Memory, loss and living in a post-disaster village
Eighteen years after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, Annemarie Samuels visits her long-term research village in Aceh where old and new grief is met with prayer.
“I am the oldest,” she says, then adding slowly, “the only one.” She must have told me this before. “The others were taken by the tsunami,” I reply, memories of our previous conversations coming back to me. She nods. “Everyone was taken by the tsunami. Two children, one grandchild, 300 schoolchildren, eight teachers. Of the sixteen teachers at my school, eight. I was out of town that day with my husband and with her,” she says pointing at her daughter. It is an afternoon in June 2022 and I am sitting on a carpet in the front yard of the house of one of my host families in Aceh, Indonesia, talking with one of the most respected elderly women of the neighborhood. She has given me these numbers before when I interviewed her fifteen years earlier for my research on the remaking of everyday life after the devastating tsunami that hit Aceh in 2004. We have met occasionally again on my subsequent visits. I cannot but feel that the numbers she keeps reiterating so many years later express the immense grief of both herself and this entire village, grief that sometimes cracks through the surface of its flourishing everyday social life.
Memories and ritual prayer
The occasion of our meeting today is sad. About forty days earlier my host father in this village has passed away. Today is the kenduri kematian, or 40-days kenduri, a ritual prayer gathering held at 7, 40, 100 and 1000 days after a person’s passing. I had known him since my first visit to Aceh in 2007. As a recently started graduate student, I planned to ethnographically study how people in Aceh were recovering after the tsunami. The first week I stayed in a hostel, but knowing that I was looking for host families in tsunami-affected areas, two students whom I had befriended before in Yogyakarta connected me to their families. I remember vividly how my host parents arrived to pick me up, in a car borrowed from the neighbors – the same neighbors who now have spent the past forty days almost fulltime with my grieving host mother, doing groceries, cooking, and serving the many guests who have come to pay their respects. Smiling, my host father welcomed me, put my heavy backpack in the car and without question took me in as his adopted ethnographer-daughter, preparing for me a room in their small house that had recently been built by an international aid organisation.
My host father was a kind, pious and jovial man with a good sense of humor, who loved watching soccer with his sons or neighbors and, later, with my husband too. As I am sitting here in front of the house, in the bustle of women chatting and putting away plates, I remember how in this same spot each morning he turned on the engine of his motorcycle to heat it up, dressed in his civil servant uniform, ready to bring his youngest son to school and his wife to her office before going to work himself. Earlier today, his now-widowed wife has brought up memories of the village at that time, explaining to visitors that much of what they were seeing now had not been there when I first came to live with them. No kitchen, no yard, no garden, no gate to keep the goats out, no asphalt on the muddy roads. The family had rebuilt all of that from scratch, like all of their neighbors in this village that had been completely wiped away by the tidal waves.
The kenduri kematian is for many Acehnese a crucial mourning ritual during which neighbors and family members visit to pray for the deceased. From yesterday onward, neighborhood women have been cooking large amounts of food for today’s visitors. Friends and former colleagues visit in the late morning or early afternoon. Around noon, orphans from the neighborhood come over to pray together and receive food and money. In the late afternoon the village’s women gather to pray and eat, while later, after the evening prayers, it is the turn of the village men. “They have come in such large numbers,” my host mother says gratefully.
Continuing life in the face of loss
Grief may diminish over time, losing its incisive ever-presence, while lingering in the shadow of the everyday. New losses may bring older ones painfully close again. Almost eighteen years after the disaster, the immense loss of the tsunami is viscerally, and narratively, present while we commemorate my host father. Over and over again, as I observed in the book that I have written about the remaking of post-tsunami everyday life in Aceh, those left behind remake life, rebuild sociality, continue life in the face of loss. Often, I concluded, they do so through Islamic rituals and practices, such as prayer. This evening, listening to the neighborhood’s men’s collective prayers, I think of the very first thing my host father told me about the tsunami, that evening after they had picked me up from the hostel. “When the water came,” he had said, “all we could do was pray.”
In memory of Bapak Usman Ali
This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 851437)