I am currently exhibiting in the UTS Tower gallery, with BUiLD, and I have a spread in the latest issue of Vertigo (see pages 22-23). These are all photos from my trips to India and Sri Lanka. If you can, check it out, some of the prints in the UTS exhibition are massive (A0 size), so you can really experience them! Let me know what you think.
Archives For Sri Lanka
I spent the month of January this year in India, hopping around trying to learn as much as I can.
I spent a bit of time in Chennai with OfERR, one of Palmera Projects’ partner in Sri Lanka, to visit their head office and view some of their projects. I jumped over to Bangalore to visit my lovely friend Douglas and tail him to a few lectures in the National Law School in Bangalore (the “NLS”). Whilst there, I learned from Douglas a little bit about the fascinating world of Indian Constitutional Law, and I had the opportunity to interview a lovely professor about the impacts of the Indian Micro finance Bill, which I will be publishing on this site very soon. After that, it was off to New Dehli, where I met up with the people from Eko/- phone banking. I saw some of their projects and interviewed some of their people: I will be publishing a full write-up about their system as soon as I can.
Finally, I head to Hyderabad with some people from my university to participate in the UTS-ISB (University of Technology, Sydney and Indian School of Business) study tour. We had professors from throughout the uni deliver us hand-picked lectures, we went to whatever classes we thought sounded cool and we had visits at some of the premier businesses in India. This isn’t at all to mention the awesome people we met – our roommates, our classmates – and the awesome stuff we did outside of class – partying mainly. We headed to Goa to check out a new social venture called “Culture Aangan” – it was an amazing trip.
I am going to write-up a few articles about some of the most significant stuff I learned on my trip, but until then, here’s a little teaser: my India trip in photos.
I woke up early, keen and ready to go. Time for us to survey the progress on the Mannar projects!
The Rice Mill
Our first stop is Nedunkandal, to check up on the building of the rice mill. Sadly, there poured a torrential rain last night, so the site was extremely muddy. Trying to walk down to the surveying marks put in yesterday, I got stuck in mud that tried to eat my shoes. The mud was gloopy, so any attempts at trying to dig a foundation today would be meaningless, since the gloopy mud would drip to right back where it had been dug. The builders say that they need 3 days of sun after a day like this, before the ground is hard enough to build foundations. Hopefully it won’t interfere with the schedule.
After checking out the rice mill, I went to wish holiday best-wishes to the villagers who I knew, carrying a big box of Kit-Kats as Chanukka treats to give the children. I didn’t have the Chanukiya, the 9 stemmed candelabra used in Chanukka, but I did have some candles so I drew a Chanukiya in the sand, and placed the candles in the appropriate places. Singing Maoz Tzur in front of everyone was a little bit embarrassing, but I had seen so much of their culture so intimately, I shouldn’t be embarrassed about showing them mine. I was surprised, though, at the end of my prayer, the villagers echoed my prayer with an “Amen.”
The Toilet Construction Project
After visiting the rice mill, we hop over to see the toilet construction projects, which have advanced swimmingly since last time I visited. Where before, the toilets were in pieces, the walls erected, but the roof, plumbing and septic tank lid were being cast, in the sand. Now, the toilets were complete, the roofs where they should be (the cement slabs somehow hauled up by labourers) and even the painting was complete. This one was done!
We visited the beneficiary family, a woman headed household with 2 children. We sat in her house, some rain trickling through the palmyra roof, and whilst the kids played with the dogs we had some tea. Water boiled over an open flame, tea leaves, a generous pinch, from a jar and powdered milk and plenty of sugar.
Whilst we talked with the mother, and her children, we could see how excited they were to have their toilet completed, but, sitting in the temporary shelter where they are living, now for more than two years, we could also see how much work there was still to be done in the area.
The Bore Well Construction Project
We head to the next village, to check the progress of the bore wells we are constructing. The children of the village, hearing the sound of the trishaw approaching (a two-stroke “tuktuk” that is unmistakable) rush out of the home to greet us. It being Chanukkah, I am prepared, and I throw each one of them a chokky! Some of them rip the packets open and devour it right away, others sneakily save it for later. The bore well has been paved, and the fittings fitted, the children now have access to clean water!
Project update for Palmera Projects/OfERR (Ceylon) Manthai West district projects
Palmera Projects is working with OfERR (Ceylon), currently, on four livelihood projects for affected persons from the Sri Lankan Civil War: a rice mill; the construction of four deep bore wells; the construction of toilets; and, the provision of solar lanterns to facilitate study for children in temporary housing (to be discussed later)
The Nedunkandal Rice Mill
The rice-mill in Nedunkandal, (Manthai West District; Northern Province; Sri Lanka) will be run as a social business. Its impacts are as follows
- Primary effects:
- Reduction of the price of milling rice for local villagers (from extortionate above-market rates of approximately 6 SLR/kg charged by the neighboring villages monopoly, to approximately 2-3 SLR/kg
- Reduction in time taken to mill rice: instead of having to carry heavy rice (either on their backs or on a bicycle) for half a day to the next village, they will be able to mill within their village
- Increase in price for rice sold by the villagers: by being able to store their paddy, they can sell it in the off season (not at harvest time) to command a better price); by milling the rice, they are able to charge much more as well (selling the rice as a finished product rather than selling paddy)
- Employment for approximately 28 members of the Nedunkandal WRDS (Woman’s Rural Development Society)
- Secondary effects, the profits from the mill will be reinvested into the economy in one of two methods:
- The profits may be used to improve the mill, as had been done in the Trinco mill, to increase the profit potential of the facility (e.g. buying a chili grinder, a flour grinder, packaging facilities, etc.)
