Mentawai Islands: calmer seas in the wake of destruction

Friday, October 14, 2011 • Ulrika Lagerlöf

The ocean outside the small village of Pasapuat on Indonesia's Mentawai Islands is calm and peaceful. Sleepy waves cause but a soft lapping sound as they reach the beach. It is hard, almost impossible, to imagine the 10 metre-high tsunami that crashed against the shores in October 2010. However, for the people in Pasapuat, it is the opposite – they think of nothing else.

The tsunami destroyed fishing boats and left houses ruined. For residents, the mere fact of being so close to the sea means they think of little else.

Fisherman Safrizal Toron lost his boat and all his equipment. "On the morning after the tsunami, I went looking for my boat but everything was gone. I was so sad, because that was the only boat I had to use," he says.

Safrizal is a middle aged and deep-voiced man. He is shy at first and answers in only a few words at a time. But as his story unfolds, he relays his tale with more enthusiasm.

"I was not afraid to go out fishing after the tsunami because I depend on the sea," he says. "Farming does not provide us enough to live on. Supporting your family is a strong reason to do certain things."

In the Mentawais, it is predominantly the men who go fishing. In the area Safrizal and his family live, a significant proportion of inhabitants are Sumatran immigrants. Safrizal is no exception.

"I used to work from a fishing boat that often anchored off this coastline. One day I saw a beautiful woman from this village. She is from Mentawai, and we married in 1999," he says.

By mixing farming and fishing, the people of Mentawai try to make their income go as far as possible. Surplus produce is sold to cover the costs of running a household. Safrizal and his family grow cocoa, banana and cassava but it is only the cocoa and the fish they sell. They eat banana and cassava every day, supplementing these staples with rice.

In the Mentawais, farming is a task shared by both women and men. The women are in charge of keeping the house and looking after the children, while men bring home fish to sell. When the tsunami took Safrizal's boat, his family lost an important part of their livelihood. (continued below)


ACT/CoS/Ulrika Lagerlöf

Immediately after the crisis, ACT focused on meeting the villagers' acute needs. It trucked in clean water, delivered packs of blankets, nappies and household goods, and trained residents of evacuation camps in basic health and sanitation.

When this was done, the work turned to helping make people independent again. Through ACT, Safrizal has joined a village savings group whose members borrow money which they later repay. Safrizal took a loan and bought a new boat.

For him there is no alternative to fishing. But the reason he returns to the sea is just as much a practical one. Fishing is his identity. The family depends on his income – so how could he stop?

"That is what I can and what I do, and is what we mainly earn our living on," he says. "Since my childhood and youth, I have been a fisherman. Just like my parents, they were also fishermen and lived off the sea."


ACT/CoS/Ulrika Lagerlöf