Sunday, February 14, 2010

Stories of the 'Galu Afi'. (Published in the Samoa Observer)

Soil sample done at Aleipata showing previous tsunami deposits.

Rudyard Kipling said – “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Throughout the course of my work gathering survivor stories from tsunami areas, I continue to be amazed at our lack of historical knowledge of previous tsunami in Samoa. Even the very old are shaking their heads, “No, my grandparents never told me anything about such things…No, this has never happened before in Samoa…No I have never seen or heard of any such thing before – this is the first time this has happened to our country.”

The science history tells us this is simply not true. In 1980, the International Tsunami Information center released a report compiled by George Carayannis – The Catalog of Tsunamis in the Samoan Islands. For this report, they researched old newspapers and other publications stored in the Hawaii, New Zealand and American Samoa archives, as well as reports from the Apia Observatory. Beginning in 1837, a total of sixty tsunami events were located. Here’s a sampling –

*November 7, 1837: An earthquake in Chile started a ‘sea wave that was felt in the Hawaiian Islands and in the Samoan group.’

*August 14, 1868: The great Peru earthquake and tsunami destroyed settlements in Apia.

*March 24, 1883: After experiencing shocks of earthquakes…the east end of Savaii was visited by a tidal wave which swept away all houses within a quarter of a mile of the beach for a distance of fifteen miles along the shore.

*1905 – 1911: The ongoing Matavanu volcano eruption which began on August 4 of 1905 generated a series of small tsunami caused by avalanching material into the sea. The largest of these was on October 6, 1907. A twelve foot high wave came from the Northeast round the lava point and at the DHPG “a boat house was wrecked, a buggy smashed, several boats damaged. A house was lifted off its foundations and carried across the road along with a 400 gallon water tank…”

*February 11, 1895: The New York Times reported the devastating effects of a severe hurricane that wracked the Manua Islands in conjunction with a severe earthquake. While technically not a tsunami, people reported a massive storm surge of water that ripped through villages “the very soil was torn from the coral rocks and the coffins in new-made graves were left exposed.” Three people were killed, one beheaded by flying wreckage.

*June 25,1917:Another tsunami. Reports from the Apia Observatory list “Earthquake about 150 miles from Apia. Magnitude 8.4. Destructive tsunami on south coast.” The Samoa Times of June 30th, 1917 relying solely on hearsay, wrote -

“On the Aleipata coast the tidal wave is described as sweeping in a white wall of foam more than ten feet in height. Although dead low water at the time, the advancing wall of water swept over high water mark and across the beach into adjacent native houses. They were washed away. In Lotofaga the wave swept over the beach and reached into the plantations at the rear. About two chains of solid cement wall, a foot thick and three feet high were lifted up and carried away, pieces weighing over half a ton being shifted for fully 30 feet. Half the village was submerged and houses destroyed. At Palauli a bridge was washed away and houses destroyed. At Satupaitea a copra house was taken down the coast for a quarter of a mile, all native houses were demolished. In Tutuila, a wave swept through Pago Pago destroying many houses. Most of those living in Pago Pago took to the hills. No lives were lost.”

There are eighteen other tsunami listed in the catalogue which hit the Samoa group in the period from 1917 to 1960. IN May 1960, archives recorded, four foot waves in Apia. Six feet in Lalomanu. Fifteen feet in Fagaloa Bay with complete submersion of houses. Villages of Neiafu, Sasina, Tuasivi and Tufutafoe all extensively damaged. But the greatest wave was seen in Pago Pago with a peak range of over fifteen feet, destroying houses, churches and schools. No lives were lost. The Carayannis catalogue continues to list various other smaller tsunami events. (anyone interested in reading it can find it online)
I am not a scientist. But it doesn’t take much more than common sense to make several observations. First - tsunami/galu lolo/galu afi are NOT rare or uncommon events for Samoa. And they usually hit the same areas of our islands every time – Aleipata is a recurring favourite. Because of our location, because of the wild unpredictability of Mafui’e, because of that deep chasm called the Tongan Trench – tsunamis have happened to Samoa with enough regularity that we should not be completely taken off guard when they do. Most tsunamis in the past 150 years have been small, barely noticeable. Some were mildly unsettling. And once in a rare while, they were immense and cataclysmic. But what a Samoa tsunami should never be, is a complete shock.

