Dissertation shows resilience of Aceh people following tsunami

In the wake of the devastating tsunami of 26 December 2004 in Southeast Asia, the victims started to resume their normal life. Anthropologist Annemarie Samuels studied the rebuilding in Aceh, Indonesia, and found out that the priority lay on more than new houses and employment alone. Defence on 29 November.

Starting again from scratch

Boxing Day 2004. Following an earthquake, a devastating tsunami spreads death and destruction through Southeast Asia. 230,000 people die. The Indonesian Province of Aceh, in particular the capital Banda Aceh, is hit hardest. According to Annemarie Samuels, carrying out anthropological research in the affected area a few years after the disaster, many people had to start again from scratch.

A house on which a boat came to rest as a result of the tsunami is now a monument

A house on which a boat came to rest as a result of the tsunami is now a monument

Act of God

Building houses and ensuring that the economy can grow again are of course top priorities after this kind of disaster, but Samuels describes in her thesis how religion also plays an incredibly important role in the rebuilding process of Aceh. For instance, a large proportion of the primarily Muslim population sees the disaster as an act of God. Samuels: ‘This may seem shocking, but the people there see it as a sign of God’s love. It meant for instance that the thirty-year independence conflict between Aceh separatists and the Indonesian army finally came to an end, and Aceh was given the chance to have a better society, both in religious and in socio-economic terms.’

Hope for the future

The thought that this was God’s will, and that the victims are now in His care, also offered consolation. Samuels: ‘The Aceh people still come together to pray and to deal with their memories and pain in other traditional Muslim ways, for instance by offering alms to orphans. It helps the people to feel better.’ Because of the disaster, aid organisations became involved, which also led to more interaction between Aceh and the international community, which was not possible during the armed conflict. ‘Altogether this has given the population hope for the future.’

Human resilience

For her research, between 2007 and 2012, Samuels resided for a total of twelve months in Aceh. She interviewed people about the disaster, but also tried to participate in everyday life with a clear, observant perspective. She was struck by how resilient people actually are. ‘The personal dramas still play an important role, but it is amazing to see how quickly everyone just picks up everyday life once again.’

Focus on the individual

In her dissertation, Samuels calls for more attention within the field of disaster anthropology for the relation between large social processes (such as a natural disaster) and individuals. ‘Many anthropological studies focus on the larger social structures, but I think it is also important to see how people navigate a changing context from their own social background and creativity. Religion is an example of this. It was always there, and that is why it plays such an important role in the rebuilding process.’

Annemarie Samuels: After the tsunami: the remaking of everyday life in Banda Aceh, Indonesia.
Thesis supervisor: Prof. Patricia Spyer
Faculty: Social and Behavioural Sciences
Date: Thursday 29 November 2012 

Time: 13:45 

Location: Academy Building, Rapenburg 73, Leiden

See also

The Asian Challenge is one of the profile themes of research at Leiden University.

Studying in Leiden

Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology

Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology


Last Modified: 29-11-2012