Thursday, January 28, 2010

Eyes to see miracles.

On Saturday, the Vi'iga family of Saleapaga had some visitors. Van loads of men from their church branch in Apia came with hands willing to help. They left town at 4am and by sunrise they were mixng the first load of cement for the foundation of the Vi'igas new home. By the time the last van left after sunset, the roof was up, the floor was hardening and the Vi'iga family was preparing to move their belongings into their new home.

Among these belongings are a chipped wooden cabinet with glass panelled doors. One of the panels has a crack in it. Leua Viiga uses the cabinet to store her glass dishes.They also own a deep chest freezer. Slightly rusting at the edges.It hums quietly in the background of every conversation.

When I visited the Viiga family two months ago, they told me their tsunami story. Leua was at home with her two grandchildren. A seven year old and a three year old. When the wave came, Leua picked up her youngest and ran. But the water was too swift and too strong. Her child was taken from her arms. Their house was swept into a careless pile, burying her underneath it.Her 7 yr old caught hold of the wooden cabinet that was floating by and clung to it. They would find their freezer upside down in a pool of mud- several neighbors down the road.

Leua was badly injured and hospitalized for a month. The little one was found face down in mud. They have a photo of him in their makeshift shelter, draped with shell necklaces. It was a photo taken in the morgue because they have no other pictures of him when he once smiled and laughed. His little grave is out in the yard decorated with colorful streamers and a teddy bear keeps him company.

All these things, the Viiga family told me. But they also told me about their wooden cabinet - "see, this cabinet saved our grandson's life...and none of the dishes in it were broken! you should take a photo of was a miracle"
They told me about their freezer - "see we plugged it in after the tsunami and it still works! Look at it there, theres nothing wrong with it...its a miracle."

In spite of all they have lost. And all they still have yet to endure. The Viiga's have eyes to see "the Lord's hand at work." They can still see miracles. In a chipped wooden cabinet and a rusty freezer.

And now as the wet season rains pour. And gale force winds blow through the mountain hills of the new Saleapaga village, the Viiga family are in their new home. Another miracle?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Drop Everything and Run

Mamea Mikaele and his family.

92 yr old Suliane with her daughter and granddaughter.

Five year old Iulai had just bathed and dressed when the earthquake hit. Mamea took his son outside “in case the house couldn’t stand”. He still hadn’t showered himself so once the shaking subsided he went back to get ready for work. About ten minutes had elapsed when he heard a rumbling, like the sound of a coming storm. Then voices shouted from the road.

“Galu lolo...It’s a wave, a wave!”

The church bell started ringing, a harsh clanging without rhythm. He ran to the road to have a look, just in time to see a wave coming from behind Namua island. It divided so that one wave came straight towards them head first while the other came at an angle, sweeping over the little wharf where a motorboat anchored that took people to Namua. The wave flounced the motorboat along with it like a piece of fluff.

Mamea stood and studied the oncoming progress of the water “because Im the sort of person that has to study things carefully so that I can explain them to others, that’s what a tour guide does”. The wave “ was like when you roll a flax mat. I stood back and studied the water if it was going to affect anything and when I saw the way it was coming, I realized, oh no this is the real thing.”

Mamea grabbed Iulai and ran – over logs, bushes, pig fences and rocks. So did everyone else who could. The people of Saleaumua ran. Young and old alike – everyone was running to escape the water that wouldn’t stop. People who hadn’t run in years headed towards the inland. Many men had already gone to work in the plantations and the majority of school children were either on the road or already doing their early classroom duties. Left at home were the women, the babies, the elderly, the infirm. Mothers grabbed their little ones, their parents – and rushed to the inland bush.

Taupeau half dragged her ninety-two year old mother Suliane to the car, roaring away in a spin of sand just in time. Junior Laki used a wheelbarrow to take his blind mother Aoina to safety. Teachers at the Saleaumua Primary school led the children several miles into the bush. At the secondary school,Maths teacher Pelesala Togafau was about to ring the bell for morning assembly when he heard the screams. “You could hear the rumbling of the tsunami and the trees and the houses falling but when I looked out to sea, I couldn’t see a big wave coming, it looked only about three of four feet. But then the wave that came from the right, over the houses – it was the big one. We were so shocked. The kids were terrified. We all ran towards the back of the school and the race was on to get away. We told the students to drop everything and run.”

