Tsunami Team Diary August 7, 2005

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On Saturday August 6, we left at 5.00 a.m. for Cuddalore, which is four hours away from Chennai. Cuddalore was the second-worst hit area after Nagapattinam. About 600 people died in the tsunami and 50,000 were left destitute.  Mr. Gagandeep Bedi Singh, the District Collector of Cuddalore, had arranged for his relief team leaders to meet us. These were Ms. H. Grace Annabai, the District Social Welfare Officer, Mr. Mani, the District Youth Coordinator of the Nehru Yuva Kendra from the Ministry of Youth Affairs & Sports, Mr. Paul D. Patric, Project Coordinator for the Academy for Disaster Management, Education, Panning & Training (ADEPT) of the National Lutheran Health & Medical Board, and Mr. A Martin Mangala Raj, Coordinator of UELCI/ACT Tsunami Relief Operation. A woman medical doctor, who is in charge of the district’s health care, also joined us. She told us that only a small number of people (about 5%) needed psychiatric care after the tsunami. Mr. Singh’s team members were govt. officials as well as officers from a Lutheran Church organization. Three of these individuals joined us in our Toyota van and two rode on a motor cycle. We visited various sites in Cuddalore where their respective projects are located.

Upon receiving us in his office, Mr. Singh tried to locate Keene on a googled map of the United States. Though he could not find Keene, he learned from us that Keene is in southern New Hampshire, close to Boston, and that it’s a college town that may not find a spot in international maps. When Gargi asked Mr. Singh what the tsunami meant to him personally, Mr. Singh, shy at first to give a personal narrative, told us that on the morning of the tsunami, he was at a beachside hotel in Mahabalipuram (we visited this beach our first week in Chennai) to spend the Christmas weekend. Mr. Singh, his wife, and their two little girls were having breakfast in the hotel’s dining area on the ground floor (i.e., the first floor). A waiter rushed in and told them that huge waves were coming to the shore. By the time Mr. Singh picked up his girls to flee, the water rushed in and rose to his chin level, approximately 5 feet and five inches high. Mr. Singh said that he and his family barely made it to safety, which was possible only because of the building structure. Had Mr. Singh and his family been on the beach like many were on a Sunday of that Christmas weekend, they would have been washed away by the tsunami. Mr. Singh’s own trauma with the tsunami made him realize what might have happened to his seaside district of Cuddalore. He promptly returned to discover death and destruction in Cuddalore and took charge of managing the disaster. We found that Mr. Singh’s tsunami disaster management has received considerable press coverage in The Hindu and The Indian Express, two daily English newspapers of Tamil Nadu. Mr. Singh’s staff has taken hundreds of pictures of their training sessions for post-disaster management, relief activities with survivors, and Mr. Singh’s inauguration of and/or participation in these events. These pictures are provided as outcome documentation. Mr. Singh gave us a recently published book called, Disaster Psychosocial Response: A Handbook for Community Counselor Trainers. The book has been published by the Academy for Disaster Management, Education Planning & Training (ADEPT). Gargi found the book to be well-written, well-informed, and concise. It’s a self-help psychology book without professional words or style of writing that can be used by a lay person who wants information prior to helping disaster victims and survivors. Interestingly our own manual, Information Resource: How Disasters Affect People, Children, and Communities: Health, Help, and Assessment, parallels the ADEPT book with a more of a psychological and professional orientation. We are happy to find validity and confirmation for our own line of thinking in the psychosocial literature endorsed by the Tamil Nadu government.

At Cuddalore, we went to an orphanage for girls and boys who were between a few months old to about 14 years. There were about 40 of these children, who had lost at least one parent in the tsunami. The children were waiting for us in the front hall. They were sitting on the floor cross-legged in rows, from the smallest to the tallest. A baby in the arms of an attendant was crying because she had a fever and had just returned from the hospital. Her four-year-old brother drew lots of pictures and gave these to Gargi.  Ms. Grace Annabai told Gargi that the children’s mother had died in the tsunami. The father had left the children at the orphanage. Since then he has remarried. When the father comes to visit his children at the orphanage, the little girl refuses to go to him because she does not know her stepmother; her brother, however, is happy to meet the father. The government has given each tsunami orphaned child up to the age of 18, a compensation of Rupees 1 Lakh (that is, one hundred thousand rupees), which has been put into investments by the govt. until the child reaches adulthood and can use the money for higher education or for starting an occupation.

