That night, I must have woken up at least half a dozen times. A broken sleep and a 5:00 am wake-up are not the best combination – it was going to be a long day. When I wake up, I begin typing up my experiences (using FocusWriter, love it!) in my shoddy mosquito net, trying to be quiet so that my room-mate could still sleep. The problem (a very first world problem, I will give you that) is that I have gotten used to the program’s typing sounds (the clickety clack of a typewriter). So, I do something that I recognize is pretty bizarre. I put on my headphones just to hear typing sounds. It seemed totally logical at that time of the morning. I am so lost in my typing and my clickety clacks that I don’t notice that it is suddenly a quarter to eight. I am expected at the office at eight. A quick couple of buckets of water over my head (a MJM hotel “shower”) and I am ready to head off. We walk half a kilometer past donkeys and trishaws and people setting up their market stalls on the way to the office.
Those of you who know me will know that I am an insatiable stationary nerd. Luckily, exercising my stationary fetish in Sri Lanka is ridiculously cheap. Literally the best pens I have ever written with, “Tik” pens, cost less than 10 cents! I bought half a dozen and an “Elements” notebook (again, awesome stationary for ridiculously cheap) in preparation for the day’s interviews. I also bought a ream of white paper and 30 colorful textas to give to the preschool children in Nedunkandal, the village where the rice mill in being built.
I get to the office just in time, wolf down some white bread pressed with a deliciously spicy coconut sambal, shot a sugary milk tea and off we go.
When we get to Nedunkandal, just a few minutes after nine, the women are all at the church. I set up my camera with my 70-200mm lens and my Chinese microphone that I got for cheap in a market in Colombo because (I hope it works ok! It sounded fine in my sound-tests!) and get questioning.
The first six interviews (each about 6-10 minutes) take place at the church.
The first interviewee, Lima (actually, her full name is Jabuvan Anthany Limavathani) answers my questions (Please introduce yourself. How long has your family been in Nedunkandal? When were you displaced? When did you come back? What did you do in between? What do you do? How does your family make a living? How do you think a rice-mill will change this village?) with confidence and poise. My questions are translated into Tamil by my roommate, but her answers are left a mystery to me, until someone at home (Poorvaja? UTS Tamil Society?) can translate. All I can understand is the tone, and it alternates between sadness in reminiscing and hope for the future. The words are foreign to me, but their meaning is plain.
The second interviewee, Edward, the president of the local agricultural society seems to answer questions of his own invention (or my translator has gone off on a tangent of his own). I pick up words like “loan” and “insurance” and I gather he is talking about the difficulty in repaying loans because of the recent floods, and how their insurance lapsed just before the floods began.
The next four interviewees (Laysa, Mary-Gloria, Lucie and Efindrani) tell me their stories. Having heard the questions and answers of the earlier interviews, they don’t need any prompting, any questioning. They just jump right in. The only thing left for me to do is to try and place the mic out of the frame (although it had a tendency to creep back in when their answers became passionate) and to press play. I am excited to get the translations.
Then, I interviewed Sister Sebamalar, who is a member of a convent behind the church. Their convent was destroyed in the war, their current abode, like many of the villagers, is a couple of corrugated iron sheets and wood supports. But this temporary shelter was especially spotless. Sister Sebamalar spoke almost flawless English (I wish I had met her earlier, I would have had her translate for me!) and she recounted her own Nedunkandal story.
When the war was nearing its end and the Mannar area was secured by the army (the civilians were forced to withdraw from the battle’s front lines by shelling and by fighters) she was forced to leave the city. She headed North and East, with her congregation, to the Vanni, in her habit. She wanted to help her congregation, who had become like a family, but her church recalled her (understandably) to Colombo, within weeks of her displacement. She was allowed to cross the front-lines. Her permission, however, was granted only because of her status as a clergywoman. Her congregation was forced to stay behind. When she returned in late 2009 to Nedunkandal, she saw some familiar faces, but many were missing: dead, imprisoned or missing.
She recounted this story to me with a smile on her face, which I struggled to understand. The smile must have come from her faith, which remained steadfast through her trials.
When I left her home, as I was putting my sandals back on, she said “god bless”.
