Monday, January 25, 2010
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.