The Moken, the tsunami

photograph by Didrik Johnck, modifiedSalama Glatalay is a Moken, one of a tribe of nomadic aborigines who have plied the waters of the Andaman seas for centuries. They are a culture of Austronesians who likely migrated from southern China some 4,000 years ago. Also called the sea gypsies, the Moken spend up to eight months a year living on their hand-carved, low-slung dugouts, called kabangs. Some say they possess a spiritual connection with the sea; others that their deep marine wisdom is simply unmatched by land-based peoples.

For years, Salama, the headman of the Surin Moken village, listened to a legend passed down among his people, that if the spirits of ancestors became angry, the Laboon, a “wave that eats people,” would flood the earth with seven surges. First the navel of the seas would suck away the water. Then the waters would be spit back in rolling tides that would destroy the land and make it clean again.

On the morning of Dec. 26, 2004 Salama noticed first that the crickets were not chirping as usual. He went to the beach and saw the seawater had receded and fish were flopping about. He knew then what was about to happen, and began to alert his people. The 175 Moken on the island abandoned their temporary bamboo stilt huts. They gathered up some 400 tourists who had come to the island to snorkel and dive its reefs and together they tore for the highest point on the island, 113 feet above the beach.

The Moken are a stateless people, not recognized as citizens in any country. Their forewarnings of the tsunami came from an ancient bond with and understanding of the sea. They heeded their antediluvian wisdom and their myths, which most of the rest of the world discounts. And yet they did more than perhaps any other single group to save lives.

More on the tsunami here and on the Moken here.

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