and Henry Akana
by Veronica S.
Henry Akana, home in
Sugar Time: Days of hardship bordering slavery; of
friendships before the impersonal electronic age; and
of survival skills that have disappeared with time.
Henry Akana, now in his 80's, was born and raised in
Kohala. Like all other boys and many girls, he started
working the plantation at age 14. His first job? "Hoe
hana", hoeing endless rows of cane under a relentless
sun. Even though life was cheap back then he started
out working for 35 cents a day.
Socializing happened around the rivers and the sea.
Despite heavy schedules, there was always time for fun
as clear rivers and fresh-water ponds were places for
fun! The water rescued the laborers, relieved their
stress. And it was at the river that plantation workers
met with friends, took their baths, and cleaned their
clothes. Girls and boys played naked. And why not?
Cane cutting girls in
the Puna sugar cane fields. Circa 1920's. Picture
courtesy of Citizens of Pahoa.
The different ethnic groups, such as the Puerto Ricans,
Portuguese, Japanese, Filipino, or Chinese, were attached
to little from their far off culture and tradition and
lived in separate housing camps. Each neighborhood had
its own grocery store, maybe a butcher or a tailor,
a school, and often a theater.
Plantation technology developed over the years. In
the early days before the train system cane was pushed
from field to mill through miles of flumes with thousands
of gallons of water. Over the years Akana worked it
all. He was a welder, heavy-equipment operator, cane-truck
driver, mill operator, and railroad engineer, among
At home and at work, life revolved around sugar but
also wood. Without it there was no way to heat food,
water, or generate energy to run the engines. In fact,
laborers spent most of their free time building fire
stacks. They also grew their own food, and raised pigs
"Life was hard, but there were no problems like
nowadays," Akana explains. Less emotional problems
at least, and no drugs, and less crime. "And no
divorces like now," he adds, himself coming from
a family of nine kids, and having raised five of his
The only vice? Alcohol. Especially a libation named
"okolehao", a distillate from the cooked,
candy-sweet ti-root. Rough and fierce like rocket fuel.
He says "Makes you go upside down," and as
he laughs he adds "Guys fight at night, next morning
they already forget."
A sugar plantation luna
from Puna circa. 1920's. Picture courtesy of Citizens
On the plantation corruption thrived. In charge of
the plantation workers was the luna, the boss. "Often
mean," Akana recalls. Some lunas thought nothing
of grabbing guys, shaking and humiliating them. Favoritism
paired with cruelty ruled rather than fairness, skill,
Akana recalls one luna, a man from Scotland, begging
him to take him fishing. But Akana wasn't sure. "Don't
worry, lad," the luna said, with the rolling, dry
accent from the Scottish Highlands.
When Akana agreed to take him fishing the luna fell
on the slippery rocks and was cut. In the process of
being hurt the luna could have easily drowned as well.
And, the incident could have caused Akana to have lost
his job but instead the luna decided to hire Akana to
catch his seafood, alone, then deliver the catch to
his house. During plantation hours Akana told management
that he did his work.
Akana then adds, "Those were the days," his
eyes warm with the memories. And he shakes his head...
A day at the sugar plantation, a mere 70 years ago:
4.00 am - Rise: Make lunch. Tend pigs and chickens.
5.00 am - Plantation Whistle: Walk to mill. Look after
work animals, such as mules.
6.00 am - Check in with luna. Walk to job site. This
could be 2 hours through the fields!
11.00 am - Half hour break.
3.30 am - Pau hana: done with work. Whistle blows.
Tend work animals. Walk home.
5.30 p.m. - Make fire; tend animals and vegetable garden;
bathe; wash clothes; cook dinner
8.00 p.m. - sleep
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appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and
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