Honored to be back among a people I love

November 4, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Carol Ward/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Steve Mitchell, Mercy Corps Chief Financial Officer and Vice-President for Financial Services, stands amidst tsunami wreckage in Samoa. Photo: Carol Ward/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Carol Ward for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Tsunami-displaced families in parts of Samoa are living in makeshift shelters. Mercy Corps and its local partner, SPBD, has been helping meet their urgent needs with deliveries of critical supplies. Photo: Carol Ward for Mercy Corps

It had been 33 years since I had lived there. When I heard that an earthquake and resulting tsunami had struck the Samoa Islands on September 29, I was taken back to a time when I had lived among the Samoan people as a young missionary.

The Samoan people I knew were a friendly, open and culturally rich people with deep traditions of respect and honor. I was deeply concerned, and felt Mercy Corps could be of assistance.

With support from Mercy Corps’ generous donors and assistance from Western Union, I knew that we could do much to assist the traumatized and devastated communities along the southern and eastern coasts of Upolu and Manono, two of several Samoan islands hit hard by the earthquake and resulting tsunami.

Upon arriving in Samoa, and after a long drive from the capital city of Apia, my fellow Mercy Corps colleague Carol Ward and I arrived in the southeastern district of Aleipata in Upolu, one on the most severely affected areas. Relying upon my rusty Samoan language skills acquired so many years before, I spoke with a village chief doing repairs with members of his family on his badly-damaged home near the beach.

As I expressed deep condolences for his village’s losses, he immediately interrupted me to express his profound gratitude and deep appreciation to all the people of America and abroad for their support of food, water and shelter. He even wished the blessing of God upon us as we conducted our work. As he thanked Mercy Corps for being there, I could not help but think that the Samoan culture of courtesy and gratitude that I knew so many years ago persisted even in this time of deep suffering. Under the worst of circumstances, I felt honored to be among a people I had come to love so long ago.

As Carol and I travelled along the only road linking villages in the district, we had heard that the village of Lalomanu, further south, had been particularly hard hit. As we summited a small rise in the road, and looked out upon what was left of Lalomanu, I was utterly shocked at the devastation. This village, which I later learned had the most fatalities, was simply no more. The surging waters had wreaked utter destruction.

One family, encamped in a salvaged home with tarpaulin covers, said they needed more help to reestablish themselves, and that many of their fellow villagers had moved inland because of their fear of the ocean, a recurring topic of discussion with the affected Samoans we met with. One woman I met with, as she looked out to sea, said she was afraid, or “fefe” of the ocean. The look in her eyes clearly demonstrated this fact. Particularly heart-rending was learning that so many children has perished, being unable to escape the rushing waters. Flowers marked the places where loved ones were lost. Bedding, clothing, tools, household goods, toys and building debris were scattered everywhere.

A later meeting I had with the Deputy Minister of Finance, Noumea Simi, helped me to understand what the beleaguered Samoan government was confronted with in reestablishing whole new villages inland from the ocean for devastated costal communities. Since so many affected villagers were terrified of living near the shore, the Government had to build roads, bring in power and put in infrastructure for these new inland communities, all the while having to rebuild the heavily damaged coastal village infrastructure for those Samoans not wanting to move away from their traditional home sites.

The following day, we travelled with representatives of our partner agency, South Pacific Business Development (SPBD), to the island of Manono to assess the cash-for-work program implemented the prior week by SPBD, and funded by Mercy Corps and Western Union. The cash-for-work program pays each villager needed cash for documented hours of work, typically at the end of the week, to do clean up and reconstruction.

After a slow boat ride from the eastern coast of Upolu, we arrived near the villages of Faleu and Lepuia’i. No vehicles of any kind are to be found on Manono, as the island is too small and isolated from the larger islands. The Manono villages, like others in Samoa, are nestled right up against the waters edge, to take advantage of cool breezes that keep the mosquitoes at bay and ensure proximity to the abundant supply of food take from the reef.

The earthquakes’ two tsunami surges had flowed over the village seawalls and destroyed homes and eroded foundations. Upon our arrival, we noticed numerous men in the village placing rocks in severely eroded areas of Lepuia’i village that threatened a home and the village church. Further down the coast, we saw extensive repair work to the seawall protecting both villages. For the past week, under the cash-for-work program, 51 men had done an amazing amount of restorative work to damaged seawalls and ground erosion.

Not only did major infrastructure repair work get done in these communities, but desperately needed cash was injected into their economies. Each worker earned 100 Samoa Tala, or about $40, for one week’s worth work, a significant amount of money where the per capita income is less than $1000 per year.

I had the privilege, along with our party, or accepting the heartfelt thanks, or “fa’afetai lava” of the village workers and chiefs for this badly needed program. They were truly amazed at the response of Mercy Corps and South Pacific Business Development to help their tiny island come back from this tragedy. Mercy Corps’ funding will help do more cash-for-work programming in Manono and the hardest hit areas of Upolu.

On the returning boat ride from Manono, as I looked out over the beautiful sea — the same sea that had caused so much pain and suffering to the wonderful Samoan people — I took great comfort knowing that the Samoan people were resilient and enduring, the same traits I recalled them having so many decades before.