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Ku oba ekeu

Indonesia, December 1, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Julisa Tambunan/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Children I met during my time in Mentawai. The boy with the headscarf lost all of his family members except his father in the tsunami. The pretty little girl was found on the top of a mango tree a day after the tsunami hit and hasn't said a word since. Photo: Julisa Tambunan/Mercy Corps

In life there are few unexpected, sometimes unwanted, events that can drastically change your life forever. For me, one of them is being deployed to the tsunami-stricken Mentawai Islands as part of Mercy Corps’ Indonesia Response Team last month.

I went back home with Chikungunya, a viral disease that is spread by mosquitoes, but also with a growing love for the place and the people I met there. The Mentawai Islands are beautiful, more beautiful than any other place I’ve ever visited in my 30 years of life — and believe me, I’ve traveled a lot. The people were incredibly strong and hopeful and that has never ceased to amaze me.

Today, as I browsed through the images I took in the islands, I struck at this particular image. And a swirl of memories from that day just came back to me in an instant.

It’s a photograph I took in Eruk Paraboat, a subvillage in South Pagai Island, where everything was practically swept away by the 15-meter-high wave on that one unfortunate evening of October 25th. I met these kids running around in what was left of their village. Seeing me with my camera, they rushed to me and greeted me friendly in the local Mentawai language, to which I could only reply with “Anai leu ita?” or “How are you?”, one of the few local expressions I picked up when I was there.

I couldn’t speak Mentawainese, and they didn’t understand any word in Bahasa Indonesia. But I went along and played with them on that devastated ground, took a lot of pictures and showed them the results on the small display screen of my camera. They were enormously happy.

Later, I found out that the boy with the headscarf lost all of his family members except his father in the tsunami. The pretty little girl was found on the top of a mango tree a day after the tsunami hit. She hasn't been able to talk ever since. But there they were, being remarkably resilient and changing my life forever.

When it was time for me to leave and continue my journey, I said to them, “Ku oba ekeu.”

It’s Mentawainese for “I heart you.”