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News update 6th January '05

TSUNAMI: THE CARING STORY

For three days now, Auroville's Future School has been closed and all of the 40 students and eight teachers have been engaged in village cleaning, mostly in Ganagachettikulam, one of the worst affected of the coastal fishing communities. At first the villagers watched from a distance with curiosity, sometimes even with a little bit of hostility, but as they saw the enthusiasm of the Auroville children, some of them joined the cleaning effort. On Thursday, Chali, the Head of Future School, was working along with her students, when she was approached by an elderly Tamil woman: her jewelry had been lost in her collapsed house. “Would Chali help her to retrieve it?” she asked. Chali and her students set about clearing the debris of the house, and lo and behold: beneath a collapsed wall they found the cabinet which contained all the jewelry - intact. Imagine the joy of the Tamil woman and her family. “It felt good”, says Chali, “and we really thought ‘wow, we have done something to give back a little bit of happiness to these people'.” This small incident serves to highlight once more how it is more important to bond with the affected villagers, rather than come, distribute goods or cash - and then disappear after the photo op.

Meanwhile another team, this time of children from Transition School aged between ten and fourteen, has been busy cleaning up the Auroville beaches, which were littered with debris. A stretch of 250 m was amazingly cleared in one morning, much to the surprise of the elders! The schools of Mudaliarkuppam have now been fully cleared and we have been busy preparing all the notebooks, pens etc for distribution, as Government schools are due to reopen on the 10th January. A little further, Auroson and his team had opened a new cleaning front at Kalapet, a fishing village which is even poorer than Ganagachettikulam. There, the same story repeated itself. “At first, remembers Auroson, “the villagers looked a little suspicious, but as time passed they joined us and some of them even started smiling again. We really felt that this cleaning business helps them to pick up their lives again.”

Yesterday, we also moved into a new activity which is in line with our “cleaning because we care”. Aware that it is not only material needs which have to be addressed but also psychological needs, the Auroville Tamil Women's Group visited the affected villages, not with goods, but with open hearts to listen and sympathize. At first they were a bit unsure about how this would be accepted in the villages; perhaps the people would only be asking for money or material things. But it was quite the opposite that happened. “Our van, recalls Bhavana, one of the leaders of Auroville's Village Action, brought us down the streets of the village – we could see how the houses got smaller as we moved closer to the sea – the richer people had built farther from the shore long ago, and newer poorer houses were of necessity located closer to the water. In one of these streets, with nice houses on either side, a boat was sitting – it had come up with the wave and been left stranded there. The last couple of rows of houses were the one built just of mud and thatch – and you can't see them any more—just a pile of thatch and some sign of former walls – all had been washed away. We had coached ourselves that our mission was just to listen, so we asked people how they were, what had happened and heard their stories. There was a young man who had been caught between who to rescue first—his children or his old father; he'd chosen his children first, and then also managed to bring his father to safety. But now they have nothing; of their house the walls still stand, but everything inside has been washed away or is full of mud and in disarray”.

The government, fishermen told Bhavana's team, has made a ban on fishing for three months (it's not clear why, are the fish no good any more? Is the water likely to rise again?) – “so we can't go back to work”. School is also closed for another week or two, so there is a real need here for productive activities. For a first attempt, we are distributing volleyballs and ring balls for the youth and children.

When the Village Action Group got back to Auroville, they all sat in a circle. Everyone felt good about the venture and it was decided to repeat it again as often as possible. The women shared how the people they had met had been so grateful for the visit. Some people had even said how much they appreciated Auroville. They had said how at their temple they had always worshipped the sea, for it was holding up their boats, giving them fish and providing for their livelihood. Now seemed to have turned against them – perhaps because they had strayed from caring for others, caring for the Divine… Now it seemed to them that Auroville was filling their temple with good things (the buckets, mats, school notebooks, trunks etc had been delivered that afternoon and were now stored in the temple awaiting distribution) and that Auroville was to be turned to in gratitude….

On a more practical level, all Auroville's affected beach communities have been visited. Individual needs and requests have been assessed. Money has been released for necessary works like fencing, small repairs, house renovation, a new water pump. Assessments of further needs are taking place. Personal financial support will be provided to all those who need it. Pumps have been installed to desalinate water wells. The salinity level is going down and under control. The process of finding temporary housing solutions for some residents is in full swing.

Gradually the Auroville relief operation will move into the rehabilitation phase. The first meetings and brainstorming sessions have started and various working groups are being set up, covering shelters, rebuilding of livelihoods, sanitation, etc. We have started to network with NGO's working in other districts, for a more coordinated relief and rehabilitation effort. Already contacts have been established with some of the major NGO's through the NGO coordination cell set up in Nagapattinam. The Tsunami Team is in daily contact with the local Government administration and the District Collector.

There was also a meeting of village headmen and leaders with the Auroville Tsunami Relief Team. We explained the work we have been doing till now. The headmen said that they would be very happy to help us. They also want to contribute to our effort, with dry goods, and cash for the future planning for the housing. Finally they added that they want to have regular meetings with us to establish a better relationship between us and the village and also solve some problems which they are facing now. We agreed to that.

Finally, it is true that, without boasting, one could say that that the way Aurovilians have responded to the Tsunami disaster has won the appreciation of the local people in a way that all the other public relations efforts never could. The care is so genuine that the simple people can really experience it: we come because we care, we can give things to the villagers, but we are also willing to hold their hands and listen to them.

FG (with inputs from Bhavana)