Farewell Nias

Farewell island of lush, dripping greenness, towering cumulo-nimbus skyscapes, broken roads and houses and reefs, fish-silver seas that turn red from rivers carrying the blood of mountains, people who smile and smile, and better bananas, pineapples and pawpaws than anywhere.

After eight months (ten for Rick) of intimacy, Nias is suddenly a long way away. Two months, days of travelling, and an entire context away.


Working for the HELP project gave me an intimate insight into rural life in Nias and long days of footslogging. Returning to work on monitoring and community liaison with UNHCR meant I was back in cars and boats, seeing more and more beautiful country and visiting villages even more remote and disadvantaged.

Trips increased to our six project villages Bozihona I, II & III, Botohaenga and Tagaule I & II. We knew much of the earthquake damage there was due to liquefaction, causing many coastal houses to sink into sand, swamp and sea, but I found out only in our last few weeks that another, barely reported tsunami, had rolled in after two hours and swallowed about 25 metres of coast.

When we left Nias nearly half of the UNHCR project houses were completed and our Japanese partner agency AMDA was well on track to complete the rest by the end of the year. One of my last community visits was to the hand-over ceremony; hours of karaoke and speeches and fiery hot Nias chicken feeding 300 people. (Nias chickens are the scrawny ones, as opposed to the larger, juicier Australian chickens. And the bigger pigs and eggs on Nias? Hmm – Australian pig, Australian egg.)

Fishing boat was the most luxurious mode of travel, except for disembarking (jumping into waist, or sometimes chest high water), and embarking (ditto water level plus an ungainly scramble back over the side of the boat, without the remotest chance of a foothold). Canoes were simpler, four or five people aligned in a tiny hip-width out-rigger canoe with a noisy outboard. The one time the sea was flat and I’d got into the prow of a canoe without getting wet, mentally congratulating myself on such a salutary outcome, a rogue wave drenched me from head to toe. 

My last site inspection on Nias was to the northern tip of the island and ended in an even smaller canoe, without outriggers. We had spent the day visiting two remote villages being rebuilt by HELP, the last fairly newly established – the Christian group moving half an hour up-river from the parent village, now mainly Muslim. I couldn’t get the whole story except the inhabitants of the new village were offered an alternative site but preferred staying where they had tenure (they may have moved from village or government land). The village was situated  in the most godforsaken bog, jungle growing back as quickly as it was slashed and the ground a peat-custard. A villager pushed a 3m pole into the earth like a needle into butter, to show us its depth. He said the mud was over 7m deep. To prevent the house stumps sinking, HELP designed circular concrete pads, weighing 30kg each, which were prefabricated and shipped to the village by boat and canoe

At dusk we left this village in a pea-pod canoe for a two hour trip upstream to meet our waiting cars. Under the weight of three passengers and the boatman our canoe sank to the gunwales. Despite sitting rigid, the slightest easing of a buttock shipped water from the swollen, eager river. I bailed by hand, literally, one step up from using a sieve. When eventually the boatman handed me a small plastic soup bowl, I began making headway. The river was churning liquid mud, and liberally dotted with snagged and floating trees from higher in the hills, while others, fallen in from the sheer clay banks, reached across our way. When it was too dark to see what was coming, the boatman, his knees jammed against my back, raised a plastic Dolphin torch above my head every few minutes to scan the river for potential collisions. The rest was faith, luck and fireflies. Having passed no habitation in two hours our eventual sighting of lights on the bank above a makeshiftwharf was very welcome.


Our last two months in Nias continued the frustration of trying to land the rest of the timber for the reconstruction effort.

After the Kalimantan shipment was held to ransom and fell through, two more ships were anticipated. One arrived. The final tally landed was around 7,000 cubic metres – a third of the timber intended for the project. However the agencies we had committed to supply were all au fait with the Indonesian ‘system’, and they were supportive and tolerant of the delays and other problems we encountered. Most quickly adapted, changing their construction methods to incorporate either ‘legal’ locally sourced timber, brick or cement block, or, even better, medium-gauge cyclone wire panels nailed to timber frames and then plastered with roughly 5cm of cement-sand. This system is likely to be far safer in an earthquake as the walls are thinner than masonry, and in the case of the bejesus being shaken out of them, the cement will shatter and the wire stop large chunks from falling.  Despite this the reduced timber import was a teeth-grinding outcome for our project.


There was a positive resolution from the closing of the timberyard at Gunungsitoli
Port. The Nias national staff team, wonderful co-workers and superbly trained by Rick and Vinod as managers, store assistants, tally clerks and Manitou drivers, were snapped up as employees by other UN agencies and NGOs, as were our admin staff, general drivers and guards. From all reports, they are doing well.

On the day we left Nias the entire timberyard staff made the 40 minute trip to the airport in the back of a truck. Some of our other staff and friends from other agencies swelled the crowd. Hugs all round, a great way to leave, but a bit of a tear-jerker.

A month after we arrived home we received a text message at 3am; Your grandson is recently born. Before we left Agus, Rick's young timberyard manager, and his wife Serne, asked us to name their first baby which would arrive in November. We wrote down them a girl’s and a boy’s name (Western) and sealed them in an envelope. This was opened after the birth and Timothy Telaubanua duely named.

A few weeks later Hendri, my lovely field assistant, told me one of our guards, Rijal, had named his new daughter Dael Anggraeni.

I’m in love with Nias; there is plenty of dreaming about returning.