in Kalaupapa the same year as Norbert Palea in 1947, and lived there for almost twenty-five years before returning to Honolulu.  You may recognize Elroy Makia Malo as a noted Hawaiian storyteller.  And many of the stories he’s told relate to coming of age in Kalaupapa.  Makia lived with his large family on Hawaiian homestead land in Papakolea until the age of twelve, when symptoms of Hansen’s Disease appeared, and he followed two siblings to Kalaupapa.  Once there, his symptoms got worse.


Is going blind a common effect of Hansen’s Disease?


For many, yeah.  Yeah. Was one of the things.  Not everybody became blind, but many.


When you felt yourself going blind, and knowing that others at the settlement tended to be shut-ins once they were blind, did you tell anyone?


No; not even the doctor.


You were trying to keep it a secret, so that you could be out and about?


I didn’t know I was blind.  So, the doctor asked me how I was doing.  I said, okay. A whole week, I couldn’t see.  But like I say, my mind was, it was temporary. So, I’d find my way to the bathroom by just hanging onto the wall, and crossing the floor by counting the doors where another bathroom is.  So, that evening, I got up, and I’m looking around—listening, rather.  Nobody in the hallway.  I walk out down the hallway, come to the nurse’s station, and nobody in there.  Right across the nurse’s station, right alongside the continuing hallway down the outside is this pillar.  I can see the light inside the telephone booth.  I walk straight to the light.  I said: Oh, Mama, Mama, this is Makia.  Mama, can you and Daddy come down tomorrow?  Yeah, okay, son.  They came down, and Daddy ended up sitting at the end of the bed, Mama sits on my right. And Mama always did this; she sit by me, and she grab my arm, she rubs my arm, rubs my arm.  And then I say: Mama, Mama … I have something to say. And Mama says: Yes, son.  Mama … Mama, I’m blind.  Yes, son.  She keeps on rubbing.  Mama, you heard me?  She says: Yes, son.  She continues rubbing, and each time it’s getting harder, and harder.  Mama, Mama, I’m burning.  And I could hear her sobbing as she’s rubbing harder, and harder. And my dad, I can tell when he’s crying; he starts sniffling.  You know.




And that was how I told my parents I was blind.


Makia Malo did much more than survive.  In 1971, he moved back to Honolulu and earned a degree in Hawaiian studies from the University of Hawai‘i.  Makia’s talent for storytelling caught the attention of master storyteller Jeff Gere, who presented Makia to audiences.  And then, Makia met and married Ann Grant, who provided the vision to bring his stories to school children.


Suddenly, I see a face, an almost featureless face, a face whose eyes show the discoloration of one blind, a face whose nose has been ravaged, flattened, and the skin mottled with so many scars.


Who made the first move?


Oh, her.


She wanted to take me to her apartment.  And I was thinking: Oh, jeez, how I going get home?  It was from that day on, she comes see me.  You know, we just kept in touch.  I just couldn’t see what this Haole girl from the mainland coming after me.  I thought she’s crazy.


I’m blind, I’m all jammed up.  I have an embarrassing history.  Didn’t matter to her.  But I felt bad for her.  Wow.


Sounds like she didn’t complain, her whole long marriage with you.


No, she didn’t complain.  She got angry often, and now and then, I would get angry too.  But she was my angel, man.  Oh, god.  What a life she helped me into.


In the fall of 2018, Makia Malo was living in Honolulu receiving special care.  His engaging storytelling helped to share the Kalaupapa experience with young people, and preserve it for future generations.


At this time in 2018, Meli Watanuki works in the Kalaupapa General Store. Back in 1952, she was diagnosed with Hansen’s Disease in American Samoa, and left her home and family for treatment in Western Samoa.  Later, she came to Hawai‘i.


So, how did you get to Honolulu?


Okay. So, when I paroled, you know—


They called it a parole?


Yeah, parole, just like you’re discharged from the sickness.  Yeah; the Hansen’s Disease.  So, my stepsister was here, and my stepmother.  They know that I was discharged from October 19, 1958. So, you know, they told me to come here in Hawai‘i.  And I said: Well, I’m not too sure.  But they said: You come, come; you just come out from the hospital.  Yeah; so that’s why I came Hawai‘i.  And then, I married, and then I moved out.  So …


You thought all your troubles were behind you; you got married.




Did you have a baby?


