Mahi ʻAi
He keiki aloha nā mea kanu.
Beloved children are the plants.
It is said of farmers that their plants are like beloved children, receiving much attention and care.
— ‘Ōlelo No‘eau #684

Feed the people

[Boy and girl in loʻi] Artwork by R. Y. Racoma.In the late 1700s, there were about one million kānaka ‘ōiwi (Hawaiians) in Hawai‘i—almost the same number as Hawai‘i’s total population today. Because there was such a thriving population, kānaka ‘ōiwi developed revolutionary techniques to feed the people while maintaining a balance with the natural environment.

Mahi ‘ai (farmers) and lawai‘a (fishermen) were the professionals responsible for feeding the masses. Mahi ‘ai are experts in food cultivation. They are also experts in understanding the movement of water and weather patterns. Mahi ‘ai developed massive wetland agricultural systems that stretched for miles. They also developed complex irrigation methods to allow food to be grown in dryer areas.

The mahi ‘ai profession

I hāna ka pō, i hāna ke ao.
Alert by night, alert by day.
Said of a farmer or fisherman who begins work before sunrise and continues into the daylight hours.
(Pukui 1983, 126 #1154)

[Kalo, ʻuala, maiʻa, etc.] Photo by Ruben Carillo.The primary function of the mahi ‘ai is to grow food. Kānaka ‘ōiwi had many food plants including ‘uala (sweet potato), ‘ulu (breadfruit), uhi (yam), kō (sugarcane), mai‘a (banana), niu (coconut) and kalo (taro).

These plants were cultivated to maximize the amount of food that could be produced each season. Plants were grown in lo‘i (irrigated fields) or in māla (non-irrigated gardens).

The most important food plant for kānaka ‘ōiwi is the kalo. Kalo is grown in both lo‘i and māla. Kalo, more than any other food sources, has a special relationship with kanaka (people). An example from Hawaiian genealogy illustrates this relationship.

[Kalo leaf] Photo by Ruben Carillo.Hāloa is regarded as a common ancestor of kānaka ‘ōiwi. Mo‘olelo (histories and legends) tell us that Hāloa did not survive his birth. He was buried in the ground. Later, in the same place he was buried, the first kalo plant began to grow. Because of this, kalo is the older sibling to kānaka ‘ōiwi and has the responsibility to feed kānaka. Likewise, kānaka, as the younger siblings, have the duty to care for the elder sibling, Hāloa, and the ‘āina. Kānaka therefore share a familial relationship with kalo and the ‘āina.

Kānaka believe there is mana (spiritual power) in growing, harvesting, and eating the foods from the ‘āina. For kānaka, being involved in any or all of these processes allows one to gain mana. This increases an individual’s health.

Mahi ‘ai traditions

‘O kāu aku, ‘o kā ia ala mai, pēlā ka nohona o ka ‘ohana.
From you and from him—so lived the family.
The farmer gave to the fisherman, the fisherman to the farmer.
Pukui (1983, 266 #2441)


Imagine you’re a farmer and you have only so many cuttings from which to grow food. You want to make sure those cuttings don’t wash away in the rainy season or dry out if there’s not enough rain. How would you know when to plant to maximize your harvest and keep foo on your plate?

As a mahi ‘ai, you would use the cycles of the moon to determine the best time to plant and harvest crops.

[Student watering kalo] Photo by Michael Young.The mahi ‘ai of old had temples called māpele. There they would pray to Lono, the principal god of agriculture. Other gods associated with providing sustenance are Kāne, the god of fresh water, and Kanaloa, the god of the ocean. They would also practice mele oli (chants) and pule (prayers) to petition the akua for rain and abundant crops.

Traditionally, the main tools of the mahi ‘ai have been their hands, feet, and the ‘ō‘ō, or digging stick. The ‘ō‘ō is a long, thick stick made of strong wood such as ‘alahe‘e. ‘Ō‘ō are used to loosen the soil, remove rocks, and harvest crops.

Lo‘i are constructed in flat areas near streams or springs. Terraces are built to take advantage of the slope of the terrain. Water is irrigated from pond to pond, then finally back to the stream. Irrigation ditches are called ‘auwai. It is said that the water at the bottom of the stream would be as clean as the water at the top of the stream. Lo‘i are constructed by the community. First the land was cleared, then the terrace walls are built and the soil prepared.

Traditionally māla are usually found in an area called the kula (plains) lands. Kula lands receive about forty inches of rainfall a year. These are favorable conditions for growing ‘uala. Mahi ‘ai construct walls and mounds to trap moisture and protect their gardens from the wind. Larger plants and trees were also used to trap moisture and protect smaller plants from harsh weather. Plant material from kukui and lā‘ī are used as mulch. Mahi ‘ai work very closely with the community to manage the māla and lo‘i.

Don’t have an ‘ō‘ō handy? You may be able to find metal ‘ō‘ō at your local hardware store.

‘Oihana mahi ‘ai today

Kuehu ka ‘ai ho‘opau a ka ua.
Shaken up are the products over which the rain did its best to produce.
Said of good crops as a result of showers.
Pukui (1983, 201 #1863)

‘Oihana mahi ‘ai is still a profession today. Kānaka ‘ōiwi are continuing to turn toward the land to provide for their ‘ohana and communities. In fact, there is an increase in mahi ‘ai practices. There are lo‘i and māla built to service communities. They are cared for by the kānaka in their communities. For example, Ka Papa Lo‘i o Kānewai is a lo‘i at the University of Hawai‘i–Mānoa. This lo‘i is used to teach traditional mahi ‘ai practices to college students and the community. The kalo produced from the lo‘i also provides food for kūpuna (elders) in the surrounding area. There is an increase in understanding and appreciation of the kuleana of mahi ‘ai.

Working in the lo‘i