When Cut met Clinton

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Layeun is famous among the tsunami villages of Aceh. Bill Clinton came here earlier this year and brought the media. He called for new help to rebuild the lives of the fishing community whose homes disappeared beneath the waves during the tsunami.

But Cut Putri, the village women’s leader and social dynamo, isn’t waiting for aid. She and her husband have turned a wrecked village into their own enterprise zone. “Everyone who comes here meets her,” I was told as we waited her arrival on a motorbike.

She arrives and opens up the shop and cafe that she and her husband constructed beside the new coastal road constructed by USAID after the tsunami. As we drink coffee, she tells the story of the past decade.

“When the first wave hit, I rushed to the mosque and prayed,” she remembers. “My house had survived, but the people there said it wasn’t safe and we should go to the mountain. After about ten minutes, the second wave came. It destroyed my house, but I was safe.”

With the other surviving villagers, she spent seven days sheltering in the mountains above the village. “We didn’t know what was happening. We feared another wave.” Then her husband, the village leader at the time, who had been working in the provincial capital Banda Aceh, found his way back home, and took them to a barracks near the airport. They ended up staying there for a year, before returning to Layeun, where she stayed in a shelter for two more years before World Vision built them a new village on higher ground.

Ecological rehabilitation has been difficult in Layeun. A Green Coast project to plan mangroves failed because there was no suitable low-lying muddy ground left for mangroves to grow on. So the village planting group, inevitably headed by Cut Putri, switched to putting coconut palms and fruit trees in front of the 163 houses in the new village. Almost every house has several trees, sturdily protected against marauding wild boar. Mangoes have proved the most popular.

But Cut Putri and her husband have been keen to do more. They were quick to spot that the new road, which ran right past the village about an hour’s drive out of Banda Aceh, was a good spot for a cafe, which they built themselves.

And they devised a plan to give added value to the anchovies brought ashore on the beach where the village once was. With start-up funding from the UN FAO, they set up a processing plant to dry the anchovies and package them up in colourful boxes for sale in tourist shops in Banda Aceh. They make a tasty snack at a dollar a packet.

Business is good, enough to get their daughter through a pharmacology diploma, they tell me proudly. She poses for a picture with the packet, which bears her name. Help would be handy, but nobody here is waiting for Clinton.

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