It’s not work, it’s our way of life

Herb Namohala- Surf Instructor and Community Leader, Kapalina Beach, Oahu, HI

Feature | 21 October 2021
Surf instructor and community activist, Herb Nomahola, proudly wears his aumakua tattoo on his chest. He explains that the amaukua is comparable to a family crest and is passed on from generation to generation, and it gives you a strong mana which means strength and sense of power. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
It’s just after 7:30 am in Oahu’s Kapilina Beach homes, and Herb Namohala who lives on the property, has already had a productive day.

Since dawn he has been giving surf and paddle board lessons to his students on the secluded, clear blue beach waters of Iroquois Point, located near the entrance to historic Pearl Harbor.

“On this Sunday the ocean conditions are just gorgeous!” he rejoices gazing out into the glistening water. “The waves are about a foot and a half right now. Surfing and enjoying the water are what we get to do all the time. When you live in Paradise, you get to wake up to this beautiful setting, have your cup of coffee and bask in the peace and serenity,” he says leaning against a coconut tree sporting his shorts and surfer sunglasses, with his surfboard in tow.

Herb who is known in his community as “Uncle Herb” or “Kanaka” as he is also referred to, which is the Hawaiian word for “old school,” which he says, “is a powerful word,” used for knowledgeable elders, was born and raised in Oahu, Hawaii. A proud native Hawaiian who celebrates his culture and traditions, he holds many roles within his community.

Father, surf and paddle board instructor, uber driver, teacher of culture to the younger generation, guardian of the ocean and land, and a big brother or uncle who is proud of his community.

“I enjoy living in Kapilina Beach and helping the neighborhood and community in any way I can. Teaching them how to surf, paddle board, canoe, kayak and how to fish are exercises to have fun, and I enjoy giving back and sharing especially with the younger generation. The ocean and anything to do with it is my absolute passion.”

“This is a really nice mellow neighborhood where people from all over, both military and non-military make friends,” Namohala shares. “I enjoy getting everyone together for monthly potlucks to share their national food. Good food and smiles, it can’t get any better than that,” he grins.

Uncle Herb, as he is known locally, has been teaching young people to surf and paddle board with a focus on Hawaiian culture. He is committed to helping people see the importance of protecting the land and ocean: a central part of the aloha spirit. ILO PHotos/ Kevin Cassidy
Because of how many people he knows and his active participation in his community, he has been coined the unofficial mayor. “It’s so funny, I didn’t even do anything and they call me the mayor,” he chortles.

“When you get to know people in your community, and I know many, people always come up to you and greet you as they do to me and my family. We like to share and give back. We keep it simple.”

According to Namohala, his rich cultural background and heritage are what allow him to be a community and people person who gets along with everyone. “Being Hawaiian and having Chinese, Caucasian, Indian and Guamanian ancestry, makes me appreciate different people, have different friends and get along with everybody,” he declares.

Pointing to the tattoo on his chest with pride and joy on his face, Herb says, “In our culture, your grandmother and grandfather would always tell you about your aumakua which means protector in Hawaiian. It’s comparable to a family crest and it truly does protect you and gives you a strong mana which means strength and sense of power.”

“My grandmother would always say to my dad and I, ‘Every time you guys go spearfishing in the water, and you come upon a shark it won’t attack you because you have a strong mana.’ My dad didn’t believe in that too much and would always caution me to get out of the water if we saw a shark in the distance,” he reminisces fondly. “I take so much pride in carrying my aumakua tattoo on my body, and since I’m by the ocean and the beach all the time I get to show it and share it with a lot of people who ask me about it.”

Besides feeling connected to his ancestry, culture and traditions, Herb explains how he also shares a strong connection with the land and ocean, as well as obligation to protect them. “I feel incredibly connected to my ocean and my land,” he underscores. “From the land and the mountains in Hawaiian which we call mauka and the ocean which we call makai, I am involved in conservation from mauka to makai and it is a blessing.

Sharing, protecting, and preserving Hawaiian culture are the elements which help Herb build a strong community around him and make the connection between work and tradition for him. “If you’re lucky enough to catch 20 fish at one time that’s a blessing from all the times you have given back, and the man upstairs whom we call akua, he watches, takes care and guides you. You share some of the fish with other people and you leave some back in the water, that how it works,” he explains with much conviction.

Situated on the entrance to Pearl Harbor, Ewa Beach is an idyllc place to enjoy the beach and sea. You can feel humbled by the sense of being on an island over 2,000 miles from the U.S. mainland. ILO Photos/ Kevin Cassidy
“Your ocean is your healer, your church and in Hawaiian it is also your icebox. It’s where you catch your fish, you cook, and you eat, hence the ice box reference. Our traditions and connections to the ocean and land are very important to us and I am doing whatever I can to pass them down to our younger generations. We have to preserve and share our traditions and culture. They cannot die,” Herb says emphatically. “We cannot let our aloha fade so people like me have to work hard to bring it back and instill it in the new generation.”

Growing up, Namohala thought that he would actually be an athlete as he was very good at baseball. He had a chance to go pro but opted not to go to college because he didn’t like school much and instead he preferred “taking care of the house and the yard,” while “doing his sports in the ocean.” “I still love cleaning and taking care of my community, it’s just in my nature to do so. For example I clean the beach bathrooms all the time, not because I have to, but I do it so my son can use the bathrooms, as well as my students and other people around here,” he stresses.

As a father to his children, he wants them to find a balance between school and play, his youngest son in particular. He says his wife who is a teacher “is very good at making sure he goes to school,” while he teaches him about sports, culture and tradition. When asked if he wants his son to go to college in the future, with certainty he answers, “Absolutely, he will go to college!”

In his role as a guardian of the ocean, Herb cites that due to climate change the waters are much cooler than before. He also talks about the coral reef degradation which he attributes to a lack of respect for the ocean.

“There is so much damage to the reefs now, and people are not respectful of their ocean like they should be. They touch the coral, stand on them, break them, and the sunscreen people use also creates a lot of damage,” he states.

Walking through the sand heading back into the ocean to begin his next surfing class, Namhola pauses, takes in the sunshine, smiles, and says, “I have so much gratitude to my mom and dad who taught me everything about the land and the ocean, it is not work but our way of life.”