by Agnes Chu, KF9, Samoa
Since the infamous earthquake that caused the tsunami in Samoa on Sept. 29, there have been three more earthquakes felt here. They are minor but no less nerve-wracking. As the ground jolts for a few seconds, people, including senior management, rush out of the office and some stay in the hills for the night. When a harmless earthquake struck near Vanuatu, an island 1,400 miles away, Apia was evacuated for a couple of hours; tsunami drills are certain to be a fixture in Samoa’s future. Ghost stories also abound around the island (Samoans are very superstitious). I accompanied a centre manager on field visits to areas of the coast wrecked by the tsunami, because she had heard those stories of taxi drivers picking up the ghosts of tsunami victims, was afraid and needed company. She also insisted that I keep an eye on the ocean as she barreled down the road. (Her fear, though, was well-justified by an earthquake which occurred during our trip. Fortunately, we were at a loan centre away from the ocean and the earth shook for only a couple of seconds.) Archbishop Alapati Mataeliga has declared that there is “great fear in the country.” Samoa is on edge.
Traditionally, Samoans view the ocean as peaceful and giving. They struggle to reconcile the events of Sept. 29. Many explanations are offered and discussed in circles. For some, the tsunami and the recent geological unrest in the Pacific are an affirmation of climate change and a wake-up call for awareness and action from the rest of the world. A low-lying island, Samoa is at high risk when seawaters rise and storms come. Many houses lie on the edge of the coast, which is ringed by a little seawall made of stacked rocks only three feet high in most spots. It resembles decoration more than a barrier. (Most of the seawall is privately owned and built, another reason of why it is so tiny.)
Samoans point to the hotter-than-normal weather, irregular seasons, and shrinking of coastlines in recent memory as signs that climate change is real. This is not to say that the island is curbing its pollution. Samoa’s air reeks of smoke and exhaust. Smoke pours from the many fires which Samoans build to cook (gas stoves are used only in the capital), from the mosquito coils that burn constantly to ward off the hordes which have made my limbs look like they’re infected with chicken-pox, and from the cheap second-hand cars, mostly diesel and models from older years, that populate the roads. The recent road-switch to the left*, which was implemented to increase the amount of cheap imports, likely second-hand, from New Zealand and Australia, only exacerbates the situation. However, Samoa is an island of only 188,000 people and few factories (though this works to its disadvantage on the job-front). It does not contribute much, in the grand scheme of things, to the carbon in the air.
Other Samoans believe that God has had a hand in these natural disasters. A devoutly Christian country, Samoa is dotted by many churches, which are oftentimes much grander than the surrounding houses, and the most of the island shuts down on Sundays. The tsunami has caused a few Samoans to question their faith. Last Wednesday, the Samoan Observer ran a front-cover story with the headline, larger than normal and bolded, “Don’t Blame God.” Some people say that the tsunami was God’s punishment on the unfaithful. They note that the tsunami hit the tourist areas the hardest—these were places that tourists and locals alike drank and partied on Sundays.
However, Samoans are happy people and already, the jokes about the tsunami have already started coming. We use the tsunami as an excuse for all the things in Samoa that aren’t working. Oh, the water in the house is cut off? Must be the tsunami. Slow internet? Funny, there was always high-speed before the tsunami. Samoans are also commemorating the tsunami in many ways. One week after the tsunami, lavalavas (wrap-around skirts which are traditional Samoan wear) were printed with the words “Stay away from the tsunami” or “Tsunami 9/29/09.” I saw a boat newly christened “Lady Tsunami ’09.” Parents are even naming their babies “Tsunami.” This last bit is not unusual, as parents also named their kids “Cyclone” after the twin cyclones in the 1990s.
Samoa will never forget the tsunami. A month after the wave, the news and the people speak of nothing else. The government is just beginning to dole out the millions in aid it received from New Zealand, Australia, and international organizations. SPBD’s Cash for Work program, which hires villagers in tsunami-devastated communities for two weeks to work on a project benefiting the community, occupies most of my time as a Kiva Fellow. I’m spending my days visiting each of the villages affected, hearing the matais and mayors speak about the condition of their villages, and listening to the stories of the people whose belongings and homes have been washed away. I will be posting more on the Cash for Work program shortly.
*As an interesting side-note, this road-switch has caused a dent in the prime minister’s popularity and is the bane of my existence on this island! Along with the road-switch, three new rules have been implemented: speed limit of 25 mph on all roads on the island, numerous road bumps to reinforce this concept, and closing of bars at 10 p.m. (And I thought Boston’s puritanical old blue laws were bad.)
Agnes Chu is a Kiva Fellow working with South Pacific Business Development in Samoa. Join SPBD’s lending team on Kiva and help us reach the 25 member mark!/>