Even typing this is gut-wrenching. When the news hit here in Niu Sila / New Zealand, I feared for the worst, and hoped the best. The early reports were few and far between, keeping my hopes alive. Early in the morning a work colleague, who had just come back from a holiday in Samoa a week earlier, came into my office and casually joked about the tsunami hitting a few huts, might kill some chickens and a few roaming pigs. I know she meant it jest-fully, and I think I smiled and went along with it, because I was still hoping she was right, that it was just a few things.
But fear began to grow, a large lump in my throat, my stomach turned, as news throughout the day progressed and the magnitude of the disaster only just became apparent. All the news was about the Samoan Tsunami. My work colleague came in later that day and expressed her sadness and asked if my family was affected. As did many other work colleagues. I lied to them all, and said my family in Samoa is safe. But only minutes earlier, my mother had rung to say my cousins who had left for school in Samoa were still missing. Why did I lie? Because sometimes it’s easier to deal with a situation without worrying others. Despite feeling a deep hole in my soul, of worry and hurt, the need to lie also helped me cope with the unknown. Lying was also a form of keeping as much of normality intact despite your world crumbling around you.
Throughout the week I would stare outside my office window, high up in this glass tower, in this concrete jungle, looking into the distance of the beautiful Waitemata Harbour, beyond the mighty Rangitoto island and into the horizon towards the great Pacific ocean, towards Samoa.
It was an emotional rollercoaster every time I answered a call from family for updates, or clicked the refresh button on news websites. My heart was torn, ripped apart, and pulled in all directions.
At mass on the following Sunday they showed a video clip from Lalomanu hospital on the big screens in Malaeola. The congregation gasped and became teary eyed as the images came on screen of bodies lying on the foyer floor covered in ie’s. More images of the injured, the crying survivors. Another shot was of bodies in the pick up truck also covered except for feet hanging over the side. It was so hard to watch because it was so familiar. The people, the faces, the tears. Although we might not know them by name, they were our flesh and blood from the same land. Those feet weren’t of strangers, but are the same feet we walk with every day.
There was an interview on TV3 the day after the tsunami hit. A TV presenter for Campbell Live interviewed a lady from the Taufua family, who had lost 13 people to the tsunami. The Samoan woman spoke calmly and responded to each question respectfully. You could see she was a strong woman, and although fate had bore a great tragedy upon her, the need to be strong was greater than a full on showing of grief and emotion. But towards the end of the interview the Samoan woman was asked if she had any comments to make after responding to each question. It was here the eloquence and poetry of Samoan oratary was seen through her words. Rather than giving a methodical answer to a question, the Samoan was given the opportunity to speak freely. “There were sometimes where I wasn’t sure if my family should be facing forward or facing back” she said. But it was a “test of our faith” that this had happened, and we must continue to look to the future.
A few days later, in another interview, a woman who had lost her children from the grips of her hand as the waves swept through her fale, was asked at the burial of her children if she was angry at God for taking her children away. She responded, no, she thanked God for giving her the precious time she had with her children while here on earth.
This is a true testament to the Samoan character of perseverance, strength and faith. While others may curse God, it was God, our comforter, God our strength, God our protector. There is always a time for mourning, for allowing grief, but there must always be a time to live.
Samoans have another great coping mechanism, laughter. One of the survivors of a village in the south coast, was an elderly man too old to evacuate fast enough. Instead he took hold of a pole of the house and survived the surges that destroyed his village. Along with the rest of his house, his ie lavalava also went out to sea, meaning the old man was found naked holding on to the pole. His missing ie lavalava has become the running joke in the village. We find it so easy to laugh at ourselves, even in times of need, not because we have no sensitivity, but because laughter is as much part of life as sadness and joyfulness.
The week did end with an encouraging story, though. Despite the many losses, the win by David Tua brought back some of the good into our lives. But David Tua’s story is again, another illustration of perseverance. Despite many having written him off as a has been, his decisive KO over a younger, taller opponent showed the world that Samoans live for another day. David Tua had lost an aunty in the tsunami but said to media he had to “stay strong for the living”.
And now that I think about it, the biggest reason as to why I lied to my work colleagues, is because it kept the life going. Continuation of life is always at the back of your mind, and despite the tragedy, there’s always a tomorrow to live for. It’s not about forgetting, but as the woman from the Taufua family said, we must continue to look forward.
God bless Samoa.