I was invited to speak about the upcoming book at the annual Robert Louis Stevenon Memorial Gala held at the RLS Museum at Vailima. It was a great opportunity to promote the book and its stories. Thank you Tilafaiga Rex Maughn and the RLS Museum Foundation.
Galu Afi - Wave of Fire
It is no surprise that Robert Louis Stevenson chose to make Samoa his home as the Samoan people are a poetic and lyrical people and great storytellers themselves. Speak with the survivors of the 2009 tsunami and they will tell you...
What a tsunami looks like. “It was a beast that leapt up out of the sea and ran towards us. It was a demon, a hungry animal. It was the color of night and its foam crest was black smoke. It moved like fire across the land. I looked and all I saw was death coming.” What a tsunami sounds like. “It roared like a hundred bulldozers with gears stuck and grinding in first gear. It was a swarm of jet planes taking off. It was the sound of war and guns. It growled as it smashed houses and threw cars.” Why a tsunami is called ‘galu afi, wave of fire?’ "The water was hot. It brought many dead fish. The water burned inside my chest. It made me sick. My skin was scraped off from being dragged in the wave, like I was burned. It killed all the trees and the grass. The path of the wave in our village is all dry and dead. Now I know what the elders meant when they warned me about galu afi. No wave brings a fire except for this one.”
A week after the tsunami, Mr Joe Keil approached me. He said someone needs to gather the stories of the tsunami, to record them – while they were still very raw, fresh. Before they were purposely forgotten as people tried to move on, to rebuild their lives. Joe had a vision of a book,that would speak with the voices of those who had lived through the 2009 Pacific Tsunami and tell of those who had died,those who had worked to rescue, heal and rebuild. I was asked to take that vision and give it substance. And so it was decided. The book would be a narrative story weaving together many different people’s experiences. It would include survivor stories from American Samoa and Tonga. It would be a non-profit project - Joe would personally fund the research/writing costs and all proceeds from the books sale would be put into a tsunami aid fund. We set a date for the release of the book – one year after the tsunami. (and then i started freaking out...because I'd never actually written a book before AND because that didnt really give me very much time to get it done!)
In October 2009, I started gathering people’s stories. Lying in hospitals, camped in tents, gathered in rough shelters in the mountain bush or sitting beside the new graves of their loved ones – survivors everywhere paused in their recovery and rebuilding to share their stories. I travelled to American Samoa several times to interview survivors there as well. All the interviews were audio recorded and then transcribed and translated to English. Initially, I had worried how people would react when asked to share their stories. In particular, those who had lost loved ones and homes. What if they got angry at my visit? What if they found my questions offensive and intrusive? What if they didn’t want to talk about the tsunami because it was too painful? Yet, time and again, I found that people were more than willing to talk. Many were grateful for the opportunity to share their experiences. For some, the interviews were therapeutic. People would talk for an hour or more. I was humbled by the reception I received. Everywhere, survivors welcomed us into their homes and shelters with gracious hospitality and offered us the finest of whatever they had. (I have had biscuits in saleaumua, niu in satitoa, hot baked umu kalo in lalomanu, pineapple in saleapaga, pisupo in vaovai, tuna and rice in poutasi – to name a few) People relived the nightmares of that day in September with strength and courage and in this book, they have entrusted us with their sorrows.
There were many visitors and tourists from overseas that had been caught in the tsunami. It was a challenge to track them down but I was able to do so with the assistance of the Aust and NZ High Commission offices here. A common theme in their stories was gratitude for the way Samoans had taken care of them after the tsunami, when many were left with nothing, not even the clothes on their backs. Its impossible to listen to their accounts and NOT be impressed by the many examples of caring and compassion shown during that difficult time. Nynette Sasse of the Samoa Hotel Association went out to the disaster zone right after the tsunami. She saw tourists wearing colourful mu’umu’us and Sunday best puletasi and Shirts.“These people had climbed up out of the tsunami completely naked. As soon as the villagers saw them, they ran up with their best clothes to dress them. I was so humbled to see how our people took care of the visitors. I was so proud at that moment to be a Samoan!” I know how Nynette feels. As I have listened to the survivor stories of our friends from overseas – I have gained a greater appreciation for the generousity and hospitality of our culture. I was surprised to find that most visitors who lived through 29/09 – actually wanted to return to Samoa. I thought they would have been put off forever. In the words of a 12 yr old boy from Auckland, NZ, Max Wilson –
“Samoans were the kindest people I have ever met. On that day they looked after us before they looked after their own families. They lost everything and most had lost family and friends. We are collecting money to help them rebuild their lives. We are returning back to Litia Sini once it’s rebuilt. We want to go back for opening night.”
There were so many people who dedicated incredible amounts of time and effort to see Samoa through this disaster – both local and those from other nations – and some of their stories are also included in the book. I am in awe of those who worked under very difficult conditions putting their own lives at risk, to help others. The FESA worker, part of the first team out to Aleipata, who worked through debris and muddy water to search for the living and the dead – all the while not knowing if her own six children on the island of Manono were alive or dead. The DMO and Disaster Response people who headed down the hill and towards the sea while most of us were evacuating, running away from the ocean. The book pays tribute to them all. One survivor wrote - “We want to say how fantastic the Samoan fire service was, and the medical teams. They were there so quickly. Anyone who ever says that there was not enough fast action after the tsunami – they’re wrong. It was unbelievably good, especially for a country like Samoa where you wouldn’t think they would be that well organized. If we had that sort of reaction time in New Zealand, you’d be thrilled. It was sensational. I take my hat off to whoever helps organize Civil Defence in Samoa.”Graham Ansell, New Zealand. The book also tells of the amazing relief work carried out by many nations and international organizations.
It is now a year later. It has been a long, challenging journey – but thanks to the help and support of many - the project is now complete. The printing of the book was made possible by the generous support of the Australian government AID Program who have paid for the first print run of 5000 books. The book will be launched here on the 27th of Sept. Further launches will take place in AmSamoa, NZ, Australia and the US. I want to emphasize that this book is NOT a comprehensive, all-knowing account of the tsunami as the stories are only a fragment of people’s experiences. There is so much we can learn from this disaster and I call on families and communities here, and in AmSamoa and Tonga to continue to seek out the stories of the tsunami.
The stories in the ‘Galu Afi’ book are heavy with loss, sadness and suffering. But they are also stories filled with courage, hope, compassion and strength. It was a privilege to record them, to write them, and to share them in the upcoming book. I hope others will find them as inspiring and uplifting as I have