Second; previous tsunami, even the big ones, didn’t have a deadly impact on us. Again and again we read No lives were lost. Yes houses were wiped out. And vegetation was left brown and the land scarred. But there are no reports of deaths on the same scale as Sept 29/09. Why? I echo many others when I state the obvious…because back then we didn’t live on the shore like we do now. And it was because back then, we knew enough about the natural warning signs to move. Run. Climb. As soon as the earth shook. Long and hard. A hundred years ago, we didn’t need the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center to tell us a tsunami was coming. We didn’t wait for a cellphone text to make us evacuate to higher ground. A hundred years ago, grandparents told their children stories about ‘galu afi’. About what they should do when there was a mafui’e. They told them about what they themselves had experienced. What they had seen. They told them what the ocean sounded like… “a hungry beast that roars…an animal that jumps out of the sea and runs like fire across the land…” And children would listen. Wide eyed. And remember.

What of now? The last major tsunami to hit Samoa was only fifty years ago. Some of us were not born then, but many others were. They walk among us. Where are their voices? What of their stories? I have interviewed over one hundred survivors living in the tsunami affected areas. Only four people spoke of previous tsunami events. Ninety-two year old Suliane from Saleaumua remembers her father warning her about ‘lolo afi’. “He said he hopes I will never experience one because he has and it is something so terrible.” A fifty-seven year old woman from Satitoa remembered what her father had told her about strong earthquakes and the memory probably saved her family’s life. “He told me that if there is a strong mafui’e then I should run fast to the hill because the sea will come very quick”. He said don’t wait.” Another woman was ten years old during the 1960 event. She remembers the sound the wave made when it came sweeping through Saleaumua. A man from Vaovai recalled his elders talking about ‘galu afi’ but being unsure what they meant. Now, after 29/09, he has no doubts. “They called it galu afi because of the way it moves – its so fast, it runs like how a fire burns over the grass. And because of how powerful it is. Nothing can stand against it. It destroys everything. “

Many more survivors spoke of the media awareness campaign carried out by the DMO. Because of the ads on tv, they knew about the signs of tsunami and what they should do in case of an earthquake. However, knowing and acting are two harshly different things. Too many times, survivors said – we remembered what the tv told us but we ‘never thought such things could happen in Samoa. Tsunami only happen in other countries. Not here.’Some even ran towards the beach to see what the wave looked like “because I never knew what this thing tsunami was..”

People tell me they won’t need a book to remember the tsunami of 29/09. They say their children will never forget what happened that day either. And as I look into their eyes where the ocean still haunts, I believe them. Indeed, now that we have seen one, it is difficult to understand how Samoans ever ‘forgot’ what galu afi were in the first place. For those in particular who were there, who fought with the waves for survival, who saw children taken from them, the memory will always remain.

But what of our grandchildren? And their children? Who will make sure they remember? And why would you want them to? There is safety in the remembering and valuable life-saving messages in the stories of survivors. There can also be healing in the sharing of such stories. While there are those who do not wish to speak of their trauma, there are so many more who want to be heard.

The book commissioned by Mr Keil can only scratch the surface of preserving community cultural memory. What is needed is a concerted effort to share, record and preserve the stories of the 29/09 tsunami survivors. Teachers can encourage children to write stories and draw pictures of what they saw and felt that day. Local media can seek out survivors and offer them a forum to have their stories video taped or transcribed. Individual village councils could organize to gather the stories of their area. Thanks to modern technology, recording stories is not difficult or expensive. Many cellphones can record, as do MP3 and iPod players. Utilize the techno-wisdom of teenagers and their gadgets. Then take the time to sit, ask, listen and record.
What can we do with the stories? In Hawaii there is a Pacific Tsunami Museum that has an extensive archive of video interviews of tsunami survivors. Shortly after 29/09, a team visited Samoa and did twenty plus video interviews with survivors to include in their archive. We too can certainly put our tsunami stories in the National Museum. And the library. But we can also put them into daily living. Curriculum planners can incorporate such stories into school resources. What better way to teach a unit on seismic geology or oceanography than to discuss the subducting fault lines that lie so close to us? How better to illustrate the need to preserve our coastal environment than by using the UNESCO 29/09 report that clearly shows how reefs and mangrove forests offered protection against the tsunami’s wrath? And future disaster awareness campaigns could surely be made even more effective if they included the stories, the living words of survivors. Wouldn’t you be more likely to listen, believe and act - if a disaster awareness advertisement included a clip of a survivor telling what happened to them? The same could be applied to cyclone safety messages. Where are the stories of those who experienced the hurricanes of Ofa and Val?