Monday, January 25, 2010

Oselani's Story

It was a day that began like any other for twenty-eight year old Oselani. He was a fisherman. As was his father before him. As it does for most fisherman, the sea spoke to Oselani. When the winds were rough and the tides were high, the waves would crash ominously on the reef and others would nervously stay close to the shore. But the rough swell would call to Oselani with the promise of a big catch and the white surf would only send an extra thrill of exhilaration as he paddled his frail wooden paopao out to the breakers. The sea was his friend.

He lived with his wife’s family, he being the only breadwinner for his two children and the in-laws. The sea was a benevolent employer, feisty at times but generous with her bounty. When income from his taxi driving job was sparse, Oselani always knew he could count on the sea to provide. A meal. A few extra tala. A fresh ‘malauli’, scales gleaming with newness would guarantee a smile from his stern mother in law.

On the morning of the 29th, Oselani was up at dawn with five other fisherman. They paddled their single hulled canoes away from Saleaumua, past Ulutogia and Mutiatele, past Satitoa, past the Aleipata wharf, and paused just beyond Namu’a island. The tide was low and they could see the ocean floor through the still waters. The fishing was slow and there was an easy, companionable chatter back and forth as the men called out to each other, while back on land the village began to bustle about with the days preparations.

Just before seven, Oselani’s boat started shaking, the oar placed lengthwise in the center of the canoe clattering/jumping so abruptly that he hurried to reach and grab it before it fell into the sea. The others called out in consternation as they too noticed the movement of the ocean. But then the shaking stopped and they floated on a placid cloth once more. But Oselani was uneasy. He had never felt such strong tremors before, especially not ones that could make themselves known while he was on the water. Without knowing why, he felt for the first time, a sliver of fear about being out on the ocean. He asked the others if they should go back to land – in case there was something wrong? He thought about the television ads with the man in the funny hat. What if there is a tsunami, he called out? Don’t worry, the others laughed back. There wasn’t such things here in Samoa. Oselani looked down into the water and couldn’t make sense of what he saw. Fish – countless numbers of fish, swimming back and forth agitatedly. Like they wanted to escape but were held in place. His unease grew, but before he could act on it, the others screamed.

“Look at the wave! Theres a big wave coming.”

Rushing towards them was a rise in the ocean. A hill of blue. On the tiny island, Namu’a Beach fales was hosting a group of school children from St. Peter’s in Palmerston North. They watched in horror as “a beast jumped up out of the sea and ran towards them”. The wave hit the island and divided in two, wrapping itself around the shore like a sinuous blanket of cobalt steel before meeting again in the front and continuing its onslaught towards the mainland. The fishing boats were paltry sticks in its path.

The men began paddling frantically back towards the land, towards where the wharf juts out at Satitoa. Oselani knew they would never make it to in time. His thoughts went to his wife and children and he hoped they could see the water coming. He stopped paddling and faced the hull of his canoe towards the wave with the hope that the craft would skim over the top of the water. As it drew nearer however, he realized that thought was a foolish one. The hill was immense. It was now a monstrous mountain of blue. He decided to change his tactics. He took a deep breath and dived into the sea, hoping that with his fishermans increased lung capacity – he could wait it out and evade the wave as it powered over him. Another vain hope.

Oselani was swept along with the wave. He was but a wretched thing tossed in a vast washing machine on spin cycle. He couldn’t swim, he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t see anything. He was trapped in black water, buffeted on all sides. He knew he would die.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


Who can measure loss? It is not a number. How many children did you lose…how many people in your family were killed by the wave that day? Is the death of one beloved child less quantifiable a loss than that of a mother who has lost three? Its surely not a comfort to the parent of the one to know that ‘you didn’t lose three’. Or to hear that at least both your parents didn’t die, just one. That certainly gives no solace to 'T' who was separated from her mother and swept out to sea. And then clung to a floating log and was saved. And then woke to see her dead mother being carried past in a sheet.

