Saturday, 17 April 2010

You smell like a fish and drink like one too !

" You smell like a fish," my wife said.

" Well I have spent the last twenty months living in fishing villages, eating fish, travelling and sleeping in fishing boats," I said, after returning to Madras after another long field trip to inspect cyclone shelters under construction in late 1981. If I had been totally honest I should have added, " I also learned to drink like a fish" as I shared many rum and palm toddies with fishermen at night.

Cyclone shelters that the Red Cross built in Tamil Nadu between 1978 and 1981

I spent two years travelling up and down this coastline throughout the years 1980 and 1981 while I was working for the International Red Cross supervising the construction of 230 cyclone shelters in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

On November 19, 1977 more than 20,000 people died when a cyclone hit India's southeast Andhra coast on November 19, 1977. The storm disrupted life for 5.4 million people in 830 villages, and damaged 1.4 million hectares (3.5 million acres) of cropland.

A week earlier, another lesser cyclone, crossed the coastline on Tamil Nadu, just south of Nagapattinam, killing over 500 people.

All along the coast of southern India you see the CATAMARAN (a Tamil word, from catta, to tie, and maram wood) It originally meant a boat of logs of different lengths, lashed together to make a raft.

It is only human nature at certain times of your life, to look back and ask the question, “ Did the work I do 30 years ago really help those really poor people of Southern India ? "  I searched recently to find reports on the work I did a long time ago and found this comment in a Government of Andhra Pradesh report which says "The first set of shelters were built immediately after the Divi Seema cyclone in Krishna District in 1977, by the Red Cross with additions taking place every year or two under the various schemes formulated by the Government of Andhra Pradesh. The shelters have withstood the onslaught of the cyclones in 1979, 1984, 1987, 1990 and.1996 and saved thousands of lives as well as providing space for schools, kindergartens, clinics, livelihood centres, community centres and other activities."

Next  I contacted Howard Arfin, head of the Canadian Red Cross in India who is running programmes out of those cyclone shelters, built 30 odd years ago. Howard gave me a lot of information which I will weave into the story. He provided most of the photographs too.

On December 26, 2004, one of the deadliest natural disasters in modern history, the Indian Ocean earthquake, struck off the western coast of Sumatra (Indonesia). The earthquake and subsequent tsunami reportedly killed over 220,000 people around the brim of the Indian Ocean. The tsunami devastated the Coromandel Coast of Southern India, killing about 30,000 people, and sweeping away many coastal communities.

I was working and living in India when the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami struck, and received first hand reports that thousands of lives were saved as many villages sought refuge in these cyclone shelters, especially in Nagapattinam and up and down the Tamil Nadu Coastline.

Red Cross cyclone shelters built between 1978 and 1982 have saved thousands of lives in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh

Twin hulled Catamarans on a beach outside a cyclone shelter, south of Chennai.

Women weighing the catch and later, they arrange the distribution and marketing of fish

Fishermen pulling their catamaran ashore after a hard day's work.

I travelled by train up and down that coastline of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu at least 50 times in the course of my work in 1980-81, supervising the construction of 230 large Red Cross funded cyclone shelters, pictured below.

What has happened since the Tsunami of 2004 is best told by Sonya Pastuovic, Canadian Red Cross in Tamil Nadu, India

The cyclone shelter is a busy place, filled with the sounds of children paying, teachers directing activities and volunteers organizing children into groups for a morning milk break.

This shelter in Prathabaramapuram is home to just one of the 45 crèches that Canadian Red Cross is supporting with a supplementary nutrition program throughout the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India. The program started in April 2003 and supplements the daily diets of the children in the crèches with milk, eggs, fruits and vegetables.

However, since the tsunami, the programme has also sought to provide psychosocial support to some of the young survivors of that terrible disaster.

Jayabharathi Annadurai is only five and a half years old, but according to her mother Sengodi, she still remembers the scenes of people running from their homes and seeking refuge in the shelter.

Jayabharathi Annaduram leads the children in a song at her crèche in Prathabaramapuram.

“She was so scared when she saw the bodies,” explains Sengodi who volunteers at the crèche. “She kept asking ’What happened to them’?”

Sengodi says that Jayabharathi still remembers what she saw in the aftermath of the tsunami. “Even now, two years later, she has bad dreams,” she says.