The next five interviews took place in people’s homes: Lourtama and her husband Joseph (who ended up doing most of the talking), Efindrani, again, who spoke so quietly, and Antony Bauthanal.
The last person who I interviewed was Lima’s mother, her Amma. I didn’t ask her any questions. She just sat down by her home, offered me a glass of water and some sour-beans that were absolutely delicious and told me she was ready.
I said “tell me your story”. My translator said “என்னை உங்கள் கதையை சொல்லுங்க”.
Amma held the microphone in her hand. She sat up straight, poised. She started telling her story.
I was looking through the viewfinder of the camera, trying to hold her in frame correctly. She was looking through the lens at me. She talked. She started relaxed, somewhat formal. I heard “En Pehr” – which I had learned means “I am” or “my name is”. She was introducing herself and her family.
Then, continuing her story, you could see her eyes begin to glisten in the mottled sunlight that fell past her sour-bean tree, you could hear her voice begin to break a little. Looking through my viewfinder, I felt that I was being let in to a very private, very emotional story. I looked away from the viewfinder and into her eyes. She continued speaking. She continued to recount the story of her family’s trials.
Then, her voice changed, and she seemed to as well. In the same pattern I had seen throughout the village, sadness turned to hope. Here, however it was much more pronounced. As she told me her hopes, and about how proud she was of her daughter (Lima, Secretary of the WRDS), you could see a smile curling her lip, and the glistening in her eyes turned to a glint in her eyes, she knew that her children and grandchildren would be living in a easier and more peaceful world.
After the interviews, we walked back to the truck, and I hopped into the back seat. On the way to the next project, we saw Lima’s Akka, the preschool teacher, and a little thumbpi (little brother) riding on the back of her scooter. Thumbpi passed us a parcel, a series of 10 Christmas cards the children in his class had drawn for “the Australians”. The cutest thing I have ever seen!
Palmera’s other Mannar projects
The truck headed to see Palmera’s bore wells, in a nearby village. What I said before about the roads improving since last time I came, it totally doesn’t yet apply to the villages past Nedunkandal. Broken roads whose asphalt was stolen in the war (yes, people had stolen asphalt). The first bore well I saw was the most complete – tube popping out of the ground, that I was told goes more than 100 meters underground to get water clean enough to drink. All that was needed for it to be done was to attach a hand-pump, it was almost done!
The other three hand-pumps were just posts in the ground where local surveyors and geologists said it was appropriate to drill a well. They hadn’t yet been completed because the bridge over the irrigation system to get to the well wasn’t strong enough to hold the drilling machine. The villagers have worked to strengthen the bridge using stone and gravel, and the well should be ready for use within the month.
On the way to the next project, a series of toilets for displaced persons in the next village, we stopped at a local blacksmith. He recycled the springs from trucks and turned them into knives. Hand operated bellows fueled the flame, and he hammered away, making exquisite knifes and carving the handles himself. He sells each one for eight dollars. I was going to buy one, but I thought it would look weird for me to be walking around with a machete in my belt. However, he could only make one blade a day. In the last few months of the war, a shell had exploded by his shelter, and a large piece of shrapnel had embedded itself in his back. Two months of hospital, and he was alive, but if he worked on more than one knife a day, it would hurt too much. He was training his son to take his place as the local blacksmith.
Finally, we got to the village where our toilets were being built. The septic tank was in, the toilet structure was built, the roof and cover for the tank were being cast in holes in the ground. I met the beneficiary: a local girl who took care of her sister’s children. Their father passed in the war, her sister’s husband was missing. Just a girl and her nephew, living in a hut. At least now they would have access to basic sanitation.
On the way back to the office, we stopped off at the magnificent local temple, where we ate wood-apples and looked at peacocks by the lagoon. A beautiful place.
When we got back, I was exhausted. I checked out of the MJM quickly, paying way too much for the room I had gotten, and checked into the AHASH hotel, by the UNHCR field office in town. This place, still being built, was beautiful. Air-con. A proper shower (no hot water, but a proper shower nonetheless). A proper bed. Even a small TV (although I couldn’t understand anything). It was 6pm. I went to sleep without dinner, too tired. I woke up the next day at 8am. I needed the rest.
For more photos, check out that day’s photo stream.