When we were flying in over the blue sea waves lapping the shores of Banda Aceh earlier today, I thought, “This is where it happened.” I imagined the water pulling back from the shore with a horrific sucking sound before the sea hurled itself miles ashore.
As the plane banked, headed for the runway, I saw the lush green hills and remembered stories of families running for the hills to escape the tsunami’s onslaught. In those first few days of aftermath, our staff reported that survivors spent up to five days on those hillsides, catching their food from the seawater that had drowned their homes and neighbors.
We can all recall the pictures of post-tsunami Banda Aceh: the solitary mosque standing among blocks of flattened houses, the debris-choked water, boats thrown far inland into what had been neighborhoods. More than 160,000 people died here. I was sure that the city would bear many scars from the catastrophe.
But, as we drove through the city, I saw that most signs of the tsunami were man-made: a lot of memorials built by governments around the world. A couple of boats left where they landed to show nature’s frightening strength.
The city has moved on. It is covered in flowers, growing upward and thriving. People have even returned to the beaches for lazy days spent with family and friends, drinking fresh coconut water in the shade of gazebos.
And this miraculous recovery was driven by things as small and sweet as a cake.
In the months that followed the tsunami, Banda Aceh witnessed a curious trend: a flurry of weddings between survivors, many of whom had lost their spouses to the disaster. But there were no shops from which to buy kekara, the sweet, crunchy traditional rice cake eaten at Acehnese weddings.
Ita Riani saw an opportunity — an obligation, really — and stepped in. She gathered nine of her friends and neighbors and applied for a small business loan through a Mercy Corps-supported local bank. They put out the word, took their first wedding orders, bought the ingredients and prepared the elaborate desserts.
Ita’s group does things the old way: they grind the rice using ages-old wooden tools. If it’s a big wedding, it might take her group a full 24 hours to make everything. But their time and commitment have paid off: each member is making about two million Indonesian rupiah (US $200) each month. That’s enough to pay the household expenses, their children’s school fees and even save a little money while continuing to expand the business.
Today, they’re taking some of their orders over cell phone text messaging and planning to move their operations from their individual kitchens to a rented storefront on one of Banda Aceh’s main streets.
When I flew into Banda Aceh, I was expecting the worst. But, after seeing the place and talking to many people, it seems like life here has never been better.