Page last updated at 12:25 GMT, Saturday, 5 December 2009

Samoa's slow recovery after Pacific tsunami

Two months after the tsunami which killed 170 people on Samoa and neighbouring Pacific islands, John Pickford returns to see how people are coping.

Survivors searching through the debris on Lalomanu Beach
Lalomanu beach suffered heavy damage from the tsunami

September was a news-packed month in Samoa, even before the tsunami struck.

The week I arrived, the country switched reluctantly from driving on the right (a legacy of 15 years as a German colony before World War I) to the left, like most of its Pacific neighbours.

The road switch was the pet project of Prime Minister Tuila'epa Sailele, who claims that, in the long term, it will bring down transport costs by encouraging Samoans in New Zealand to send their used cars back home.

But short term, it was paid for with money from the health and education budgets, and thousands joined protests against it.

The prime minister's critics said it revealed his "dictatorial tendencies" and flaws in a rather top-down democracy - everyone over 21 has a vote but only matais, or chiefs, (about 15% of Samoa's 190,000 people) can be elected to parliament.

Then, in the early morning on the last day of September, the rough and tumble of politics ceased to matter, at least for a while.

When the tsunami hit Samoa, I was in another remote part of the south Pacific and it was a television news flash some hours later that confirmed for me the scale of the disaster.

Faith and courage

It showed the village of Lalomanu, where I had spent an idyllic weekend in a small, palm-thatched wooden hut raised on log poles above the beach, and there was nothing left of it.

I immediately thought of the Samoan family whose small resort had been my base in Lalomanu.

Lalomanu, after the tsunami
Samoa is the first country since the 1970s to switch traffic to the other side

Firmly in charge was Lydia Sini, widow and grandmother, directing her team (including nieces, nephews, and cousins) from a cramped office squeezed between restaurant, kitchen and bar.

Along the beach were the bungalows, as they rather grandly called them.

But a few minutes walk away you were in authentic 21st Century Samoa, with traditional open-sided houses, pigs and chickens everywhere, a huge white-washed church, coconut palms and breadfruit trees, and little grocery stores with shelves stacked high with that modern Polynesian staple, corned beef.

Lydia survived the tsunami, and I recently heard from her.

She lost her mother-in-law and two grandchildren, plus 14 other members of her extended family.

Samoans are tough people living in a beautiful, unpredictable environment and gaining respect through being tested is almost seen as a condition of existence

"Everything at the resort has been destroyed to bits and so have our hearts," she said.

"But still the faith is there to move on," she told me. "We have cleaned our side of the beach and started work on new foundations."

The "we" means her family, including brothers and sisters from New Zealand and Australia.

Lydia's courage says a lot about modern Samoa.

First of all is the importance of family, the Christian faith and the mutual support between people that serves as an informal welfare system.

Even in normal times, the 130,000 Samoans in New Zealand help to keep the Samoan economy afloat. In this time of crisis they played a vital role.

'Ultimate test'

Then there is the resilience itself and the mental attitudes behind it. I learned a bit about this from Chris Salomonu, one of a sizeable minority of men in Samoa who have put themselves through the terrible ordeal of the full body tattoo.

Women attend a National Prayer Service in the village of Kanana Fou in American Samoa
Family and the Christian faith play important roles in Samoan society

It covers the body from just above the knees to just below the ribs and takes two weeks to complete in a succession of excruciating six-hour sessions, using sharpened pigs' tusks and dye from the candlenut plant.

After each session, they throw you in the ocean to numb the pain.

It was "pure torture, the ultimate physical and mental test of my life," Chris told me.

He went in secret to have it done and rang his mother after a couple of days. She told him the whole family would be praying for him but he was not to come home until the tattoo was done.

The Samoan word for cowardice is peamoku - or unfinished tattoo.

"I've never felt so alone," Chris said, "but I'm glad I went through with it."

Samoans are tough people living in a beautiful, unpredictable environment, and gaining respect through being tested is almost seen as a condition of existence.

Map of Pacific islands hit by tsunami

And finally the response to the disaster has reinforced the importance of Samoa's relationships with other countries in the south Pacific and especially with New Zealand, which has made a major contribution to both emergency relief and reconstruction.

It is a relationship that has emerged from some difficult times, mainly dating back to New Zealand's quasi-colonial administration of Samoa between 1918 and 1962.

But today Auckland is the biggest Polynesian city in the world, with Samoans the most numerous among the Pacific islanders there.

"We're family," wrote New Zealand-Samoan journalist Tapu Misa in a recent article, "part of an emerging Pacific culture that combines the best of all of us."

Are those family ties now so strong that Samoans in New Zealand will soon be dipping into their pockets again, post-tsunami, to send their used cars back to their relations?

Many in both countries remain sceptical. But Samoa is beginning to recover. People are asking awkward questions again.

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SEE ALSO
Samoa rebuilds after the tsunami
22 Oct 09 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Samoa
19 Oct 11 |  Country profiles


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