Yeah. I have one child; it’s a boy.  So, 1964, I just see, because I know when I come Samoa, you know, I don’t know where to go pick up my medicine.  So, I thought it’s finished already.  And you know, they said: You’re supposed to go take your medicine.  I said: No, I did not, because I don’t know the hospital.  So, I went go take test, and just few weeks, and then they called me and said: Yeah, you set up something with your baby and your husband, and then you gotta go Hale Mohalu.  I said: Oh, fine.  And I feel that I better not stay there, because with my baby, I don’t want my baby to get sick.  Because he’s too young, I think only three years old.  So, I set up things, and I talked to my husband.  And my husband think, you know, just like you go hospital, you know, and few days come back.  But end up that was not.  Then, he came visit me with my son, and they see all the fence around.  But get plenty other Filipino there too at Hale Mohalu, so they was talking.  And he said: They talk Filipino.  And then, end up that was the last day I see him and my son.  They never come back.


So, you didn’t see your son from the time he was three, to the time he was in college?




You seem so matter-of-fact when you talk about it. How much does it still hurt?  I know you’ve talked about it, you’ve had time to deal with it, but how are you with it?


I feel hurt.  It’s hard for me, trying to go help him and tell him, you know, your mom love you.


And now, nothing?


Nothing.  They never come back, they never call, no write.  So, I just let it go.


Why did you come to Kalaupapa?  You weren’t banished, you didn’t have to live here.


I feel happy.  Because when I came here, they was really good.  You know, and they tell me: Anytime, you can go Honolulu, you can go Las Vegas, you can go anyplace, but this is your home.  So oh, okay.  And I’m really, really happy, you know, to stay here.


And how’s your health?


My health is okay.  Only, I have asthma.  So, it’s taken care, you know, every time I go see the doctor.  Yes.


So, the Hansen’s Disease is not a problem?


No, it’s finished already.  Yeah.


So, you’ve had so much loss in your life.  Is that how you see it?


I really feel, what’s happened with all this thing they went do, I pray a lot when I came here.  I pray so much, you know, for sad of me, and take away all that sad to me.


Because you had so much sadness, and you needed it to be gone.  And did the sadness go away?


Yes. Now, I’m happy right now.  Plus, my husband, they are so nice to me.


Meli Watanuki chose Kalaupapa as her home.  In 2018, she’s lived in Kalaupapa for almost fifty years with her second husband, who passed away, and later her third husband, Randall Watanuki.


About eight thousand patients came to Kalaupapa, and most never left.  In the fall of 2018, we’re told only about nine patients remain in Kalaupapa out of the dozen still living.  It was a pleasure and an honor for our PBS Hawai‘i team to spend time with the residents. For Long Story Short and PBS Hawai‘i, I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Aloha nui.


For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit  To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit


So, when did romance blossom?


Oh, Leslie.  That was, you know, ’82 to 1995.  Then, that’s why, you know.  And I told him: Okay, you know what?  Time for me. Either you marry me or not, and you stay; you go, you move out, and I stay my house.  So, 1995, the first week of April, I told him: Okay, today is the day; either you move out, or we marry.  If we not marry, you move out.  If we marry, then you stay.  That’s all. You know, I cannot do this, no communion, I only go church and pray.  And then, he said: I want to marry you.  No kidding; are you sure?


And he wasn’t kidding.


He was not kidding.




Meli Watanuki


Original air date: Tues., Oct. 14, 2009


On Location at Kalaupapa


Like many Hansen’s disease patients at Kalaupapa, Meli Watanuki experienced loss from a very early age. Diagnosed with Hansen’s disease at eighteen, she was abandoned by her husband who took their young son with him. Years later, their bond could not be reconnected. Yet she explains how she found happiness and a new love by choosing to live in Kalaupapa. She and fellow Hansen’s disease patient Boogie Kahilihiwa voice their contrasting views on whether or not children should be allowed into Kalaupapa. This is the third in a series of Long Story Short shows shot on location at Kalaupapa on Moloka’i.


Meli Watanuki Audio


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It’s funny to me … I get big family, and only me. Maybe God, they tried to tell me something … better you stay, you know, prayer. Prayer, that’s the only way you can do. So I think, I’m not too sure. Only God knows why they went make me sick.


She’s lived what most folks would call a tough life: diagnosed at eighteen with Hansen’s disease, a husband who left her and took their young son with him, surviving the passing of her second husband. But, with her deep faith in God, Meli Watanuki found comfort.   Today, her enveloping smile conveys a sense of peace and happiness. She stays busy as manager of the Kalaupapa Store, and she has two homes, one, right on the beach. But, life in the settlement is not without controversy. Later, we’ll also talk with bookstore operator, patient Clarence “Boogie” Kahili-hiwa, and compare the patients’ thoughts on the longstanding ban against allowing children into Kalaupapa. But first, let’s meet Meli Watanuki, on Long Story Short.


