The most recent time that Papua New Guinea was in the international news was last July when a tsunami wave hit the coast and destroyed several villages near Aitape.
I had just gotten home that Friday morning from a two-week term holiday to find a dead rat in my hallway. From the smell and sight of it, Iíd bet that it had spent most of my vacation on the floor. I started cleaning furiously. Removing the remains was the easy part, but ridding the house of the stench was another matter altogether.
It had gotten dark and I was still scrubbing. A slight tremor hit the area and shook my house. As you can imagine, I was preoccupied and paid it little mind. Even afterward, when I had learned of the damage that quake had caused, I recalled it as minor, though others remembered it as major. Maybe Iím not the most reliable source. I donít know how many months it took me to feel an earthquake for certain. Mostly they occurred in the early morning, and for a long time I would wonder if my house had actually been shaking or whether I had been dreaming.
Anyway, that tragic night I finished cleaning, made dinner, relaxed and went to bed. On Saturday mornings, I would almost always walk to the local market at the airstrip. Women from all the ďbushĒ villages would bring sweet potatoes, cooking bananas, cucumbers, taros, and edible greens--tree leaves, spinach-like stems, and things like pumpkin tips. If you got there early you could normally buy bananas. Treats for me would be to find pineapples, corn, tomatoes, pumpkins, maybe even green peppers or mushrooms.
The airstrip is a good 50-minute walk up the mountain slopes. The women would time their arrival for just after sunrise. Unless it was raining heavily, Iíd leave my house as soon as I awoke. The walk was glorious: the quiet of the cool morning, the fog on the trees and dotting the terrain, the coming of the sun and change from grey to green. (Thatís if I got up before sunrise.)
After buying my weekly supply of local food--having spent the equivalent of a dollar or two, depending on how much food was available--I would normally stop at the Dutch doctorís house on my way home. They lived at the health centre, halfway between the school and the airstrip. Marie-Louise was busy making preparations to go to Aitape to help the survivors, so Jacco and I spent the morning drinking coffee and listening to reports on the radio from the one mission station with a functioning radio.
That was in the village of Malol, where the sister reported destroyed houses and floating bodies. Malol is on the coast north of the town of Aitape. We called Aitape a town, but the town centre had a post office, some government offices, and a handful of stores. Aitape was our district capital, located about 30 miles from Lumi. Itís as close as the ocean gets to Lumi, but thereís no road, so getting there entails either a rugged two-day hike or an expensive flight. I remember stepping off the plane after my first three months at school and practically running to the one real grocery store, all the while thinking, ďThis is civilization.Ē
Reports wandered in that morning. Around noon, we heard from someone who had walked from Malol towards Arap. Damage there was even greater. Arap lies on a spit of land between the Pacific Ocean and the Sissano Lagoon.
To the north, on a longer spit, lies Warapu. And where that spit becomes ground again lies the village of Sissano, where my thoughts had already flashed to. You see, I had already figured it had been hit hard.
It was the home of one of my favorite students...Philomina Snapi.
She was an eighth grader last year. She was in my homeroom class, and she was a good student, attentive, hardworking and bright. She was generally quiet and well-behaved in class, but she liked to laugh and occasionally got in trouble for it. She was tall and skinny by Lumi standards, average and anorexic by ours. She liked sports and was particularly good at basketball. She worked for me in the library and was a voracious reader. The first thing you might notice about her would be the flower-shaped tattoos on her cheeks. Facial tattoos were commonly used as decorations by PNG women. Filoís face needed no decoration; she was beautiful.
Because she came from far away, she couldnít go home even on the weekends, so she spent a lot of time in the library and on the basketball court. I taught a group of students to play tennis, and Filo was a quick learner. We also played cards and games in the library at night. I craved this informal time with my students, away from the classroom.
Just before the holiday, Philomina received a letter from her father, which said they didnít have money for a plane ticket and she would have to stay in Lumi for the holiday. She was disappointed. She tried to sneak off with some friends, but I caught her. For reasons of safety, female students are supposed to stay at the school.
When I returned from my holiday trip, the first thing the remaining girls told me was that Filoís ticket had come just after I had left and she had gone home to Sissano. The urgency of the message showed me how excited she had been. Her timing wasnít so great, though.
Iím not very knowledgeable about tsunamis, but I will share some of the things I heard about it. Apparently, the epicenter of the earthquake was very close to shore. The underwater shake caused a massive disturbance in the water, which caused a destructive series of three giant waves.
The largest was 10 metres high, the others five and three. The bush material houses were no match. The wave hit just after sundown, when most people were in the village preparing for the evening meal. Young kids and the elderly were particularly vulnerable.
Rescue efforts began quickly. The Catholic Mission in Aitape coordinated the initial work through their radio network. They also operate the hospital in Aitape. The local airline, a joint mission enterprise, began trips into the Sissano airstrip. Many survivors had run into the jungle and it was slow getting them out. Soon helicopters would help. The survivors had broken limbs, cuts, and puncture wounds.
Even after weeks of labor, they couldnít bury all the dead.
I know many stories about the tragedy and more about the politics and ineptness of the aftermath. But I donít have room for all of them. A Polish priest I know was in Sissano, and after the earthquake he went outside with a lay worker to check for damage to the church. They heard a roaring sound and saw the water coming and took off running in opposite directions. The priest survived; the lay worker did not.
Or another student of mine was holidaying on the coast south of Aitape. After the earthquake, they heard a roaring noise and thought it must be a helicopter or a jumbo jet, so they went down to the beach to have a look. Luckily, the main waves didnít hit there, but the ocean was rough enough for them to hurry away.
For the next three weeks, my thoughts were solely for Philomina. Just before she left, I had fed her and a couple other students spaghetti for lunch. My students were generally shy, especially when it came to eating. I enjoyed their awkwardness with the long noodles. I even took pictures before letting them cut it into small pieces.
For several weeks, I thought that would be my last memory of Philomina. We had started to give up hope. Some students had cried for Filo, thinking she was dead. I had just finished playing tennis on a Sunday afternoon when some girls told me Filo had returned. I thought they were tricking me but she was in the dormitory, sad and skinnier than usual but alive.
After that, the disaster could have been a million miles away for me. My friend had survived. Later she would tell me that she had been dragged into the water, but was able to swim. Someone in a canoe picked her up.
I donít know if he had been out fishing or what. Filo was the youngest in her family and they all survived. After the wave, they moved to their garden house in the jungle.
A week before I left Lumi, Philomina and her friends helped me clean my house and pack my things. It was also her sixteenth birthday, so I made chocolate cake. I was so happy just to help her celebrate. By then, I was sad to be leaving, but Iím grateful I helped her celebrate a birthday she might not have had.
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