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The Golden Wave
The Golden Wave

On December 26th, 2004, a magnitude 9.1 megathrust earthquake struck off the coast of Sumatra in the Indian Ocean. During the cataclysmic event, a 720 mile section of the earth’s crust along the Indo-Australian and southeast Eurasian plates gave away to enormous tectonic pressure. Grinding against one another, the plates of the subsea surface shifted horizontally by as much as 30 feet and vertically by as much as 45 feet in some places. The massive upheaval of earth displaced an unfathomable volume of water, creating the tsunami responsible for 227,898 dead or missing persons in 13 countries.


The water came pouring in and filled the house. It came in so fast and high that my daughter and I couldn't run. It was coming in circles, in waves like mountains.

From 'Wijitha's Story,' The Golden Wave 

Socio-cultural anthropologist, Dr. Michele Gamburd, Professor, Department of Anthropology at PSU, who had been continuing her research on the southwestern coast of the island of Sri Lanka, left the country in late November of 2004 and missed the catastrophe by a few weeks. Dr. Gamburd began working in the island nation in 1992, studying labor migration and gender relations among Sri Lankan women working as domestic servants in the Persian Gulf. Her investigations into Sri Lankan culture and society have also probed alcoholism and the use of illicit alcohol in segments of the population. Most recently, Dr. Gamburd published The Golden Wave: Culture and Politics After Sri Lanka’s Tsunami Disaster, a book in which she chronicles the effects of the tsunami and the subsequent flood of international humanitarian aid on the island’s social and political structures.

Over 22 million people call Sri Lanka home. The island is roughly the size of West Virginia and less than 50 miles off the southeastern coast of the Indian subcontinent. At the time of the earthquake and tsunami, Sri Lanka was a country divided along religious and political lines, reeling from over 20 years of civil war. 

According to official estimates, 31,000 Sri Lankans were killed by the tsunami. Roughly one million were affected in some way by the disaster, losing homes, livelihoods, and loved ones. Many survived with only the clothes on their backs. The country’s eastern, southern, and southwestern coastline was battered by the waves. In some locations, a 25 foot wall of water barreled into villages and resorts, washing whole communities away. Naeaegama, a village of 1,100 where Dr. Gamburd had conducted much of her ethnographic research was hit hard by the deadly waves that came ashore that day.

“Events such as this are overwhelming for those who live through them," said Dr. Gamburd. "When disasters like this occur anthropologists who may have spent their whole careers working on something else tend to shift their focus to the ways people respond to the devastation and what comes after. When I returned to Sri Lanka in 2005, I began looking at the effects of the tsunami on the social and political organizations on the island.”

The Golden Wave weaves together powerful first person accounts of the tsunami and its aftermath with Dr. Gamburd’s careful observations of events, conditions, attitudes, and power structures on the ground, and critical analysis of relevant data and literature produced by governments, non-governmental agencies, scholars, and others. The result is a cohesive narrative that documents a country where for many a tenuous peace and prosperity had been wiped out by the waves, leaving millions with nothing or next to nothing dependent on international aid and suspicious of others who might be receiving more than their fair share, and in which the social, political, and economic systems of wide sections of the island were leveled and often reemerged reorganized and not always to the benefit of those who had endured the disaster.

“The nation of Sri Lanka as a whole had suddenly been reduced to an international beggar,” Dr. Gamburd said.

According to Dr. Gamburd, receiving the international aid created a hierarchical relationship between the people of Sri Lanka and the international community and non-governmental organizations that had arrived to assist relief efforts. The reciprocation of gifts is a cultural practice in Sri Lanka. To be in a situation where it was impossible to give something back for the aid they received culturally signified to the tsunami-affected Sri Lankans they were now all subject to shifting social statuses.

I had just put my fot on the staircase to climb back up when I heard someone yelling, "There! It's coming!" I turned and saw a huge mass of water coming in like elephants jumping.

From 'Dayawansa's Story, The Golden Wave

“What the tsunami did was put the people of Sri Lanka in a position where they could only receive gifts from others,” Dr. Gamburd said. “Because they had lost their ability to give something back, to reciprocate the gesture, they felt as if they’d lost whatever previous social status they had before the waves struck. So everyone had been reduced to the same social level—they all had to live in identical five hundred square foot houses and all of their possessions had been given to them by aid organizations. This equal footing lead to a general anxiety about how the aid was distributed, by whom it was distributed, and what it meant to personal status. There was a sense that some were benefitting more than others and that many were receiving aid that either had financial means and therefore didn’t need the aid, or that were not affected by the tsunami.”


In constructing her narrative of a nation recovering from disaster, Dr. Gamburd writes of Sri Lankan intermediaries whose job it was to distribute aid giving it out unfairly or keep it for themselves, and government officials funneling relief funds into their own private accounts. At the highest levels, government officials denied leaders of the insurgent Tamil Tiger separatists (opponents of the government in the long civil war) the ability to distribute aid to the Tamil population in order to exercise government authority while undermining that of the Tiger’s. Actions such as these stifled recovery efforts in Tamil-dominated regions of the country and increased tensions between the Tamils and the majority Sinhalese running the Sri Lankan government.

“All of these actions led to anxiety in the population,” Dr. Gamburd said. “There were phrases I heard again and again that seemed to sum up what people were feeling. In English the phrases translated as ‘merit water,’ ‘golden water,’ and ‘golden wave’—this sense that after the wave another ‘golden wave’ washed ashore and for some it unjustly changed their statuses in the community. That was where I got the title of the book from.”

In The Golden Wave, Gamburd explores ways in which the destruction wrought by the tsunami and the international aid that arrived thereafter deconstructed established social hierarchy, politics, and the economy. The first-person narrative accounts tell the terrifying stories of what it was like to be there that December 26th and in the months and years afterward. Dr. Gamburd’s analysis of interviews with the people of Naeaegama, data collected, and literature point out what lessons there are to be learned from the international response to the tsunami. Those lessons show us what and how things can be done better in the aftermath of a disaster, and that should resonate with leaders and policy makers here in Oregon and up and down the West Coast where sometime in our future we too will face a major subduction zone earthquake and the resulting tsunami that will likely follow.

Authored by Shaun McGillis
Posted May 20, 2014