Friday, September 30, 2011

29/09 "I don't want to remember. It's too hard."

Photo by Pele Wendt.

I didnt want to do this. I didnt want to talk about this. I didnt want to remember that today marks a year since the release of the 'Pacific Tsunami' book. And two years since the event which changed so many peoples lives, so drastically - forever. I didnt want to think that tomorrow morning, Samoan time - families in many different places around the world, will pause to reflect on what happened that morning when the earth shook and the ocean answered.

I didnt want to remember what I was doing. What I was thinking. What I was feeling when my natural disaster paranoia was actually realized and yes, a tsunami really did happen. And people were dead. And villages were wiped out. I didnt want to open my mind to the memory of organizing with an amazing group of women to make soup and hotdogs, going to the disaster zone - like so many others - with nothing but the fragile hope that we could try to help, in some small way, any way, possible. I didnt want to think about the woman sitting by the side of the road. Watching. Waiting, "for them to find my baby." The uselessness of giving her a cup of soup. Her thanks. Her dead smile. The useless hug I gave her. I didnt want to remember the tears I cried as we drove away. The same useless tears Im crying now.

But most of all, I didnt want to think about the hours, days, weeks, months spent interviewing people. As they opened their shattered lives and hearts - to me - and to you. Sharing their stories. Of loss, pain, suffering, faith, heroism, hope, anger and bitterness. The three hours spent with Jared and Netta Schwalger as they relived the day the wave took their two children and their parents. The days spent searching for the body of their son. The nights filled with dreams as a little boy called to them from a mangrove swamp, 'Daddy, Mummy where are you? Why arent you coming to get me?" The month spent in hospital as volunteer specialists from NZ and Australia battled to save Netta's leg. All the times I listened to that audio recording of their interview. Again and again. Not wanting to get their story wrong. Not wanting to mess it up. Not wanting to somehow write it any less than what it was. An experience repeated many times over with others and their stories. With Mika and Ave from Lalomanu who lost their two children -the father who's little boy was never found. Who went to the morgue every day to wait. To look at just one more body. One more incomplete piece of a person. In the hopes that his child would be found. And Ave who could hold her remaining son and say with assurance and faith - "The tsunami took two of my children but I thank God that He has left me this one. This is the child that will have a future." With Taitasi from Leone in American Samoa building a bonfire so that her missing daughter would not "be lost and afraid in the dark." With rescuers like Comm Tony Hill and Vaughn Simpson. Doctors like Ben Matalavea and Riki Puni. Nurses like Henrietta Aviga. Public health responders like Andrew Peteru. Counsellors like Elena Peteru and Malia Manuleleua. So many people. So many stories.

No, I dont want to do this.

Anniversaries and memorials are important things. They are there to remind us. To make sure we don't forget. Events, people, experiences, emotions. But for some people the tsunami lasted longer than for others. For those living with the loss of their children. Their parents and extended family. For those struggling to rebuild a life, a home, a village, a community. For those who battle nightmares. Of working with the search teams. The body recovery. For too many people, the tsunami is something they want, they need - to forget.

A year ago, I went back to give people their copy of the book.Two weeks ago I went back again. To give money from the book sales to survivors who had shared their stories. Many greeted me with smiles and welcoming hugs. Many confessed to me, that they could not remember ever being interviewed. One mother said, "When I got my copy of the book and saw my picture and read my story, I couldnt believe it because I cant remember telling it to you. Its like I've blocked so much out from that bad time. I dont want to remember any of it. I am saving this book for my children and their children. I never want them to forget what happened here. What happened to our family and to our village. But me? I dont want to remember. Its too hard."

I continue to be grateful for the opportunity of being chosen to be a gatherer - a recorder - and then a storyteller for so many people of the Galu Afi of 29/09. The experience has changed me, changed my life, my perspective in so many ways. I continue to be humbled by the trust that so many survivors and rescuers placed in me, and in you - the readers of this book. I still feel that the book could have and should been so much better. Could have and should have spoken so much more powerfully about so many people's strength, courage and endurance. I read it and I see errors. And names and faces of people that were left out. And Im sorry that the record wasnt better. More accurate. I wish I could have been a stronger person, a better writer. I went with Lagi So'oalo and interviewed people and I cried. I wrote their stories and I cried. I proofed and edited with Joe and Celine Keil - and there were more tears. If I hadnt done so much crying, maybe it would have been a better book. One more worthy of the stories shared.