The children in the orphanage welcomed us with songs. Then, they naturally broke into small groups of boys and girls of similar ages and started drawing and coloring. The older girls and boys included the little ones in their groups and got them involved. Each group shared one piece of paper and some crayons. They took turns in completing a picture, or they took one corner of a page to do their own drawing. We were struck by the children’s group sharing and cohesion. There was no fighting over crayons or paper. We saw no jealousy or competition. When Gargi asked the children what type of sweets they would like to eat, the children, shy at first, said that they would like to eat cake. From a local bakery, we bought cup cakes and sliced cake and distributed these among the children, orphanage staff, and the officials that had come with us. The children took one piece of cake each and refused another, so that there would be enough to go around. We were seeing before our eyes what cross-cultural psychology writings theorize about collectivistic cultures. Perhaps also, shared grief and loss bring societies together and arouse altruism.

The children presented us with their drawings.  Gargi is taking home to Keene a large collection of drawings by tsunami orphans. Kristen has suggested that we make greeting cards with these drawings. Gargi thinks that Kristen’s suggestion is great one. She hopes to send the children’s drawings as cards to friends and donors of the Antioch Tsunami Shakti-Empowerment Project (ATSP), as well as sell sets of cards to raise money for the continuity of ATSP. Maybe the Antioch bookstore will display and sell the tsunami children’s cards.

We visited ADEPT. ADEPT is a Lutheran organization that provides services to older girls between the ages of 14-20 years, who attend secondary schools. About 50 girls were sitting in chairs in a circle under a huge banyan tree to meet us. At ADEPT, the girls receive education on environmental hygiene and sustainability, career choice, and vocational training. The girls are trained by young community counselors, who have been trained to run self-help groups by NGOs and govt. social service officers, who were themselves trained in psychosocial workshops on “training the trainers,”  conducted by WHO, UNICEF, and resource people. Boys belong to youth groups. It appears, however, that there are less boys than girls in orphanages and self-help groups. We learned that boys are more frequently adopted by relatives or they find employment more easily than girls. In the ADEPT program, the community counselors initially made home visits to reach the girls. As the parents began to believe in the good intentions of ADEPT, their daughters started to come to the ADEPT facilities after school hours. Four young women who like athletics have been enrolled for training in sports. These girls want to be runners or play volleyball. When Gargi learned that they did not have shoes for athletics, she asked them to draw outlines of their feet on paper. Gargi said that she would send the ADEPT office sneakers for the girls after she returned to the United States.

Mr. Paul D. Patric, ADEPT’s Project Coordinator, gave us a case history of a 26-year-old mason. After the tsunami retreated, the mason found bodies on the beach that looked like people who were asleep. The bodies showed no injuries or wounds. The mason lifted each body and carried it to a higher ground. He did this without a pause and continued pick up bodies in a mechanical trance-like manner. Day after day, as bodies washed up, he carried these away. He became psychotic and was hospitalized. Upon release from the hospital, he continued to be sleepless, to make loud startle responses, and scream that a tsunami was coming. He walked extensively. Mr. Patric would walk with him and calm him down. Mr. Patric’s companionship helped. Mr. Patric approached the District Collector and with the help of a local newspaper story on the mason’s condition and society’s lack of recognition of his service to the dead, Mr. Patric was able to procure governmental financial assistance. The mason now owns a small provisions store in his village and appears to be doing better. We praised Mr. Patric for his activism for tsunami survivors and for his counselor helping skills. Mr. Patric showed us lots of pictures and newspaper clippings of ADEPT’s tsunami relief work.

Mr. Mani, the District Youth Coordinator of the Nehru Yuva Kendra, the Ministry of Youth Affairs & Sports, took us to his office. There, teachers, who were both men and women, were having their regular consultation meeting. The teachers had undergraduate degrees, understood our questions in English, and some answered us in English. They are paid a small stipend to meet some basic expenses. The teachers hold after-school extra-curricular programs in their respective fishing villages. These programs include play and art activities, as well as tutoring. The teacerhs showed us games, puzzles, and art supplies that UNICEF has provided them. These supplies were similar to the play activities that we had taken with us and distributed among the tsunami camp children. The parents also visit the after-school programs. The teachers said that the most difficult part of their job was communicating with the parents and the most fun part was being with the children. The teachers believed that most of the children had recovered from the immediate trauma of the tsunami and were returning to normal lives.

