Thursday, August 5, 2010

I just cried because I had lost hope.

Tafi Sang Yum at the new Saleapaga inland.
In Samoa, the elderly rarely live alone. The family will ensure that someone stays with them to make their food, help with chores, and listen to their stories. To be their child. Someone young. Usually single. Someone strong. A grandchild, a cousin, a nephew. Someone like Tafi Sang Yum. Twenty-three years old. With tattooed bronze arms that paddle in their spare time for the National Outrigger Canoeing team. When they weren’t digging taro or making fa’alifu for his grandparents, Mata and Su’e Esera.

The Esera’s were in their seventies and enjoying the simple rewards of a lifetime devoted to hard work and raising their family. Their eight children were all grown, educated and working – contributing to their parents retirement. They all worked in Apia - one son was a police officer assigned to the Nafanua Patrol Boat. That September he was overseas on marine police training. Tafi was the chosen grandson who lived with Mata and Su’e in their seaside home. They had three beach fales they would rent to visitors. And a taro plantation. A car. When Tafi’s paddling team would come for a Saturday swim, the Esera’s would make them a proverbial feast. Tender-baked fish that melted in your mouth, steaming hot taro that only the day before had been in the black earth, thick sweet koko from beans that Su’e herself had roasted and ground. Tafi was their child. In that house there was much love and affection.

When the first wave came, Tafi was sweeping leaves in the back yard. His grandparents were in the house. They tried to get to the car but the water was already upon them, swishing around their legs. Again, the size of the initial wave was deceptive. Su’e called out to her husband to come back in the house to shelter from the wave there. Tafi and Mata ran back inside – just before the next wave hit the house.

“The wave took the car. We were bracing ourselves inside the house…I thought the house would stand. I tried to hold on but I felt like my hands were getting electrocuted. I let go and the water washed me out. That’s when we were separated”

Tafi is strong – but the wave was stronger. The house was destroyed. “My body felt like I was being beaten by someone because I was battered by trees and rubbish in the water. My body felt numb and I couldn’t do anything. The wave took me out with it and I hung on to a coconut tree trunk that was floating. Then when the wave went down, I swam back to the shore.”

Tafi stood alone.“ I stood there and looked to where my house used to be and I couldn’t see my grandparents anywhere. I just cried at that time because I had lost hope.”

Mata Esera was found several hours later but when nightfall came, Su’e was still missing. “On Wednesday morning we came back early to look for my grandma. We found her just after 8am behind another family’s property because most of the stuff from our house was found there and that’s where we found my grandma buried under corrugated iron and her skin had turned black. Like she was burned.”

Tafi’s uncle Ofisa came home in time for his parent’s funeral. Crisp, white dress uniforms filled the church as the marine police paid their respects.

Two months on, Tafi helps his cousins build their home in the Saleapaga bush. And clear land for the new taro plantation. Grief is edged with guilt. He is the chosen grandson of Mata and Su’e Esera. Chosen to be their child. Chosen to take care of them.

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