Why, 14 years after the Aceh tsunami, ‘smong’ should be part of the Indonesian vocabulary

The impact of the earthquake and tsunami in Banda Aceh on December 26 2004. Frans Delian/Shutterstock

Why, 14 years after the Aceh tsunami, ‘smong’ should be part of the Indonesian vocabulary

It seems that we still stutter and come back to what happened in Lombok, Palu and Donggala, Indonesia. In 2018, it remains as urgent as in 2004 to make changes that transform our understanding of natural disasters and eventually save lives.

One important way to do this is to privilege traditional local knowledge and memories of previous events. Next week will be the 14th commemoration of the Aceh tsunami.

The International Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) or the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR) 2015-2030 has emphasised the importance of using local knowledge. To reduce disaster risk, we need to create a social dynamic that strengthens local knowledge in individuals and society as a whole.

Power of local wisdom

One important example of local knowledge that saved lives is from Simeulue island in Aceh regency; it is the story of smong: On December 26 2004, a student named Almahdi was smoking on the high bridge over the river in Banda Aceh. Born in Simeulue, when the earthquake happened and the sea receded he knew what was next. He started yelling “Smong! Smong! Run! Run!”

But all those near him looked at him as if he were a madman. They did not know the meaning of smong and did not run. Within the hour many of them were dead. Almahdi saw their bodies floating in the river.

Almahdi survived, but he did not know that all his compatriots at home on Simeulue island also survived. Official reports said that “Simeulue was drowned” and he feared for the worst for over a week.

Almahdi’s knowledge of smong stems from an incident on January 4 1907. A 7.6 magnitude earthquake shook the Simeulue islands and a few moments later a massive tsunami devastated Simeulue’s coast. From that day, the few survivors determined to honour the family who had died and to save their descendants by telling the story of smong to their children and grandchildren.

Nearly 100 years later, on December 26 2004, all 70,000 people on Simeulue were reminded of the smong by the 9.2 magnitude earthquake. They ran to the hills and watched as the giant wave destroyed their houses. The wisdom of smong, retained for 97 years, saved their lives.

In recent years the word smong has attracted international researchers seeking to deepen understanding of the phenomenon. Smong is the local knowledge of the Simeulue community, and before 2004 was unknown by outsiders. The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) awarded the Simeuluean people the UN Sasakawa Award on October 12 2005. The award was given in Bangkok, Thailand, in appreciation of, and to encourage, their efforts to contribute to a global culture of disaster prevention, thereby furthering the goals of the international strategy for disaster reduction.

Now their pride in the word smong has spread to Aceh and is being adopted in efforts to adapt to earthquake and tsunami disasters. Simeuluean people, grateful to their nation for the reconstruction after 2004, want to grow the pride in smong to a national level. They want to make a gift of smong to be owned by the Indonesian people as a whole. They feel that the word smong should be part of the Indonesian vocabulary, providing the basis for a new understanding of the tsunami disaster.

Smong is ready for this challenge. It was tested in the December 26 2004 earthquake and tsunami disaster with impressive results. The existence of the word in the language provides a definition (know what) that is linked to understanding (know how). This knowledge moved the Simeulue community to take fast and appropriate action when reading natural signs of an earthquake and tsunami.

There are other terms for tsunami throughout the Indonesian archipelago. On the mainland there is the term Ie-beuna in Banda Aceh and Aceh Besar, while in Singkil people call the tsunami the Gloro. Over time, however, the knowledge linked to these words has faded. Many lives have been lost as a result.

Smong comes from the Devayan language of Simeulue and refers to the complex of earthquake/sea receding/giant wave that is typical of tsunami events in Indonesia. It is shared in the traditional songs of Simeulue, the nandong:

Enggel mon sao curito (Hear this story) / Inang maso semonan (One day in the past) / Manoknop sao fano (Our village sinks) / Unen ne alek linon (Starting with the earthquake) / Fesang bakat nemali (Then followed by rising waves) / Manoknop sao hampong (Sinking the whole village) Tibo-tibo mawi (Immediately) / Anga linon ne mali (If a strong earthquake occurs) / Uwek suruik sahuli (Followed by the receding sea water) / Maheya mihawali (Hurry) / Fano me senga tenggi (Run to the higher place).

The Simeulue community cleverly closes all the stories by placing the following sentence: Eda Smong kahanne (That’s what we call smong).

This very emotional song form is sung at social gatherings and weddings. Combined with regular telling of the same story, it constitutes a very simple system, but one that has the power to move people and save lives.

Why does smong need to be included in Indonesian vocabulary?

The Big Indonesian Dictionary (Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia, KBBI) provides the Japanese term tsunami for what the Simeuluean people call smong.

In fact, in Japan, there are variations in the terms used to describe natural phenomena that we know as tsunamis such as onami (big waves), shakainamisu (rising waves reaching the land) etc. The specific word tsunami in the Japanese language comes from two terms: “tsu”, which means port, and “nami”. which means wave. That is, a harbour or port wave.

If viewed from the root of the word, one has an incomplete understanding of the natural hazard. Does this wave affect only harbours? Am I safe on the beach? It is not clear.

Despite this, “tsunami” is now used internationally, replacing the word “tidal wave” in most languages by the 1980s. Of course, “tidal wave” was an even worse description of the giant wave phenomenon, which has nothing to do with the tide.

There are several strong reasons, then, to make smong part of the Indonesian vocabulary.

Smong describes the natural hazard complex seen regularly in Indonesia, and most recently in Palu and Donggala. With 46% of the Indonesian coast subject to giant waves, it is geographically relevant.

Smong is a symbol of international recognition of the roles of local knowledge in reducing risk as declared in SFDRR 2015-2030.

Smong is a word that is known to have saved many lives.

Smong already has global recognition and is a source of pride for Simeulue, Aceh and Indonesia.

Smong reminds us of the importance and strength of local knowledge.

Smong sounds like an Indonesian word, matching and making local pronunciation easy.

Smong was born from the womb of the Indonesian people themselves, so it should be accepted as a national treasure.

Most importantly, smong provides the basis of a new national discussion of a devastating natural hazard.

It is the “hook” upon which all Indonesian people can hang a new understanding of how to save themselves, their children and grandchildren. Knowledge of smong has the potential to substantially reduce, and perhaps even eliminate, casualties from giant sea waves.

Initiating the word smong in the Indonesian vocabulary does not mean removing the word tsunami, which is now an international word. But our acceptance of smong should be a source of pride in the protection of our greatest wealth – our people.

The people of Simeulue have offered a gift to Indonesia, the word smong; Almahdi still wishes the people in Banda Aceh had understood him yelling smong on that terrible day in 2004. He and all Simeuluean people now wish all Indonesians have the knowledge, identity and pride of smong.