India: Mending nets

by Roger O. Burks, Jr.

As I emerged from the thick underbrush that clings to the south Indian village of Oolakottai, the landscape opened up to the vastness of a beach and, beyond it, the Indian Ocean. Where the sea met the sand, a father and son were hard at work mending a length of fishing net. They smiled at each other, talked and occasionally even chuckled as they went about their repairs.

Just below the horizon, a fishing boat plied the deep blue waters, hoping to haul in a good day's catch.

As I stepped onto the beach and walked toward the water, I thought of how different things must have seemed on December 26, 2004 - the day the tsunami struck and took so much from this village.

The day I visited Oolakottai, it seemed like life had very much returned to normal - even if the memories hadn't completely washed away.

Govindu, the fisherman mending nets with his oldest son, Ganesh, remembers the day well.

"On the day of the tsunami, I was gathering my supplies right on this spot. When I saw the waves coming, I sent my family to safety, telling them to get as far away from the water as they could," Govindu said. "Before I knew what hit me, the wave took me and carried me more than a kilometer inland.

"After the waves subsided, I found my family - but never found my boat and supplies."

The village lost eight people and dozens of houses to the devastating waves. Govindu's oldest daughter and youngest child - who was only seven months old at the time - were swept away by the waves, but miraculously clung to each other and survived unharmed.

That day is full of stories - many sad, many joyful - that will last a lifetime. Today, Oolakottai's story is one of optimism, perseverance and rebirth. With the help of Mercy Corps and its local partner, the DHAN Foundation, the people of Oolakottai are rebuilding their village and returning to work.

As they clear debris and build permanent housing, most of the town's families are still living in over 60 sturdy temporary houses provided by Mercy Corps. Nearly the entire village of Oolakottai falls inside the "coastal regulation zone" - an area within 200 meters of the Indian Ocean - where houses and village structures are not allowed to be rebuilt. As a result, the entire village will have to move further inland.

Mercy Corps is supporting residents in this mammoth task by providing building materials. Most of the area's trees were severely damaged or destroyed during the tsunami, leaving no wood to build houses or boats.

Mercy Corps and the DHAN Foundation have also given 15 wooden fishing boats to local fishermen so that they can return to work - and they have.

"The main problem now is that there's so much debris in the water, our nets get snared when we fish," Govindu said. "We make do, though. The number of fish we're catching now seems to be good, even compared to before the tsunami."

As I walked away from this idyllic scene - less than six months removed from the worst disaster in memory - Govindu and Ganesh resumed talking and mending.

As they faded from sight and I left Oolakottai, I wondered what they'd find in their nets the next day.

Roger Burks is the Online Managing Editor for Mercy Corps.