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.

4 comments: said...


Samoan Desert Dweller said...

Wow when we start digging into the root of the problem it seems we've been there a few times before. How do we know that some of these bits in foreign newspapers are not mere passive references? Given the date on some of these it was not uncommon for media embelishment. Just a thought.

Anonymous said...


Despite the limited suitability of the Samoan “Galu Afi” to describe a tsunami, it is only applicable in the metaphorical sense as you have effectively described the parallels of the fire’s destructive nature to that of a tsunami. Therefore, the more appropriate and correct Samoan transliteration/translation for the word “tsunami” is “Galu Lolo”. In fact “Galu Afi” is literally a “wave of fire” which refers to the red hot lava flow from a volcanic eruption. This lava flow (galu afi) is sometimes associated with a tsunami because of the causative connection and link. Hence the term “galu afi” can be a blatant misnomer when talking about a tsunami in the Samoan context.

I will not be surprised if the etymology of the word “galu afi” is traced to the Matavanu eruption.

I enjoy your blog, nonetheless. Good luck with the book project.

...just a thought


Lani Wendt Young said...

Good pt desert dweller! Thats one of the frustrating things about it all though - the lack of 'reliable' info or historical knowledge.