Today’s scene is a far cry from those tragic years of neglect and suffering. The 118 remaining patients (admissions ceased in 1969) live in a neat cottage community called Kalaupapa, directly across the peninsula from the now deserted east side where Father Damien began and ended his labor of love. Residents enjoy all the amenities of this modern age, including regular air service connecting them to anywhere in the world. They may go and come as they please, leave forever if they wish. (New cases are treated as outpatients by a Honolulu clinic.)
Day visitors willing to respect the patients’ privacy are welcome: Each year thousands descend the three-and-a-half-mile cliff trail by mule-back or plane hop in from Honolulu to the peninsula’s tiny airstrip.
Only the fortunate few make the airport run with Kenso Seki, who has spent 52 of his 70 years here. We traveled in style in his 1928 Model A Ford, its fenders filigreed by salt-air corrosion, its leaking radiator averaging a mile a gallon—of water.
As we rattled past the movie theater, I asked Kenso why, in writing the current attraction on the blackboard marquee, someone had included its rating: R. He grinned. “With us, you can’t be too careful. After all, our average age is only 61.”
Kenso is on the move as much as anyone at Kalaupapa. His living room is papered with pennants from the many places he’s been—from San Francisco to the Kennedy Space Center, Mexico to Niagara Falls. He’s saving now for an Australian tour.
“I don’t mind visitors; it’s one way for them to see they needn’t be afraid. I would hate to have to leave here for good; it’s the only home I know. But at the rate our numbers are going down, we may have to go one day. Upkeep will be too expensive for just a few.”
Kenso needn’t worry. Lifetime tenancy has recently been guaranteed by the state government, which operates the facility with federal funds. Concerned about what will happen after the last are gone, patients overwhelmingly supported legislation, which was passed in December 1980, to make the peninsula a national park.
Paul Harada, one of Kalaupapa’s prime movers in this matter, applauds the act for preserving many of the present structures “as a memorial to what has happened here and will never happen again. I’m one of the last generation to be admitted; I don’t want to hang around after the neighborhood is down to a handful. But I believe most of the buildings should remain where they are.”
Paul is glad his case preceded the sulfone breakthrough. “My wife and I—she’s a patient, too—have seen our prospects for a long and full life advance dramatically. We’ve achieved a degree of normalcy we never expected back then. Kind of deliverance, in a way.”
Patients realize Hansen’s disease is not the only enemy; their incidence of blindness and kidney failure is well above average. Yet in this peaceful setting of flowering shade trees, immaculate lawns, and gardens painstakingly tended by badly crippled hands, I sensed a general feeling of contentment, camaraderie; the oneness of a close family. As if everyone has taken to heart the message Ed Kato lettered on a streetside stone: Smile . . . It No Broke Your Face.
A Growing Future for Molokai?
Topside, as Kalaupapa residents refer to the rest of Molokai, the public mood is more difficult to diagnose. Certainly there’s no oneness here over the one issue uppermost in every mind: to grow or not to grow.
Last of the state’s major islands to be discovered by developers, Molokai has just begun making waves among speculators and those who think the nearest thing to earthly paradise (to say nothing of a foolproof investment) is to own a piece of Hawaii. If you can’t find enough money to afford it, apply for a loan on http://citrusnorth.com/
Many of Hawaiian descent as well as other native-born Molokaians have joined Caucasian immigrants from the mainland and neighbor islands to form a substantial antibuilding bloc. Cerebral rather than combative in their efforts, they’ve made progress in staving off the megabuck invasion.
A splinter group seeks to do the same but through more militant means. Another faction frankly favors the input of outsiders to fatten the island’s too lean economy.
A pretty standard stratification in many desirable spots these days.
Split as they may be over the expected onslaught by off-islanders, nothing will divide Molokai’s people on their determination to preserve their identity, to control their destiny. Perhaps they’re in time to do both.