There are many clamoring for a national warning system to be put into place with sirens everywhere. Faster seismic measuring, quicker wave detection, better satellite hookup, fancier lightning-like communication devices. And certainly there is merit in all those ideas. But any disaster management expert will tell you – the best way to be safe in any disaster, is to be individually prepared. To be aware, to be educated about the hazards, the risks and the strategies to deal with them. Have that escape route marked out for your family. Know what the signs of oncoming disasters are and what to do. Be ready to act on that knowledge. As we turn to modern technology to get ourselves better prepared for any and all disasters, let us not overlook the power that can be found in the sharing of our stories, the passing on of experiences through the generations. Because as our ancestors well knew – sometimes, the best way to teach someone something – is by telling them a story.

For more help on how to gather survivors stories see: ‘Capturing the Next Generation of Cultural Memories – The Process of Video Interviewing Tsunami Survivors.’ By Dudley, Goff, Johnston. Science of Tsunami Hazards, Vol.28 (2009) Avail. Online.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Two Tins of Pisupo

Today we went back to Vaovai and Poutasi village. We drove inland on a rocky dirt track to meet with several families who have relocated and are slowly rebuilding. We met a man along the road, heading for the plantation with a basket of popo on his shoulder. He was happy to speak with us but the rain sent us scooting for shelter into the nearest house. Another tsunami survivor family. They graciously welcomed us in. The head of the home is an older gentleman in a wheelchair. His daughter and grandbaby died in Vaovai. He was not there on tsunami day because he had spent the night at their plantation house. He is still somewhat bemused as to how and why his daughter died.
"She was a very strong woman. Her husband is a carpenter and he's always away in Apia doing jobs so she looked after the family by herself. She would do the plantation and go fishing. She was a very good swimmer. She wasnt big and fat and slow like lots of other women...I dont know how she couldnt survive the tsunami..."

During the conversation, he sends his grandson to the store to buy two cans of pisupo. We are served a sumptuous lunch - rice, pisupo, tuna, sweet hot tea. The family sits there and watches us eat. I feel terrible. We have come to gather stories from people who lost everything and they are feeding us the very best. We apologetically explain that we cant drink the tea. "We are Mormons..." The man laughs. He jokes "Dont worry, I wont tell on you...see, look at our roof? You are sitting under it and God cant tell if you have some tea today!" Then he sends his grandson back to the store. To buy large bottles of coke for us instead. I feel more terrible. We eat. I havent had pisupo for about three years now...all that trying to be low-fat and healthy you know. But it would be even more terrible if I didnt eat. They bring bowls of water for us to wash our hands. We depart well-fed. With many good wishes and blessings, hopes for our work to go well this day.

Another dirt road. Another interview. This time with several men resting in the shade beside cut trees. Yes they were in the tsunami. Yes their houses were ruined. But life is good. Nobody in their family died. The main speaker - an elderly man in his sixties - has 40 head of cattle which he points out proudly. A wriggly house in the bush.They get us fresh niu to drink. And give us another basket of niu to take with us. "Better than spring water! You take these to keep you refreshed during your work. "

We drive back to town. Humbled. Grateful. For Samoan hospitality. Generousity amidst devastation. For the kindness and courtesy of strangers. We ask a lot of people as we visit. Please welcome us into your home. Please share your tsunami story. Please allow us to see your loss. Please let us witness your attempts to rebuild. Time and again, they do. With grace. With warmth. With patience. And sometimes, with pisupo.

