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Let Tsunami teach us something big

On Boxing Day 2004, the word “tsunami” was imprinted on our collective consciousness forever. The sea, exploited and polluted by mankind for aeons, bit back. On that day, we finally understood the cruelty that nature is capable of. The giant waves came crashing in all over the Indian Ocean, destroying everything in their path. The death toll is horrific, and has been increasing steadily as the true scale of the devastation becomes known. At the time of writing, 150,000 people have been confirmed dead. Well over a million are believed to be homeless.

The angry waves spared no one. Rich tourists were pulled off their sunbeds and out of their hotel rooms and swept away. Poor fishermen were plucked from their boats and swallowed by the water. Families going about their business on the seashore were carried away, sometimes for half a mile or more. Trains were derailed. In some cases, entire villages and communities have been totally destroyed.

It is difficult for us to walk in their shoes. Thousands of people had their lives overturned forever in a matter of minutes. Some have lost their entire families and are sitting in hospital wards in a state of total emotional collapse. Others have seen the assets they built up over decades swept away, leaving them without any way to earn a living. Mothers were forced to make the ultimate soul-searing choice when the waves arrived: which child to save.

Our immediate reactions on Boxing Day and immediately after were not salutary. British televisions stations seemed preoccupied with counting the small number of British tourists affected by the waves, not appreciating that the death toll of poor Asians would run into six figures. Tourists returning from the disaster zones were heard complaining on TV that they had lost their holiday possessions – oblivious to the fact that entire villages had been erased from the face of the earth. Kenyan media tried to focus on the impact on this country (to date: some choppy waters and one death), and the disaster soon left the front pages of newspapers, to be replaced by what we all love: wrangles in Narc and elections in Kanu. Some Kenyans, claiming to be touched by the events in Asia, offered to go there as volunteer workers – provided an NGO could be found to provide “sponsorship”.

Within a few days, the world had gone back to its business. In particular, nothing could be allowed to stand in the way of the party night of the year, New Year’s Eve. It was difficult to find anyone who thought celebrations would be in poor taste when such a massive disaster had just struck. The party must go on, because personal pleasure is, we all agree, the mantra of our age. In some countries, a minute’s silence was observed during the parties. Interesting thing, that: sixty seconds of enforced silence, after which we all go back to drinking and dancing feeling like we’ve done something worthwhile by shutting our mouths for one minute of our lives. We sometimes behave like a species that wholly deserves extinction.

The world’s self-proclaimed leaders, George Bush and Tony Blair, were nowhere to be seen for the first few days. It was the holiday season, after all, and both men are known to be very fond of their vacations. And it wasn’t as though there was a problem in Iraq that threatened the occupation, or anything really serious like that to warrant an early end to the holiday fun. America eventually promised a derisory US$ 35 million in aid – and soon realised to its cost how pathetic that sum was in the face of this mammoth disaster. Britain’s ordinary people rose as one, and were at one point donating one million sterling pounds per hour.

Bush and Blair did sheepishly appear on the world stage to “take charge” (in the latter’s case, a full nine days after the event – he was engaged in some very serious vacationing in Egypt). The USA, finally seeing the fading opportunity to actually play its much-trumpeted role of world leader, eventually increased its contribution tenfold. The oft-maligned World Bank, to its credit, immediately pledged a pace-setting US$ 250 million. Australia, Germany and Japan have opened up their coffers with a big heart, promising nearly US$ 2 billion between them. Some of the world’s poorest nations – Mozambique, Nepal and East Timor, amongst others – have sent donations.

The human race is, slowly and grudgingly, rising to the occasion. But there is something that we must do beyond the opening of the wallet and the shaking of the head. We must use this awful event to understand our common humanity. The raging waves did not discriminate between millionaires and paupers, tourists and locals, old men and newborns. Why should we differentiate all the time? Why do we send large sums to Asia, having seen the dramatic devastation on our TV screens, but are unwilling to give a moment’s thought (let alone assistance) to our brothers and sisters in southern Sudan, two million of whom have been displaced in a disaster entirely man-made?

If we continue to live out our years at the level of “things”, we will stay exactly where we are. Whatever we build, whether it is a modest hut and a fishing boat or a business empire spanning continents, can be wrenched from our fingers in the blink of an eye. If we devote ourselves only to the accumulation of wealth and power, we are going to remain very small and very vulnerable indeed. If we spend all our days making plans and counting pennies, we are closing our eyes to the reality of sudden, unpredictable chaos. And if we fail to see the unity of life, that there is only one life coursing through the air, waters, soils and fires of our planet, then we will never learn the true lesson of existence. We will continue to draw boundaries, mark out “mine” from “yours” and keep consulting our balance sheets before doing the smallest thing to aid another in need.

We have rejected all things spiritual, and focused on all things material and individual. That delusion is the tragedy of our lives, and is what the furious waters should have washed away. There is a common thread of love that runs through all of us. Who did not feel its tug when we saw the heartbreaking face of the woman whose newborn child was swept away minutes after birth? Or when we saw the relief in the eyes of the parents whose infant was found floating, days later, on the same mattress on which she had been laid to sleep on 26 December 2004?

The thread of love is there and it is real. Our misfortune is that we trample it underfoot in our race to the top. We only see it again from time to time when confronted with disaster on a scale that we cannot comprehend. After the angry tides have receded, more of us need to pick up the thread of oneness and cherish it for all our days.

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