What was your early life like, before Hansen’s Disease?


My early life, there was um … go school. And those days, in American Samoa, is … my family is poor. So I was in the school, a Catholic school in American Samoa. Then my father and my sister, you know, they cannot get money for pay my school. Those days, it’s about fifty cents, those days. Then they went take me away from school, because I was just about in sixth grade. But they went take me away. So I go in the public school, after that, I never finish my school. So I stay home, to help my nephew and my nieces to clean … wash their clothes, cook for them and I help my sisters.


How old were you then, when you dropped out of school?


I think I was about fourteen.


And when did Hansen’s Disease enter your life?


Was 1952.


And you were how old?


I think I was about sixteen–was about eighteen. I was eighteen already at that time.


How much fear was there in your town about leprosy?


At that time, I thought–just like, when you go in the hospital, Queen’s, and then it’s just come out three—three, four days. And when I found out at that time you cannot come out until maybe—according to the doctor, they tell me the first time, Maybe you going stay about few months. And that’s why that went click in my mind, and I will start already cry, because you know, it’s the first time, I get that kind sick, but I don’t know how I went get. So my sisters, they come and visit me … just like it’s a jail. You know what I mean? And American Samoa so strictly … when they get the cage, they get all around the hospital. When the doctor come in, to go inside the hospital, they get big kind tub. They get Pine-Sol. Whenever they go in the compound where all the patient.




And then when they go out, they take out their shoes, they go on top and they stand inside the tub with clean the feet.


How did that make you feel when you saw that?


That went make me more scared.


Was your family afraid of you?


No. My family, because when I came back from Western Samoa, they take me in the hospital. And then I found out that my sister, she died. So her kids had to come see me. They never get scared. They just come hug me.


In the days before there was effective treatment, a woman with Hansen’s Disease had to give up her child, to be raised by others. In the 1960s, there was hope that you could be cured of the disease, and that someday, you’d be reunited with your child. In the case of Meli Watanuki, it was NOT her disease that kept her from re-connecting with her son…


So how did you get to Honolulu?


Okay. [chuckle] So when I parole, when—


They called it a parole?


Yeah, parole, just like you’re discharged from the sickness.




Yeah, the Hansen’s Disease. So my stepsister was here, and my stepmother. They know that I went discharge from October the 19th,1958. So they told me to come here in Hawaii. And I said, Well, I’m not too sure, but they said, You come, come, I will … you just come out from the hospital. So that’s why I came Hawaii. And then I married, and then I moved out. So …


You thought all your troubles were behind you. You got married?


Yes; yeah.


Did you have a baby?


Yeah. I have one child, and it’s a boy. So 1964, I just see because when I come Samoa, I don’t know where to go pick up my medicine. So I thought it’s finished already. And they said you’re supposed to go take your medicine. I said, No, I did not, because I don’t know the hospital. So I went to go take test, and just few weeks and then they call me. I said, Yeah. You set up something with your baby, and your husband, and then you gotta go Hale Mohalu. I said, Oh, fine. And I feel that I better not stay there, because with my baby, I don’t want my baby to get sick, because he’s too young, I think only three years old. So I set up things, and I talked to my husband. And my husband think, just like you go hospital, and few days come back. [chuckle] But end up that was not. Then he came visit me with my son, and they see all the fence around. But they get plenty other Filipino there too at Hale Mohalu. So they was talking about—and he say, They talk Filipino. And then end up that was the last day I see him and my son. They never come back. So …


They saw the fence, they—




They heard the talk.




And your husband took your son away?


Yeah. He take my son away.


So you didn’t see your son from the time he was three




’til the time he was in college?




Did you have contact?


Yeah; we never contact, because—


‘Cause you could not find them.


—don’t know how, you know. But that lady was so nice to me. And the mayor did send me his picture, and his address. When I look, was my son. But big already, the boy. So then I went go try to contact the social worker, the State social worker. Then her and I, we worked together. So finally, we contact him. I called him in Philippines. And end up, he wants to come back. So I told him, Fine. Uh, what I gonna do, so I ask what’s happened uh, the father. He said the father went remarry, and they buy one house, and the father died. And end up the stepmother went kick him out from the house.




I said, I think so that lady [INDISTINCT]. So okay, I try to bring you back. I bring him back here. And the social worker, we was work together that time, so he came. And then me and my husband, we tried to take him back to college to finish up here in Hawaii. But when you are not taking care of your son when small and grow up and just like they won’t listen to me, because it’s different life.


Did you ever achieve—




—a bond with him?




So you lost your son at three.




And even though you tried, he was never part of a bond again.