Thank you.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Tales of Your Ancestors

How many of us listen to the tales of our grandparents? Stories from their childhood. Times when they were growing up and life was (of course) harder, and slower, and they had so much less than we take for granted now. Do we listen – and remember? Do we listen – and learn? Or do we roll our eyes and sigh, politely hiding our yawns, but with our thoughts miles away?

Falimu Mautu’s family at Satitoa owe their lives to their mother, Aniva. Who long ago as a child, listened to her father tell stories. Among them a story of when he was a child. And there was an earthquake, mafui’e. And afterwards, the sea came. Not a mildly irritated sea, but a roaring demented one that ripped through their village, wiping out houses and leaving the land scarred brown. He told a wide-eyed Aniva, ‘whenever there is a big mafui’e, then you can be sure, the sea will come. You must not wait. You must run. Quickly.”

Aniva’s daughter Falimu is twenty four years old. She was on the roadside waiting for the bus to town when the earthquake came. She went back into the house to check on her family, in time to hear her mother.

“My mother was saying the earthquake was too strong and we had to start running because the sea would come soon. She called out to my father who was cutting grass at the back of the house and my dad said, no there wouldn’t be anything like that.”

But Aniva was insistent. She screamed at the children who were preparing to leave for school.

“No! No-one’s going to school. We all have to run.Now!”

Frightened, the children followed their grandmother’s directive and began running with her back towards where the distant hill began its slope upward. Falimu picked up her baby and followed them. Her father put down his bushknife and started after his wife, still shaking his head at the strangeness of women. Still unconvinced but unwilling to risk the inevitable tirade that comes when one ignores a wife. As she ran, holding her grandchildrens hands, Aniva continued to shout – calling out to the neighbors they passed,

“Run! Run! We all have to run because the sea will come soon…”

They were midway up the hill when the sea came and overpowered their village. Hearing the hungry wave, Aniva’s husband turned back to try and get his mother, 109 year old Fa’aliu. His son went with him. The two men could not fight their way through the water in time. Both were injured. Falimu’s brother was crushed under a broken cement wall and would later be taken to New Zealand for surgery to help him walk again. The family matriarch Fa’aliu was buried in Satitoa by the remains of the Mautu home. With her are the others in the extended family who died – forty-five year old Sefulu, seven year old Satelite, and a seven month old baby, David.

After the tsunami, Falimu is emphatic, “No, no one in our family is going to live near the sea again. We’re all going inland because this isn’t the last natural disaster. There will be more mafui’e one day.” And for now – Falimu will tell her grandchildren stories. And hope they will listen. And never forget.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Leone Tsunami Club

In the village of Leone in American Samoa, there is a black pool laced with twisted mangrove trees. The still waters drain lifelessly into the rocky sea. Clinging to its muddy banks is a helter skelter lean to. There is a table – scuffed and dented, salvaged from debris. An assortment of battered chairs. Here, at the back of a slowly rebuilding village, here is where the Tsunami Club meets.

A full moon hangs heavily in a placid night sky. The evening hums with mosquitoes. A cool wind blows in from the ocean. Light spills from half-finished homes where families prepare for sleep. Hopefully, a sleep unfilled with tsunami dreams.

But here in this swamp-side shack, eight men are gathered around the unsteady table. Playing cards. They tell me that for five dollars, anyone can join in. Cold beer costs a dollar. But they graciously offer me one for free.

“We started meeting here after the tsunami. Our houses were broken. Our days were busy with clean up and building new homes. We’re all victims here. All of us made it through the tsunami. So we started meeting here every night. Playing cards. Having a few beers….we’re the tsunami club!”

The mood is light. The laughter is low. The game is serious. The men are many things. They are shopkeepers. Insurance salesmen. Retired public servants. Customs officers who keep the airport safe with K9 dogs. All are fathers. For their village of Leone, all have history. All have love.

The men speak of many things. Like when will their paperwork be complete so work can start on their new house from FEMA? The beautiful cement parking for the new church hall that a few of them hand troweled smooth that day. The mythically perfect shot that one of them hit on the golf course that afternoon. The writer who has come from Apia looking for people to interview… “I told her to come back later and then I took off in my car and hid in town so she wouldn’t find me!” Loud laughter from all.

But there are things these men do not speak of. At least not during the companionship of a card game. Heavy and unspoken, is the memory of those they could not save.

