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Outlook Nicobar Islands – Identity crisis in the wake of tsunami relief

mars 15, 2014

MiL Senior Partner, Lars Cederholm, tells the unlikely story of how he befriended a Prince and recently became involved in the the work of rebuilding the cultural life, pride and autonomy of the Nicobar Islands after the 2004 tsunami.

Living in the wake of disaster – ten years later

In 2004 a tremendous 9,3 earthquake shook the ocean floor of the Indian Ocean and gave wave to a devastating disaster, causing the death of more than 1/3 of the secluded Nicobar islands‘ population, thereby threatening to wipe out the cultural heritage of its indigenous tribes. Ten years later, lead by the head of the Royal Nicobari family, Prince Rasheed Yosuuf, a groundbreaking endeavor is on the way to give meaning to a meaningless tragedy by restoring, not only the material, but spiritual wealth of the people of the former paradisiac islands. Read more about an unusual project to restore a lost world and build bridges to the future. A future which, although still uncertain, holds great promises for those involved.

The day the earth shook

Palms on coastAt 6:15 AM on December 26, 2004, the first of eight tsunamis hit the Nicobar Islands with stupendous force. The biggest wave measuring over twenty meters completely destroyed coastal villages and in some instances washed over entire islands. An estimated 10,000 people instantly perished. The remaining survivors looked on in horror and confusion at the disappearance of the whole world as they had known it. Their buildings, their cultural artifacts, ancestral places of worship and livelihood were suddenly wiped off the face of the earth. Having no written language and due to the sudden death of so many storytellers and other culture-bearers, the islanders were facing the loss of their oral history and intricate traditions.

A paradise lost

The twelve central Nicobar Islands form a chain stretching 300 kilometers from north to south. The islands are situated just south of Burma and west of Thailand and together with the Andaman Islands form the eastern-most of India’s Union Territories. The Nicobar Islands are classified as tribal reserve areas by the Indian government and have been effectively isolated from any kind of tourism or foreign influence since 1947, when India annexed them from the British colonial empire. Before that, visits to the islands were rare with little impact on the unique island culture.

Loss of identity in the wake of the first help

Help started to arrive soon after the disaster. Aid organizations (NGOs) were falling over each to come to the rescue with food and shelter and were received with mixed consequences for the Nicobaris. The new housing projects (concrete flooring, iron pillars, clapboard and tin roofs) were placed 1000 meters or more away from the beaches where villages traditionally had been built, close to the main livelihoods such as fishing, extracting coconut oil, copra and farming. All these different livelihoods were now destroyed for the foreseeable future. Historically the Nicobari had not been dependent on any kind of outside help: now everything was given for free with the result that many people quickly became dependent and passive. Illnesses, previously unknown to the Nicobaris, such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity are presently on the rise. After the tsunami, the Indian government offered free food for five years to the entire island populations but however compassionate a gesture this had been, the result was dependency, loss of confidence and pride in the unique qualities of their culture and lifestyle. A growing identity crisis was becoming obvious and leaders watched this erosion with sadness and, initially, with uncertainty about how to proceed. At the time of writing this article, a return to the beaches and reconstruction of the traditional dwellings are slowly taking place.

The unlikely friendship with a Prince

During a trip to India in 2008, my wife Anna and I were spending time in an Ayurveda hospital near Bangalore. There we met our next-door neighbor, the head of the Royal Nicobari family, Prince Rasheed Yosuuf. We stayed with Rasheed for ten days and became good friends, a friendship that has sustained itself over the years through letters and emails.

At the time of our original meeting Rasheed was trying to pull himself together from the trauma that had rocked his relationship to himself and to the social and physical world around him. He had some serious doubts about how to continue leading his people into the future. Not only had 1/3 of the island people vanished, his palace had been totally destroyed together with all historical records. His own and his family’s lives had been saved thanks to his mother, Queen Rani Fatima, who had observed that the water was pulling away from the beach. She understood that a tsunami was on the way and managed to alert the family who rushed off to higher grounds where they became witness to the destruction of the world they all loved.

A royal invitation

In February this year Rasheed invited me to come to his home in Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman Islands and the home of the Andaman and Nicobar Tribal Administration. He was starting to launch a project with the grand vision to bring his people back to their roots and lifestyle and was asking me to come and be a sounding board to his ideas and to gain perspective through my “western” mindset.  When he described what he had in mind, I was intrigued and packed my bags hoping to add some value to his deliberations. This was indeed a project that was unique, daring and challenging, with many embedded dilemmas calling for a deeper understanding of his role as the leader of this tribal people.

When searching for a way forward – listen to the voices of many!