We haven’t yet mentioned our visit to the Auroville on August 2 and 3rd. Heidi Watts, a faculty member in Antioch’s Environmental Studies Program, has been connected with Auroville for many years. She goes to Auroville yearly to train teachers in expressive and creative ways of education, which augment the more didactic teaching methods employed by schools in India. Heidi connected Gargi via e-mail with Bhavana, an American woman from New York who has taken an Indian name and who has a senior management position at Auroville. Aroville, which is about 30 miles from Pondicherry, is a center of spirituality, international peace and philosophy, environmental preservation and greening, indigenous arts and crafts, and natural healing practices, which include massage therapy that is provided in a beautiful, peaceful building called The Quiet Center. In Southern India, where people are dark-skinned, we were surprised to see, as we entered Auroville, many light-skinned individuals in Western summer clothes, who were zipping around in motorcycles. These were French, Germans, and Americans who are attracted to Auroville’s philosophy of a natural, spiritual, and balanced state of being and consciousness. There is a French bakery in Auroville! Bhavana provided us the best rooms in the Auroville guest house, which is surrounded by tall shady trees, large brilliantly blossoming orchids, and potted tropical plants, a veritable place for respite, meditation, and healing. Bhavana and two relief coordinators took us to Auroville’s tsunami relief center. In this center, we found Indian staff and Western volunteers doing active fund-raising and management at desktop computer stations. Tsunami card drawings and a female doll named, Tsunamika, are being sent all over the world with requests for donations. Among all NGO’s and government activities that we visited, Auroville was unique in its use of the internet and creative methods to appeal to supporters for their tsunami relief work. On the Auroville beach, we found a unique device built to help fisherman produce “dried fish.’  Again, this fairly simple contraption of screened sloping shelves pointed to Auroville”s inventiveness.

A woman with her two children was collecting water from a water pump on the beach at Auroville. Through a translator, Gargi asked her what she was doing on the morning of 26th December 2004. The woman said that she was sitting on the beach when she saw the waves coming. Screaming she ran up the beach. Talking to Gargi and the Auroville relief coordinator, the woman looked at the heavens and thanked God that her children were away that morning, visiting relatives. She said that she would not have been able to escape carrying and pulling both her children. When Gargi asked what she thinks about the tsunami now, she said that she has nightmares of the tsunami waves and wishes that these would go away and that she would not continue to have fears for her children’s safety. She said she wanted to know how to be prepared for another tsunami. When Gargi asked her whether she would like to talk to a counselor about her fears and about being personally prepared for a disaster, she said that she would like that very much. At the Auroville guest house, a German psychotherapist, Doctor Uli, who lives in Auroville, described a case of tsunami family counseling, which he did in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami. An interesting point he made about the case was that pre-tsunami tensions and needs in the family surfaced and exacerbated after the shock of the tsunami. It was the tsunami experience that made a husband, wife, and child open up and express their wants to each other. The tsunami experience has also reinforced negative behaviors in fishermen, such as alcoholism and gambling.

We walked on the beaches of Auroville and Cuddalore. New, brightly colored fishing boats donated by international charities and foreign countries line the beaches, awaiting government inspection, processing of papers, and motor fitting.  We saw at Cuddalore large fishing “speed-boats,” participating in commercial catches. We were told that the fishermen have more boats now than they did previously. With Western equipment, they may use less the traditional catamarans that are planks of wood tied together and taken to sea. The fishermen do not know how to swim. In stormy seas, they can hold on to an overturned catamaran and float to safety. The large, bottom-heavy fiberglass Western boats may not be easy to overturn and cling to. As we walked on the beaches in the afternoon, our sandaled feet burned in the sand, which was hot enough to bake cake, fry eggs, and grill meat. The fisherman and villagers walked bare-footed in the sand quite comfortably.

Our three-week trip to tsunami-affected Tamil Nadu is over. Every office and agency welcomed us with tea, coffee, cold drinks, and snacks. We have fulfilled every goal that we had envisioned and return home to the United States with much appreciation, gratitude, and wisdom.

Gargi Roysircar, Linda Lee, Kristen Robinson, and Michiko Ishibashi Antiochians in Chennai, Cuddalore, Pondicherry, and Auroville