Crew Blog | Michelle Knoetgen: Carry These Islands to Africa
“It was after I went to South Africa that I became what I am now.” — Mohandas K. Gandhi
When crossing the tumultuous Mozambique Channel and rounding Africa’s treacherous Cape of Good Hope, Hōkūle’a needed a light crew of seasoned watermen and women to safely guide her. Those talented sailors were accompanied along the coast by numerous “land crew” members: a Hawaiian delegation of students, educators, and documentarians who researched and planned for months to help make the education mission of the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage successful. Supported by ‘Iolani through my 2015-16 sabbatical, I was fortunate to be part of this delegation.
A small group of us planned to arrive early, ahead of the larger crew, so that we could visit schools in Durban and Richards Bay, Kwa-Zulu Natal. It was important to us to make this journey because these were places where Hōkūle’a had docked, but not the main site of planned educational engagement, which was the mother city of Cape Town.
After four days of flying on six different planes alongside Megan Kawatachi ‘93, my invaluable traveling companion, we woke up halfway around the world in Durban and got ready for our first school visits. Soon after breakfast, we were honored to be picked up (or “fetched” as they say in South Africa) by Ela Gandhi, peace activist, former Member of the South African Parliament, and granddaughter of Mohandas K. Gandhi. Elaji arranged two school visits for us just north of Durban in Inanda on the Phoenix Settlement, over 100 acres of communal land established by Mohandas K. Gandhi in 1904.
Elaji escorted us in her unassuming, standard transmission Toyota Corolla and navigated the busy streets of Durban while telling us about the fifteen non-profit organizations that she serves, including the Gandhi Development Trust whose primary focus is on promoting peace, and supporting economic sustainability through development and empowerment. She is 75 years old. Elaji is just one of the many inspirational people we met in South Africa who lives to serve and improve the world around her.
At the Phoenix Settlement we were warmly welcomed by the principal and students of Kasturba Gandhi Primary School, named in honor of Elaji’s grandmother, Gandhiji’s wife and an unsung heroine of history who served six years in prison for leading peaceful protests in the name of racial equality, women’s rights, and worker’s compensation. We learned more about Kasturba and Gandhiji’s role in the struggle for liberation in South Africa and India from Elaji when she took us through the Gandhi museum on the settlement. It was an incredible experience to have her as our guide of the museum that she helped to envision and curate, which was also the house in which she spent her youth: Gandhi’s original house that was reconstructed after being razed to the ground in 1985 by Apartheid violence. Perhaps not coincidentally, Elaji was born in the bedroom that is now the “inspiration room,” which pays homage to the sources of Gandhi’s transformation, notably including Leo Tolstoy, John Ruskin, and the Sermon on the Mount.
“The highest reward for man’s toil is not what he gets for it, but what he becomes by it.” –John Ruskin
For our next stop in Richards Bay, we were graciously hosted by Zululand Hospice who arranged our school visits at Mzingazi Primary and Kati Primary in semi-rural areas of Kwa-Zulu Natal. In a powerful moment that brought me to tears, the Hospice employees shared their morning songs and prayers with us, their voices reverberating through the room as they praised God and asked for the strength and compassion that their job requires.
At the schools, we realized that not everyone has electricity in their classrooms, and not everyone has roofs over their administrative offices. We also realized that some students had heard of Hawai’i, though many had not. In a sixth grade social studies class, we used an inflatable globe to show Hawai’i as Africa’s antipode. We told the story of Hōkūle’a and of Eddie Aikau. We taught the students to sing songs in Hawaiian and to perform a Hawaiian haka, which they picked up really quickly. Most students speak at least three languages: English, Afrikaans, and Zulu.
Our visit with the preschool children was brief, but tender. We told them a story and sang songs with them in Hawaiian, including “‘Imo ‘Imo Hōkū iki” (“Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”). For the older students we answered their many questions about Hawai’i and voyaging and discussed the similarities between the Hawaiian concept of “aloha” and the Zulu word “sawubona” (a greeting with multiple meanings including “I see you”). We also taught them the meaning of “mālama honua” (to care for the earth) which a few girls wrote in pen on their arms to help them remember.
After four days in Kwa-Zulu Natal, we returned to Cape Town to join the larger delegation, including the twelve students who formed Ke Kā O Makali’i, the name given to the group of eight Kamehameha Schools Kapālama and four Hālau Kū Māna Charter School students who were chosen for the trip. Ke Kā O Makali’i (The Canoe Bailer of Makaliʻi) is the name of a star line that is about to rise in the night sky above Hawaiʻi as well as South Africa.
Traveling and visiting schools with the students of Hawai’i enhanced the experience for everyone. Their gift of hula and mele made it possible for us to carry these islands to Africa. While we were hosted by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, the students presented a mele inoa (name song) to him. What a meaningful and lasting gift to honor this man and his legacy!
Another poignant exchange was the Tutudesk Ceremony at St. Mary’s Catholic Primary School near Cape Town. Tutudesks are lap desks that students are able to take home which enable them to take pride in their work. The Polynesian Voyaging Society gifted 1,000 Mālama Honua-inspired Tutudesks to township schools in Durban, and fifty desks to St. Mary’s. At the ceremony, Ke Kā O Makali’i performed hula, then a group of students from St. Mary’s shared their traditional Zulu songs and dances, using the Hawaiian pahu (drum) that Ke Kā O Makali’i brought. The local dance group arrived with a bucket they were going to use as their instrument but as Tehani McLean (Kamehameha student) remembered, “there was a girl that asked to use the pahu for their dance…it felt like there was a wall between us and them, and when they used the pahu it helped to bridge the gap.” The African dancers then invited Ke Kā O Makali’i to dance with them. As I watched all of the students dancing together, a blend of Hawaiian and African movements, time seemed to stand still and the world felt smaller.
This unforgettable journey helped students and teachers to appreciate what we have and reminded us to mālama our resources. The warm reception from our African brothers and sisters reiterated that we are all one people, and it strengthened our partnership in the community of being.
To read more about my experiences while on sabbatical with the Worldwide Voyage, please visit my blog: www.shellkanoe.wordpress.com. Twitter and Instagram: @shellknoets.