No. Loss is not a number. Its an ache. A physical pain. A longing. That cannot be appeased. Its why 'M' carries the clothes of his dead children in a bag around his waist. Everywhere he goes. The clothes Maryanne was wearing when her little body was found. The outfit baby Aliki was wearing the day before the tsunami. Carefully washed and folded.

Its why 'L' spent Christmas crying. Remembering last year when she gave her dad a ham. His favourite. And chocolates to her mother. And they chuckled about having to share their treats.

Loss is not just about the dead. Its about mourning the peace we will never feel again. Will Junior L ever again be able to fall asleep to the sound of the ocean breaking against the reef? Yes Oselani will go fishing again. But will he ever rid himself of the dread? The slight edge of panic if the wind whips up a few stormy waves? Will fathers ever stop punishing themselves, wondering – if only I had held him a little tighter, if only I had run a little faster – would my child be with me today?

Loss can do funny things to us. Will we now hug our children closer before they leave for school. Because we are mindful of other children. Whos mothers sent them to school and they didn’t come back? Will we pause before chastising an unruly student? Because we remember that one little boy, the incredibly naughty one, who wore us weary with his antics – who could not outrun the wave on his way to school? Will we practice a little more patience. With an aged parent. A demanding elder. A bossy mother in law. Because so many others wish they could have those days those moments back. When they had something to complain about with their elders.

Loss bites. It’s a hard thing. Loss gives. But its oh so painful to receive.

From the Samoa Observer Newspaper

A book to remember…
Wednesday, 06 January 2010 09:46
Lani Wendt-Young ... privileged to write the book.
A book about different experiences during and after the tsunami is being written.
Scheduled to be released on the first anniversary of the tragedy in September, Associate Minister of Commerce, Hans Joachim Keil has commissioned award-winning writer, Lani Wendt to put it together.
“It is not a documentary type book with straight retelling of facts but rather the weaving together of different people’s experiences,” said Ms Wendt.

The niece of iconic Samoan poet, Albert Wendt said Mr Keil, who was deeply touched by the tragedy of 143 people killed, wants the book to remember the stories of the tsunami not just from the victims' perspective but also from people who helped.

The book, with a name yet to be decided, will contain interviews from victims, medical officials, fire and rescue workers, relief team workers, Disaster Management Office staff members and more.

It will also include statements from American Samoa, Tonga, Niuatoputapu and other islands affected.
“We go out three times a week to do interviews and we record as we go,” Ms Wendt said.

“There are a lot of great stories out there and I’m working to put them in the book.”
Ms Wendt, who has been working on the project for two months, said she is interested in how the tsunami has affected people not only as individuals but as a community.
The 36-year-old is married to Darren Young. They have five children.

“Writing has always been my passion,” she said.
Her education started in Samoa. She finished high school in Washington DC, before studying English Literature and Women’s Studies at Victoria University, Wellington.
Later, she studied for a diploma in Teaching at Wellington’s College of Education.

She returned to Samoa where she became an English teacher at Samoa College, Pesega Church College and Robert Louis Stevenson School.
Her writing career was launched when the National University of Samoa initiated a short story competition. She won.
“That’s when I thought; I am good at this and should carry on,” she laughed.

Since then, her work has been published in collections out of New Zealand, Australia and Samoa. Her fiction for children has been published in the School Journal Series in New Zealand.
“I also write articles for the newspaper occasionally,” she said. “And of course I have a blog/website like most other writers!”

Ms Wendt is hoping her uncle, Albert Wendt, can help out.
“Hopefully he is able to pre-read some of the chapters and give me some advice.” she said. “(Writing) runs in the family.”
“It is a privilege to be involved in this project,” Ms Wendt said.

“Mr Keil is to be commended for his vision, and commitment to ensuring that people’s stories are preserved. I am grateful for all those who have been willing to share their stories with me and I hope that this book will adequately honour their strength and resilience.”
The book is a non-profit project, Mr Keil said. All proceeds will go to the tsunami relief funds.

“The book will be affordable to everyone, as many were affected by it. We want everyone to read it,” said Mr Keil.
“This incident is a once in a life time experience.”