Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"A wild animal with huge fins, breathing black smoke."

Sapua Toilolo with her son in Malaela village, Aleipata.

There is a beast that crashes through forty-two year old Sapua Toilolo’s dreams. It clambers up out of the morning ocean, over the seawall, and the coconut trees tremble before it’s towering height. It is the color of night and the sea spray at its head, rises like a cloud of smoke. As it advances, it rips the roofs off houses, uproots trees and tramples cars. Its roar is the churning growl of machinery, crashing louder and louder as it draws near, drowning out the terrified screams of those who run before it. It is a beast that killed Sapua Toilolo’s neighbor - her cousin Fa’apopo Touli and six others in their village. It is a beast that has driven the Toilolo family to settle in the plantation bush. It is a beast that troubles Sapua’s sleep and makes her five children wake up early every morning “because if it had come at a time when we were all asleep, we would all have died, so I say to my children, remember what happened, remember what came that day, don’t ever sleep in late, we need to get up early…”

On the day the beast came to Malaela, it was only Sapua and her two sons at home. Her husband was away overseas and the other children had already left for school. Pe’epe’e her eldest boy was preparing to go to the plantation when they heard a ruckus of sound from their neighbor’s house which was closer to the ocean road. “We were sitting there to have our breakfast when we heard people screaming, I thought they were arguing down at Levao’s house because there were people running around and yelling and there we were just sitting in our house unaware of anything. I looked out and saw an old lady running past with some kids. She was only wearing a towel, like she just came from her shower.”

Pe’epe’e ran down to see what was happening, then ran back even faster/quicker. “He said to me to run there’s a big galu, a wave coming.” Sapua’s little son took off immediately up the road beside their house that led inland but Sapua wanted to see for herself what was happening/coming. “I didn’t run at that time, I looked out to make sure my son was away and then I looked out to the wharf and the galu was coming. It was very high and I knew that our houses might get affected because it was coming over the seawall but I thought maybe that was as far as it would go, so I just started walking back on the inland road.”

Sapua still wasn’t too bothered, still she thought the wave would be nothing more than a vaguely annoying surge. Then she turned her head to the left and saw it. The beast. Another wave that was rolling in over the land, travelling almost parallel to the ocean. “It was different to what was coming from the sea, it was much bigger and moving very fast.” Sapua was torn with indecision. Back in the house was a sizeable amount of money, the children’s school fees that she had been planning to go and pay that day. She ran back and had reached the verandah when her son shouted out to her.

“Run! You’ll die if you go back in the house…run!”

Sapua listened to her son. She left the money and began running with him up the inland road. They met other groups of people clustered a short distance in. “They were just standing there, they couldn’t run anymore and they thought maybe they had gone far enough, but I told them, run, be strong, let’s keep going! I looked back and I could see the wave coming and taking roofing iron off the houses like it was paper. So we all kept running.”
The wave caught some of those in her group as they ran. “The wave hit Lele’s house and it was still coming and it got some of us, that’s where I lost Fa’apopo and some others that were running with us as well. That’s what spurred me on. We crossed the bridge that goes over the mangrove stream and got up to higher ground. We stood there looking back, we saw trees being uprooted right in front of us because of the strength of the water. I saw people in other trees trying to pull up their kids to safety.”

Sapua cannot forget what she saw. “The wave that came across the land was like an animal coming up with high fins on each side, I looked at it and it scared me. I said to all those that I was running with ohmigosh, we’re all going to die from what’s coming…because I saw the coconut trees were lower than the wave. It was like a wild animal with huge fins, but it was pitch black and the mist or sea spray that was coming out of it was also black, like the smoke from a umu, it was brownish-black.”

That night the Toilolo family slept in the bush. “Once the fear had left us I went back down to the shore to see if there was anything to salvage from our house, but it was too late, everything was useful was already taken by the scroungers and they even took all the big fish as well.”

Sapua’s little son is still unwilling to return to the coast. “When the tsunami was over, I tried so hard to get him to come with me to have a look at the aftermath but he said no, no let’s not go down there, we’ll die down there. I kept telling him there was no more tsunami but he said no. Finally, a leader from our church took him for a ride to the beach in a car and he could see that nothing bad was going to happen. I don’t want him to have that fear.”

Months later though, sitting in her plantation house, Sapua herself still has those fears. Of the wild animal with huge fins that breathes smoke. “We go down to the village to get water and just clean up a bit and then come back here. I still get scared…when I hear machinery making noises because I think the galu’s coming back and I have to get up and look and then I want to hurry and get away from there.”

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