I speak with the one they call ‘the General’. Retired from government service, he is a leader. A man of many talents. He paints, he builds, he repairs. People come to him when they need help. A large, broad man with a gleeful grin. Sweaty and shirtless. Paint spattered. He laughs and shakes his head resignedly at my arrival to the black pool. “Aue you found me!”He had tried skipping away in the shadows when we drove up but the others called him back. On tsunami day, the General was caught by the first wave. He found himself swept alongside two of the old women of his village. He grabbed the first and then the second as they cried feebly for his help. He is a strong man and had hoped he could save them both. But it was not to be. The women were not light. The wave was not merciful. Churned in the debris, he was unable to hold them. The wave broke three ribs and cut him maliciously before spitting him out. He was taken to the hospital but he discharged himself a few hours later. So he could return to Leone to help with the body search. “The village call me the General because Im the one they look to. Im the one that gets things done. I couldn’t stay in the hospital when I knew so many people needed help.” There is sadness as he remembers the two women he could not save.

There are others. The man who clung to a breadfruit tree not far from the card shack. He saw schoolchildren still on the road and after the first wave he yelled for them to run for where the road rises. But they were caught by the second wave and washed past him. He reached out with one hand and grabbed one young girl by her hair. That one at least, was saved. But it is the others he remembers. The ones he could not reach.

I speak with Iuliano. He of the warrior physique. Tall and athletic, he had woken early that day for his usual morning run. By seven he was driving two of his children to school with his wife when they looked back in time to see the first wave hit the village. Where his other two children were still at home. With his mother-in-law. Two nieces. An aunt. He ran back, strong and sure to fight his way to his house. Thankfully his aunt had already run with the children to the safety of the back hills. The others were huddled on the second floor of their solid brick home.

“I wasn’t scared for myself, all I worried about was my kids and my family.”

Iuliano took the others to the hill before the second wave rushed in. He could have stayed there. All his family were secure. But he went back. Through debris and hungry water. An old woman cried for help from the remains of the petrol station by the roadside. She was pinned against a pole by an upturned truck. Iuliano and his cousin Cameron tried to move it. Tried to free her. But the vehicle was too heavy and the force of the water too strong. The third wave was approaching.

“I looked in her eyes and I told her, I’ll come back for you. I’ll come back.”

Iuliano and Cameron were taken with the third wave, washed to the mangrove swamp. Again, he could have stayed there. But again, he went back. Through debris and hungry water. Back to the petrol station where an old woman was still pinned against a pole. Still. And silent.

“I cant get her out of my mind. I’ve known her all my life, I grew up here and she was like a grandmother to all us kids in the village…I keep seeing her face, you know? I looked in her eyes and I promised her that I was going to get her out, I told her I would save her…and I couldn’t.”

It is four months since the tsunami of September 29th. The waters have gone. The mud is long dried. New homes are built. But still there is other debris left behind. Unseen. Like guilt. And loss. And grief.

What do you say to Iuliano? To the General? You search for words but they all seem so inadequate.You tell them that there is nothing more that they could have done – what is the strength of one man against a wave that runs at five hundred miles an hour? And slams shipping containers into warehouses?

You tell them that there is honor in the trying. That I have interviewed many who did not go back. Who could not and did not try. You tell them that those women died knowing someone cared enough to try.

The interviews end. The game resumes. Another can is opened with a snap swish. They tell me I can come again to gather more stories. Or to play cards...Beside a black pool laced with twisted mangroves.

On the plane ride home, I think of many things. I think of dolphins at Fagasa. And the unbearably loud surf at Poloa. I think of 18 foot hammerhead sharks caught in Pago Harbour. But most of all, i think of Leone. And the Tsunami Club. I think of heroism - defined as exceptional courage in the face of danger. We usually think of heroes as being those who 'save someones life'. But there is still another kind of courage. Another kind of hero. Those who didn’t save the life – the elderly woman, the little girl. But in the face of insurmountable obstacles they still tried desperately to overcome. Returning again and again as the hungry sea fought against them.

Yes, there are heroes in Leone village. I pay tribute to them with my meager words and hope that with time – they will find peace.