Thursday, October 7, 2010

Life is for living. Treasure it.

(An extract from words spoken at the Auckland launch hosted by the Center for Pacific Studies, Auckland University. Oct 7th, 2010)
There were many visitors and tourists from overseas that had been caught in the tsunami. It is a privilege to see some of you here with us tonight. I was at the hospital in Samoa the days after the tsunami – and saw firsthand something of your experience – as you were caught in a strange land by a fierce ocean and left with nothing – for many of you – not even the clothes on your backs. Thank you for sharing your stories of strength and survival with us in this book. I had assumed that visitors caught in the tsunami would never want to return there. Not after their horrifying experience. I was wrong. Survivor stories from visitors are filled with gratitude for the care and compassion they were shown during that difficult time. UK visitor Becky Glew escaped from the wave at Lalomanu and took refuge at the Taufua house on top of the hill. She wrote, “Many Samoans were there bringing us food, climbing palm trees to get us coconuts, looking after the wounded and even building us a toilet outside. And every single one of them was either still waiting for news of family members or already knew they had lost someone. For instance, the young man who led us to safety had found his dead mother moments before – and he spent the whole day lifting the sick, running back and forth to the hospital, cooking for us and helping anyone who needed it. Everyone was amazing.” Last week, flights back to Samoa were fully booked as many tsunami survivors and their families returned for the memorial anniversary. Before sunrise on the morning of the 29th processions of people bearing coconut candles and lanterns, walked along beaches through shattered villages. Survivors from Samoa, NZ, Australia and the UK were there to grieve as one. People who had worked to help with the recovery and rebuilding were there. Ministers led everyone in prayer and hymns filled the morning air, enfolding the empty spaces with love. Crowds gathered outside a hilltop church stood in remembrance of that day when the earth rumbled and the waters raged. Together they watched as the sun burned the sky and a new day dawned.

As families from different nations have mourned as one, new bonds have been forged. Some examples, There is now an escape path cut into the mountainside of Lalomanu – funded by a trust set up in honor of the memory of Mary Ann White – of Raglan, NZ. New gardens are being planted by women in the village thanks to the Hodgins family of Australia as they work with Women in Business to buy tools to sow the seeds of hope. Two families at Saleapaga have new homes – gifted by the Martin family of Matamata who lost their daughters, Petria and Rebecca. At Lalomanu Primary school, there is a new library stocked with more than 4000 books built by family and friends of the 6 yr old from Australia who was killed by the wave. Imaginations will soar and dreams will take flight because of the Clea salavert-Wykes library. I continue to be humbled by these examples of how grief can inspire service and compassion.

There were many people who dedicated huge amounts of time and effort to see Samoa through this disaster and some of their stories are also included in the book. I am in awe of those who worked under very difficult conditions to help others. The Samoan DMO and Disaster Response teams who headed down the hill and towards the sea while most of us were evacuating, running away from the ocean. The nurse on duty at Lalomanu hospital who worked tirelessly to care for the wounded – even after receiving the news that her own 3 yr old son had been killed in the wave at Satitoa. She said – “I kept working. What else could I do? There were so many injured people who needed help.” The international response in the tsunami aftermath was swift as many hearts and hands were moved to help us in our time of need. It is an honor to have some of you here with us tonight. The leader of the first local medical response team, Dr Ben Matalavea said, “There were so many people who came to Samoa to volunteer. We found that the help was quite overwhelming and that really for me it lifted the spirit. How could we be tired when all these people had come so far to try and help us? It was really something. For me, that’s the thing that most touched me.” One doctor explained his reasons for coming to Samoa to assist. I went to school at Avondale College and played in the rugby first fifteen team. I was the only palagi in the forward pack, all the rest were Samoans. They were all my friends and when this tsunami happened, all I could think of were my old mates and their families. So I came.” Tsunami survivors Jared and Netta Schwalger – lost both their children and Jared’s parents in the wave. Netta’s injuries were so bad that there was doubt that doctors would be able to save her leg. She wept as she expressed her gratitude for the plastic surgeons from NZ who skillfully operated four times and ensured she wouldn’t need amputation. “They were so kind, so careful, so nice to me.”

If there is one message I bring to you all from the people of the galu afi it is this – faafetai, faafetai tele lava. The samoan word for gift is meaalofa. Things of love/things from love. Ask survivors about the help they received after their ordeal and they will tell you – there has been so much love that they have been overwhelmed. Rita Romeo of Lalomanu recalls the night after the tsunami hit. “We slept in the forest, we had no blankets. Our clothes were wet. It was very cold and I felt so bad for my children. I sat there with tears looking at my kids asleep on the ground and I thought maybe it would have been better if we had died in the tsunami. I can handle it – but my children…I cried for them. The very next day we got help from the government and from many generous people…clothing and blankets and food. And then in the month after, we continued receiving many gifts from containers overseas. So many things, oka! ” I have visited with survivors in tents from the NZ army. In houses newly built in the inland bush by volunteers from churches, local companies and organizations like Habitat for Humanity. I have driven on roads cut through wild forest, lined with power poles – paid for by tsunami relief funds. I have seen elderly wrapped in quilts – made by schoolchildren in faraway lands. Little children playing with a rugby ball given to them by visiting rugby legends from Australia. Survivor families have shared with me their food – a can of peaches and a container of chocolate pudding – gifts from a partnership of the Islamic Relief and LDS church, flown in on a massive D.C plane from the USA carrying enough food to feed 2,000 people for a month. They have given me water from tanks gifted them by the Red Cross. I have listened to survivors speak of their gratitude for – counselors who came to help heal broken hearts and spirits. For tourists who continue to visit our shores, supporting people as they rebuild businesses and livelihoods. The book speaks of those who fundraised, donated of their time and means, gave of their thoughts and prayers - in other words - the book speaks of you all here tonight.

The stories here are filled with sadness, and immense suffering. Yet they also bear witness of great courage, sacrifice, faith and hope. There is much insight to be gained from the experiences of those who have endured many trials, who have survived the wave of fire. As we honor the anniversary of 29/09, we look to the future with the lessons we have gained from the past. In the words of 16 yr old Aucklander Matt Ansell “The tsunami showed me that if there’s something you want to do in life – something bad like a disaster could happen at any time and take it away, so you might as well live. If you want to do something, you make sure you do it; do it well and do it when you can, as soon as you can. Don’t wait. Don’t put it off.” Wise counsel echoed by another survivor, Becky Glew, who became pregnant shortly after 29/09. She wrote – “this baby is a direct result of the tsunami. Having a baby is something we had talked about but I would put it off as ‘the time wasn’t right’. However, the tsunami made me realize that life is for living, treasure it, there is not a minute to spare…The baby has also made me look to the future instead of dwelling on the horrors of that day and it has truly helped me to move on. I still have fears and nightmares but my recovery from the trauma has been much swifter – it will truly be a magical baby when it’s born.” On the 4th of August, baby Martha Nell Smith was born. That magical baby is here with us tonight, another reminder of the tender mercies and miracles that can be found even in the midst of adversity.

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