Grief in a Malaysian fishing village
In a small northern state called Kedah, in the small Southeast Asian country of Malaysia, there is a tiny town called Kuala Muda. In the tiny town of Kuala Muda, there is a little fishing village, which is also called Kuala Muda.
The people who live in the little village make their living off the sea. Every day, except for Hari Raya Puasa, a Muslim holiday after the fasting month of Ramadhan, they go out in their rickety little boats called sampans which are powered by little diesel engines, and hope for a big catch.
On Boxing Day last year, very few fishermen went out to sea because three families in the village held a kenduri, or a party where the entire community participates in cooking and eating the food. The kenduri was held in three of the houses nearer inland, close to town. Most of the villagers were there, eating and meeting with their neighbours.
But in a house nearer to the shore, a devout little old lady had decided to carry out her afternoon prayers first, figuring that she would join her neighbours later.
She never joined her neighbours. As she was praying a huge wave came up from the sea and swallowed her, her little wooden house and much of the village. What the tsunami could not swallow, it wrecked .
Welcome to Kampung Kuala Muda, scene of devastation, post-tsunami. Here, more than 100 families lost their homes and their means of a livelihood, as their houses were wrecked beyond redemption and their sampans smashed to bits. Along the west coast, in little villages, fishermen and their families wept, wondering how to survive and how to rebuild their lives from the wreckage. What will they do to support their families? How can they rebuild their lives? Who will help them?
Sure, the loss of live was minimal here, compared to places like Sri Lanka or Banda Aceh or the Maldives. In total, lives lost numbered in the tens and hundreds of thousands. So what are a few lives compared to that huge number? What are the woes of a few villages in one of the more progressive nations in the Southeast Asian region compared to the devastation that had hit poorer countries?
But the fishing folk of Malaysia are among the poorest of the poor. In a country where the average monthly household income is RM 3,200, fisherman up north or along the east coast of Malaysia earn less than RM600 a month. (US$1=RM3.80)
In total, some 3,000 families comprising fishermen and farmers in the state of Kedah were affected by the tsunami. According to Mercy Malaysia, a Malaysian medical aid organisation, more than 1,000 houses and fishing boats costing more than RM2.5 million were lost.
Two days after the tsunami hit, Mercy Malaysia put out an SOS to the four-wheel drive community in the country. They were needed to help with transporting clothes, blankets, food, water and stationary to the affected villages in the island state of Penang and Kedah. Within three hours, more than 20 4x4s had rallied to the call.
On Dec 29, 2004, the trucks and volunteers met up at the headquarters of Nationwide Express, a logistics company that is a corporate partner of the aid organisation. Unfortunately, there was miscommunication and the convoy was delayed by several hours, as Nationwide had decided to hold a press conference on highlighting its mercy mission. The journey, which would ordinarily take about three hours, dragged on as the four-wheel drive convoy was further delayed because they had to wait and wait and wait at pit stops along the highway for very senior officers of the logistics company that had decided to come along in their comfortable sedans to the villages for a look-see. The experience culminated in the Malaysian four-wheel drive community vowing not to work with organisations and groups that were more interested in publicity than in actually helping those affected by disaster.
When they reached the town, there was further disorganisation. Nobody knew what to do or where to go to deliver the items the convoy had brought up. So the leaders of the four-wheel drive convoy took over.
But the trip was not wasted. The volunteers, who had initially thought they would help clear up the affected site, were taken to the village, which had been cordoned off by the military.
The scenes that greeted us were heartbreaking. Mud-streaked cars smashed up against the remnants of walls of collapsed houses, a ball of twisted metal barely recognisable as a child's tricycle resting precariously on the top of a pile of drying shrubs, a tree that had toppled on to the top of a roof. And this had happened to the poorest of the poor. What was worse was, a few days before the tsunami hit, the fishermen had had record catches; fish were practically swimming into their nets. They had sold their catches and stuffed the money in their cupboards and under their mattresses and which ever other place in their homes they had thought safe. And now, all of it was gone.
Those affected had been relocated to nearby mosques and schools. But there was a problem. School started. They had to move out. The problem is still being resolved. The government had offered to build them houses. But where do poor people who have now been reduced to nothing get RM 20,000 to pay for houses?
Some volunteers of the four-wheel drive community stayed overnight and went back to the village the next day to help with some clearing up. The villagers were grateful for their assistance, as these guys had the proper equipment - chainsaws, axes, winches, snatch straps - to pull down structures, pull out cars and clear debris. But the volunteers and their trucks had to leave in the afternoon because the military was securing the area for a visit by the deputy Prime Minister.
Volunteers from the four-wheel drive community have since assisted other aid organisations with collecting, sorting, packing and transporting items to those affected in Kedah and even Aceh. Some have returned to the village to help with the clean-up. It is the least they can do for those who have had their lives turned upside down by a big wave.
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Published on 3/7/05