I have stayed close to one family in particular from the tsunami project. Mika and Ave from Lalomanu. My sister Pele paid for their children's schoolfees after the tsunami. Sent money for gifts of food, clothing and other essentials. On my last trip back, I met Ave's newest son. A little boy they have named Aleki - after the son they lost. The son who is on the Missing Persons list from 29/09. I held him in my arms, soothed him while he fussed for his mum and was humbled by the blessing, the miracle of new life. Mika and Ave live in a small, rough house built with tsunami funds. Yes, they are struggling to move on. To rebuild. To make a new life for themselves. But Ave said it best, "I hold this boy, and I remember the baby I lost. And I think about my daughter who died. But the Lord has given us another child. We have a new life to look forward to. Blessings and praise be to God."

There is a lot of reasons why we honor this anniversary. Why we pause to remember. We remember those who died. Those who served and gave so much of themselves. We ensure lessons learned are being put into action.

But for me? If Im being totally honest. On this anniversary of the 29/09 tsunami?

I dont want to remember. I dont want to talk about it. Because I'm still trying really hard to forget.

Remembering 29/09

Mika and Ave in 2009.

An interview with Radio Australia on the anniversary of 29/09. An interview with Mika from Lalomanu.

'Pacific Tsunami Galu Afi'

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Lani Goes Back to the People of the Galu Afi

From the Samoa Observer - 7th Sept, 2011.

Faletaulupe with her mother Suliane in 2009. Saleaumua..

“This is a blessing for us at a very sad time, thank you so much.” These were the words of Faletaulupe Lui of Saleaumua on Friday 2nd of September, as she gratefully accepted her monetary gift from the sale profits of the book Pacific Tsunami Galu Afi .

Two years ago, author Lani Wendt Young interviewed Faletaulupe and her elderly mother Suliane about their tsunami survivor story. “Both women were so welcoming of me and generously shared their 29/09 experiences. Suliane was over 95yrs old and so I was particularly interested in speaking with her about her recollections of previous historical tsunami events in the area.”

In October 2010, Lani returned to Saleaumua to gift the family with their complimentary copies of the book and once again, was able to visit with Faletaulupe and her mother. “To be able to give survivors a copy of the book that contained their story was the most personally rewarding part of this project. People had entrusted their stories to a complete stranger, not knowing whether a book would really happen. Many people were moved to tears when they were able to see their experiences recorded in a book that has an international audience. I’m grateful to the Australian Govt Aid program that funded the printing of the books, making it possible for us to give away over 200 copies to survivors and rescuers in Samoa and American Samoa.”

As originally envisioned by Mr Joe Keil – the owner and editor of the book – the purpose of the project was “to ensure that a record was made of the disaster and any profits from the books sale were to be given back to those survivors who featured in the book.”

It has been a year since Pacific Tsunami Galu Afi was launched and Lani has spent the last two days, travelling to Aleipata and Falealili districts, giving over sixty different families a monetary gift. Mr Keil explained, “We have not yet sold all the 5,000 books but we wanted to give people a mealofa on the tsunami anniversary month, something that could be helpful for their families as they continue to rebuild their lives. Hopefully next year as book sales continue, we will again be able to do something similar.”

People were pleasantly surprised to receive the money. Tina Niusila of Saleapaga said, “I never expected this money. I was so happy to get my copy of the book last year and I share it with my family. It’s very important that we have a record like this, I never want my children to forget these things that happened.” 9yrold Perota Susuga of Saleapaga was the youngest person interviewed for the book and he was thrilled to also be remembered with his envelope. Lotolua Niumatapele of Lepa said, “I treasure my copy of the book because it’s a valuable record for all of us. I encourage everyone to read it and I even lent my book to the principal of our village school so that she could share it with the students.”

Lani is now based in New Zealand and she appreciated the opportunity to travel to Samoa and meet again with families she had interviewed for the book. It was a bittersweet visit with Faletaulupe’s family though as they were preparing for a funeral – Suliane died on Sunday last week, passing away peacefully in her sleep. Lani said, “I was sorry to have missed seeing Suliane again and I’m glad that the book project is able to help her family in some small way at this sad time.”
Tofilau Afatasi of Poutasi with his book and money.
Lotolua Niumatapele of Lepa with her gift.