You seem so matter-of-fact when you talk about it. How much does it still hurt? I know you’ve talked about it, you’ve had time to deal with it, but—




How are you with it?


I feel hurt. It’s hard for me, trying to … go help him and tell him, your mom love you. You know, that … you can do whatever you want to do, but you find a job, supposed to work over here at that time. But …


And now, nothing?


Nothing. He never come back, he never call, no write. So I just let it go.


Like other patients living at Kalaupapa in 2009, Meli Watanuki is free to go, but chooses to live there. She was deprived of her liberty for years. And when the cure came, she was exposed to the stigma, fear, and prejudice that Hansen’s disease patients of the 1960s encountered. Out of that experience, patients came to view a life at Kalaupapa with state support—not as exile, but as refuge.


Now, why did you come to Kalaupapa? You weren’t banished, you didn’t have to live here.


Well, because I feel that … I feel happy. Because when I came here, they was really good, and they tell me, Anytime you can go Honolulu, you can go, Las Vegas, you can call anyplace, but this is your home. So, oh, okay. And I really, really happy to stay here. Yeah.


And how’s your health?


My health is okay. Only I have asthma. So it’s taken care, you know, every time I go see the doctor, yes.


So the Hansen’s Disease is not a problem?


Oh, no. It’s finished already. Yeah. ‘Cause nothing, just like how before.


So you’ve had so much loss in your life. Is that how you see it?


Well, I really [INDISTINCT] happen with all these thing. I go—you know, I pray a lot when I came here. I pray so much, for set up me and take away all that sad to me. Yeah.


Because you had so much sadness, and you needed it to be gone?




And did the sadness go away?


Yes. Now, I’m happy right now. Plus my husband there, and they’re so nice to me.


‘Cause you remarried another time.




This is your third husband.


Yeah, this is the third husband.


And he’s not a patient.




How did you meet him?


Over here. He came here, you know, ’81. And ’81, my husband, he died.


So your third husband was already here as a worker, not a patient?


No, no. He came over here eighteen—1981. So he just start work, and—


Oh, you had met him in Honolulu?




Your third—


Because me, I no go around Honolulu. I scared.


Okay; so how did—




So you met him here?


In Kalaupapa, yes.


What was he doing? What was up?


Um, anyway, he in 1981, and he just start work. He just came work here. So him the one that was doing… my other husband’s graveyards. And after that, they was helping me, uh other things for anything I need. And those days, when—1981 when one kokua they come in patient’s house, they gotta go in the office to sign. You know, I going be at a patient’s house. And then gotta put the name, who’s patient, yeah. That’s how those days. Yeah, 1981.


So he happened to be the kokua—




—who was cleaning your husband’s grave, and then who was helping you out—




—in your—






And I never ask, because I don’t know him. But I saw his work. He’s a carpenter.




Yeah. And so after that, uh everything, and then he said, Okay, if you need anything, I can come and help you whatever you need. I can help you. That’s what he said. So you know, I no need help because they get the State workers. But he work in the State too. Yeah, at that time.


So when did romance blossom?


[chuckle] Oh, Leslie. [chuckle] That was um, ’82 to uh … 1995. Then that’s why and I told him that, Okay, you know what? Time for me. Either you marry me or not, then you stay. You go, you move out, and I stay my house. And I never know that Father Damien was going be [INDISTINCT]. I really don’t know, so and I told him, Okay, um, all this time, I never take communion, because I cannot take communion, and I live with somebody. I cannot do that. So … 1995 … the first week of April, I told him, Okay today is the day. Either you move out … or we marry. If we not marry, you move out. If we marry, then you stay. That’s all you know, I cannot do this, no communion, I only go church and pray. And then he said … I want to marry you. No kidding? Are you sure?


[chuckle] And he wasn’t kidding. [chuckle]


He was not kidding.


In May of 1995, the newly married Meli Watanuki and her husband Randy were accorded the honor of visiting Rome and meeting the Pope, and bringing back home to Hawaii a relic of the beloved Damien. Meli and Randy had only just returned from their honeymoon, when they were encouraged to go to Vatican.


That was quite an honor, wasn’t it? Were you chosen for that?


We never know.


The pope chose you?


Yeah. The pope was … what the story uh, you know. After we came back, and I wanted to find out how we went come through with this. And so they said the pope went uh, tell the uh, the bishop … you know, for take me and my husband, we just got marry. So I said, that’s why I get all this thing? They said, Yeah.


And what was the relic?


The relic?




The relic was a nice koa. Was really nice. And they get his hand was inside. And when we stand over there with the pope and you know, all them. And then they bring, uh, you know, so just put our hand on top, me and my husband. I said, Okay. And then they went bless us.