Prince Rasheed is the undisputed leader of the different tribes in ten of the populated Nicobar Islands. He was worried about the future of his people as he witnessed the erosion of the culture, which in his own experience, had always been close to paradise before the tsunami hit. After some very long meetings with his own family, an agreement was reached to go ahead with a more comprehensive and traditional process of inclusion, used when important decisions had to be made. A meeting with the different island chiefs was called and the vision was presented for approval. The chiefs went back to their respective islands for further discussions with the village chiefs who in turn met with the different family heads for understanding and comments.

Believing in the impossible dream

The idea under discussion was how to find a way to restore the traditions and the sense of self worth in the Nicobari people. It would have to be a project that in one way or another would be of concern to, if not include, the whole population. Rasheed had purchased ten acres of land on the southern tip of the main Andaman Island to be rebuilt into a large traditional Nicobari village. The land which is called Chidiya Tapu, which means “home of birds,” is situated on a stunningly beautiful and isolated beach with a lush jungle as a backdrop. Because the Indian government is not ready to allow tourists to travel to the Islands, the project seemed an impossible dream at first. The idea that came out of the deliberations was to start the project in the Andamans where visitors are allowed and demonstrate success. The next phase would be to continue building the project in one of the Nicobar Islands. The image that comes to my mind is that of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt using the dream of the Promised Land as a motivational force to a long and arduous journey.

What Westerners could learn from a society without technology and money

The idea was to build a village based on the traditions and skills of the Nicobari people. The village would be built to receive visitors who could be acquainted with the intricate and frequent celebrations. Perhaps one could describe this original project as some kind of living, ethnographic museum.

After days of conversations, Rasheed reformulated his vision. Rather than culture as scripted performance, allow instead traditional ways of going about life to reveal their values. Somehow this village, it’s people, and it’s values could inspire all people, no matter where in the world they come from, to exclaim “love and happiness does not need any religion”. The village would cater to a very specific type of guest who, hopefully, would be interested in exploring values such as time, relationships, work, communication, leadership, decision-making, conflict resolution and justice in ways that are unique and quite different from the habits and thinking patterns of both India and the West. One can only imagine what the impact would be on westerners, increasingly dependent on technology and its associated lifestyle. Certainly, the hope is to increase self-awareness and mindfulness including a better sense of ones own culture and how it influences what people choose to pay attention to.

On the practical side, Prince Rasheed’s plan is to have the inside of the traditional houses designed with all the amenities to make life comfortable for the visitor. Each two or three guest rooms would be hosted by a Nicobari family living in the vicinity. No money would change hands once the guest arrived. The Nicobar island economy is not based on the exchange of money. Food from three restaurants, a bar, excursions to nearby islands in Nicobari outriggers, village rituals and performances would all be included in the price. Nicobaris have no written language so any messages and instructions will have to be communicated through symbols or other ways. Power will be supplied by solar panels and most of the food will be sustainably farmed in the jungle behind the village. The staff must be selected and trained in understanding western needs as well as speaking acceptable English. The goal is to have everything in place by the end of 2017.

To ride the wave of change

How can a secluded, traditional village based on the beautiful values and ancient skills of the Nicobari people add value to both the visitors and the Nicobari people? It is accepted that the Nicobaris will have to change their own mindset in the encounter with other peoples. In Rasheed’s mind, that change is inevitable and we may as well process the encounter and not allow the encounter to pass by without reflection. One idea is to invite one or two doctoral students of anthropology to study the interactions and help all concerned to process the encounter by creating dialogues with each group separately and together with the purpose to broaden the minds of the guests and the Nicobaris through awareness and feedback. No one should have to lose from this unique cultural encounter. In addition to Chidiya Tapu, the Andaman and Nicobar administration has assured the Nicobaris of the Central Nicobar islands ten acres of beach front just next to Chidiya Tapu. This land will be the future home to around 100 Nicobaris who will live the traditional life style of fishing and farming. The guests staying at Chidiya Tapu would be welcome to visit the village and to participate in the many typical Nicobari festivities and rituals. According to Rasheed, the present Governor and the Chief Secretary of the Andaman and Nicobar islands have been the most helpful force to support this project and this positive attitude has given great hope going into the future.

Looking forward to the first encounters

It goes without saying that no real certainty exists of how this unique project will impact all who will be touched by the encounter. The people who decide to come to Chidiya Tapu must have a good understanding of the basic idea of the village and come with a sense of adventure and discovery. A great vacation in tropical seclusion is added value. After all, this will be a meeting between people from the west and a people who have lived in total isolation for generations. Life in Chidiya Tapu holds the promise of being an exciting journey for both visitors and hosts but many things will have to be in place before the first group of visitors arrives by boat to this beautiful place on earth.

Port Blair, Andaman Islands, February 16th 2014

MiL Senior Partner, Lars Cederholm

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