When the tsunami happened, the cyclone shelters throughout Tamil Nadu became hubs of community activity. Local people whose houses were destroyed moved into the shelters, which quickly became overcrowded. Communal kitchens were set up in some, whilst others became temporary morgues.

After a month or so, still suffering from trauma, people began to move out of the shelters. But many would not allow their children to return to the Red Cross day-care.

“People believed that the spirits of the dead who were brought to the shelter were still haunting it,” says Irene. “They didn’t want their children in the building.”

So, according to local custom, a religious ceremony was held to sanitize the facility and exorcize the ghosts and after that, the children were allowed to return.

Canadian Red Cross programme coordinator Irene Stanley, at the Prathabaramapuram crèche.

It quickly became evident to the volunteers and staff that the level of the children’s trauma required special attention. As a result Canadian Red Cross decided to expand the emotional wellness aspect of the program to help the children’s recovery in 13 of the 45 crèches.

It is with a great sense of pride that I read of the work done by the Canadian Red Cross in conjunction with the Indian Red Cross in Southern India. Those cyclone shelters we built between 1978 and 1982 have clearly saved thousands of lives and have provided building for creches, schools, women's groups, fishing cooperatives and are the source of many village livelihood programmes. I recall the names of my colleagues over those years of construction: Gunnar Hagman, John Waugh, Carl Naucler, Col. Venugopal. Thiru Rajabatha, Thiru Mudalier. Ajit Bhowmick and Dillip Choudhury.

Fisherman resting on the floor of a cyclone shelter.

In 1980 and 1981, my favourite trip, was travelling south to Nagapattinam. I would board the train about 7 pm, find my seat in the second class carriage. I had a sleeping arrangenment where I often slept on the floor. Ten minutes before departure time, I would have a night cap of whiskey or rum, which would numb the bone shaking ride. Once I felt the train pulling out of the station, I would settle in for the night and quickly fall asleep. Sometimes I would sleep solidly until 4 or 5 am, when I would be woken by children tickling my feet through the train window, shouting " Mister, Idli, Wadi, Dosa," the local breakfast foods.

 One night, I recall leaving Madras Egmore station, and sure enough, the train chugged oiut of the station, so I shut my eyes. Eight hours later I awoke, and felt something was amiss. I looked oiut the window, and the train was still in Egmore station. The train had only gone 10 minutes out of the station the night before, and broke down. The train was shunted back to Egmore station , and the passengers alighted to wait for a replacement train in 24 hours, except me. This all went on unbeknown to me and I slept in an uncomfortable carriage floor all night, when I could have been in an air conditioned bedroom with my family just a few km away.

Vijayawada Railway Station. I slept many days and nights on the platform waiting for delayed trains

The thing that fascinated me, were the trains, the stations, the lines themselves and the people who travel on the trains.I travelled by steam trains, diesels and electric. I also travelled thousands of kilometres by boat up and down canals, especially the Buckingham canal

I travelled with Indians of all castes, creeds and colours. But the one thing in common was they all shared their food and tea with me, and alkways saw to it that I was comfortable as possible.

Perhaps the most moving moment for me was sitting on a platform in Vijawada, one sunny afternoon. There was a poor man, a day labourer by his dress, in his early 30s. He was sitting there with his 3 years old daughter, clad in a ragged blue dress. She had large, beautiful dark eyes. She cuddled up to her Father. An ice cream vendor walked by, and for a fleeting micro second, she looked at her father, suggesting he buy. one, but knowing that her father was poor, she looked away with embarrassment, and shut the thought out of her head. A few minutes later, the ice cream vendor returned down our end of the platform. And her father spoke a few words in Telegu to the vendor, he pulled some coins from the folds of his lunghi, and brought his daughter an ice cream, a treat he could ill-afford. Their eyes locked for some seconds and the radiant smile and her glinting eyes, told her Father of her deep love and appreciation for him. They cuddled together as she ate her ice cream.

If someone asks me " Have I seen true love, I say "I saw it on a railway platform in India, between a poor father and daughter."

There are thousands of these moments locked in ,my brain, which I will never forget.

But the memory that will outlive them all is the memory of those cyclone shelters we built, 230 of them, each saving many lives over the last 30 years. Evidenced-based impact and all that jargon we use -well there it is - a project well planned, well implemented, and sustainable, That is why I joined the Red Cross and that isa why I am still here.


Maude said...