What did you feel when you held the relic, which was—


Well, I—


—Damien’s hand?


I really feel just—you know, all that time, just I only chicken skin. My face was funny, was all uh, you know. Because I never know is something is going be like this. I never know in my life I gonna, you know, see the pope, face-to-face with him. Oh, and … I kissed two times, on his ring. Oh, the man is …


You know, so many people have done good things at Kalaupapa for the patients. So many–just people have sacrificed. What does Father Damien mean to you?


Well, Father Damien’s mean to me because he was a priest, and he work hard for the people. He work hard for the poor, poor people. And, you know, really love to God and take of the Hansen’s Disease. He no care what … either become sick, but that’s how his … his heart is for God, and take care of the people. Take care of the poor. Yeah. And I know he, just like he is a local boy in Hawaii. Even though he come from Belgium.


Children are a very sensitive subject in Kalaupapa. At this time, in 2009, children under the age of 16 are not allowed in the settlement. This age-old rule was first put in place to protect children from the disease, and to save patients from ridicule and embarrassment. Times have changed, with some patients pressing to hear the sound of children in their midst. Meli Watanuki and Clarence “Boogie” Kahilihiwa are on opposite sides of this debate.



I’d like to see the children before I pass. I’d like to see the children come here and visit, and stay like a normal visitor, like if they say, Well, you have your own house, you can stay in your … whoever invite. They’re gonna be your sole responsibility, because anything go wrong, everything gonna fall on you. And I’d like to see that. Not only for the patients, but for everybody who’s working here.



We were talking about the controversy that broke out when one of the patients wanted children to live here.



Father Damien loved the children especially. And to ban the children over here, maybe their own thoughts. You see, before, couple years back, we had people who just followed the next friend; they couldn’t think for themselves. If you said no, then I will say no. I don’t look at it that way. I look it as for myself, how I see everything. And the majority over here say no, well, I’ll go along with that. But not in my heart.



When I came here, all the old folks, they talk about, they no like children to come here, because some of the kids, they no understand the sick. Even though, it’s no more sick, they still might get scared of the people. They might… they going make fun on the people. And another thing—the kids, they get sick, and there’s no more medicine here for the kids. No more doctor. And over here, they no more school for the kids. What they gonna do over here? They no more nothing here. That’s why we went block that. And they was going take us to court. Yeah. She was going to take us to court because of that. And we said, No. So what’s happen, she went call her niece to bring her baby down at her house. But I don’t know who when the reporter that went take the pictures.   And the little kid, they was on the carpet. We be careful on that. And that’s when show on the TV, I feel myself that was not right. Because no can tell there might—the kids, they going get the sick. Even though they no more the sick, but they gotta remember that so long they get the person to sore on the feet, gotta be watch out. If they get the kids, because the kids is soft, the body, and the blood is. And that’s why that is no-no. And that’s why they was told us they going take us to court. I said, Okay, that’s fine.


Very rare for Kalaupapa to have this—




—kind of division.


Yes. How many times they threaten us. And we said no.


Yeah; the folks who didn’t want children here—




That long-time rule prevailed.


Yeah; that’s right. Because when I came over here and I hear a lot about all the rule about the kids, they no allow that here. I forget what year after that, they went open up, went open up one year. The couple was a patient here, they went bring the kids. Just about ten years old, ten and nine. So what they do, right in the front our house … they use that dakine, the skateboard. And one of the old man, they coming from the other side, up, they go, pick up the [INDISTINCT]. You what’s happened? The kids went go right in the front of my house. They went go like this. The old man, they went go straight to the stone, he went cut up.




And smash his car.


Yeah; and we were advised when we came to be very careful in—




—driving, or watch out around you, because patients may not have good visual or they—




—they may be slow to react, because of—




—physical impairment.


Right; right.


If you go to Kalaupapa, where gravestones are never far away, where history is alive, you can imagine St. Damien walking the same pathways, seeing the same, beautiful views, breathing the same ocean breeze. In a life full of twists and turns, Meli Watanuki’s faith never wavered. Faced with so much tragedy, she found comfort in god. And with the canonization of the priest she always regarded as a saint, Meli’s faith is made even deeper. Thank you, Meli and Boogie, for sharing. For Long Story Short and PBS-Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


MELI: Yes. I’m happy, and just like I come more close to Father Damien. Because I pray a lot for him, every day, every morning. And I go over there, just like I go talk story with, you know, Father Damien. I just say, Father Damien, please to um, help this settlement, people gotta behave themselves and be kind one another.