Dear Bob, many thanks for sharing. This story moved me immensely. Such a imortant link to history, and I am sure your beloved South Asia is jumping with joy, as their "Lord" will be back.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Dear Maude, Thanks for your feedback. Ah, yes, it will be good to return to South asia, although will miss Indonesia. Bob

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Bob,
It has been great to come read here as I convalesce and finally able to sit with a laptop. The cyber world helps pass the time, as do the many good books I have piled up.
You have carved a lengthy and hard road Bob, glad you get to stand on a high point now and then and reflect. This is real history, the real nuts and bolts stuff so few of us ever hear about. Another good aspect of this medium. Looking forward to following you in your new home.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Dear Robb

I am not aware you are recovering ! What has happened ? I wish you all the best for a full recovery.

Yes Robb, it has been a long hard road, but man, so many experiences along the way. I wouldn'trade them for anything. Bob

Donald said...

Dear Bob

This is a very strong bit of writing. It's one thing to read of what is happening in the shorter time span, but that's is quite wonderful legacy you've been involved in, and it's also a jolting reminder of the hard road so many have to endure for so long. The ice cream story must be all too common too - you've told it beautifully and it moves me.

Keep up the good work!



Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Dear Donald

The ice cream story is one I have seen so many times in different places, but that one sticks in my mind.

Thanks for your feedback. I enjoy your blog very much. Bob

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Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

王俊貴 Thanks for your comments. I am pleased you enjoy reading the blog. Bob

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Bob,
Had the replacement done two weeks ago today so home convelescing and learning to walk again. Think back often of being with you when you had your knees done and drawing inspiration. I dream of the mountains. Kia kaha.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Dear Robb

Great to read you had your hip replacement done. Onwards and upwards now to those lofty summits. All the best for a full recovery. Kia Kaha. Bob

Alistair Henley said...

Hi Bob, an interesting journey back in time. I didn't make it to India quite in your time but remember visiting the TN shelters in 1983 (?) together with Shirley R and Ajit B. Have sadly lost touch with your yin/yang former colleague Gunnar but am sure he would love to read this account if he could. Good to know the TN shelters are still being put to good use - I wonder about the Andhra ones, has anyone been to any of them in the last years...?
And as you imply, at the end of the day it's only those with little imagination that need impact indicators...
All the best, Alistair

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Thanks Alistair for you comprehensive comments. So you went there in 1983 with Aubtir Shirley and Ajit Bhowmick !

With regrads to the Andhra shelters, they have been maintained well according to Govt. reports and many more were built.

Yes, I lost contact with Gunnar too, a shame.

I loved your comments about impact indicators.

The shelter programme is a fine example of sound planning, going in 50/50 with Governments so they fund long term maintenance, and, strong monitoring processes which ensured construction was of the highest possible standard.

Best regards, Bob

Marja said...

and that is why I am a fan of you. You are an angel who touches many lives and I believe many will pass it forwards

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Marja, we all entertain people, or look after people, but do we know we are entertaining Angels ?


AarKay said...

Dear Bob,

your travelogue is as fresh as it was when you had written, it expresses the True Indian Rural scenario. in particular the Father Daughter love story waas great. I have recommended the same to my daughter.

Thx to let us see India from your Eyes. Rajkishan

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Dear Rajkishan

That moment on a railway station for me left such an impression on my mind. Thank you for your comment.


V Ranganathan said...

Dear Bob,

The mention about "Nagapattinam Cyclone" did evoke memories on me as a 12 year old boy, I experienced my first cyclone. Though I lived little far away from Nagapattinam in a safe house, it was fearsome at that tender age to see hushing winds throwing coconut trees. The cyclone followed by heavy rains and floods devastated Thanjavur & Tiruchirappalli District in Tamil Nadu is still in my memory.

Many a times, I wondered when crossing over the coastal roads, on whose idea is that, to construct Cyclone Shelters. I have seen many of these cyclone shelters on the Tamil Nadu Coastal belts.

I have personally witnessed its usage and how it helped many in 1993 & 2000 year cyclones.

Commendable job and I Pray Omnipotent to bless you and your family with all good health and prosperity.

Incidentally, I browsed to narrate the 1977 cyclone to my children, I saw this blog.

V Ranganathan

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Unknown said...

Beautiful piece Bob. You never cease to amaze me. The ice cream story made me cry!

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