- The profits may be used to fund micro-finance loans to the women of the WRDS in order to facilitate income-generating activities (e.g. buying rice seeds, cloth for sewing, etc.)
The village where the rice mill is being built is called Nedunkandal, approximately 45 minutes west of Mannar by van.
At the end of the war, the area was a major battleground between the LTTE and the SLA (because of its proximity to the A32 highway), and the area and its infrastructure was severely damaged. As a result of this fighting, all of the villagers from the area were displaced to the Vanni, with most of their houses, cattle and other belongings destroyed in the war.
The villagers resettled at Nedunkandal in late 2009 only to find their livelihood and their wealth in tatters: little access to clean water, their cattle now a pile of bones, most homes destroyed.
This project seeks to build a rice mill to increase the livelihoods of the women in the village and the paddy farmers in the area.
I captured as many stories as I could on video (to be translated). Written summations are available on my blog in this article: Mannar, day 2: interviews in the field and Palmera’s other Mannar projects.
Last year, there seems to have been some issues with regards to the permits required to work on the land granted. These issues seem to have revolved around that the land used to be government land. However, my understanding of the conversation I had with Ms Sivalingam, the general council of the Mannar field office, was that these issues had resolved themselves by late November, early December 2011.
The Manthai West toilet construction project
During the Sri Lankan Civil War much of the infrastructure in the Manthai West region was destroyed. This project hopes help rebuild some of these communities by building toilet facilities – facilitating hygene and dignity for the villagers.
The villages where the toilets are being constructed are in the Pallai Kulli GN division (about 15 minutes from Nedunkandal); the toilets are mainly being constructed in and around village called Ithikandal.
This village is in very bad condition, with temporary housing being the norm, and most houses lacking any bathing/showing/clean water facilities.
One beneficiary I met, a 20 something year old mother who’s husband was still incarcerated in Colombo, was taking care of her family and her sister’s family, since her sister and her sister’s husband did not survive the conflict. This extended family is one of the beneficiaries of one of our toilet projects.
Many of the toilets have finished being built. The rest are to be completed within the next five days or so (i.e. by the 3rd of January 2012).
Manthai West bore well construction project
In the Sri Lankan Civil war, much of the infrastructure in the region was destroyed, including (importantly) wells deep enough to give access to clean drinking water. This project hopes to reconstruct these facilities to improve the health of villagers in the area.
The villages where the four wells are to be constructed are: Kannady, Parapukadanthan and Udaligadi in the Kurriville GN division in Manthai West.
The beneficiaries live in large, extended families. Many of the families are women headed.
Most bore wells are completed, some need hand pumps to be placed on top of the dug bore well.
If you have some time, check out these blog posts by my awesome mate Jeremy at Diaspora Lanka, also on development in the Mannar district:
- Mannarin Marumalarchi 2022 – let’s get the Mannar show on the road! (diasporalanka.wordpress.com)
- Donkey Count (diasporalanka.wordpress.com)
I know you are probably sick to death of me ranting about bus rides — but this one was special. The A32 from Jaffna to Mannar. What a road. 140 kilometres took the bus more than 6 hours. A causeway over the Jaffna lagoon where the water was mere inches from the road. Half the road was actually underwater, so much so that I had to take my bag off the floor because the bus was flooding. And, again, no seat. I was lucky though, the bus driver took a liking to me and cleared the place above the gear-box for me to sit cross-legged on. Yippee!
A couple of hours of deal legs and bruised everything later, and after we had to jump out of the bus so it could ford an especially treacherous looking river (where soldiers waded into the water to bodily mark the edge of the “road”).
But when I got to Mannar, there was a surprise waiting for me that made the schleppe of a journey worth it — the Rice Mill had started construction!
Straight away, I was off, in a trishaw, to the field – to Nedunkandal Village. When I arrived, I was greeted by the local OfERR staff, and by a surveyor, who was working with the RDS (that supplied the volunteers which helped out that day) members to mark the edges of where the foundation was to be poured.
Countless measurements. Constant adjustment. Staking the ground and connecting the dots with green strings, precisely the border of our rice-mill to be. Construction Day 1!
The rain did stop the foundation from actually being dug, but that didn’t dampen (excuse the pun) my joy at the rice mill being built! From here, it is (weather permitting) easy street!
After checking out the building progress and working with my old mates from the RDS on marking the outlines, we were back off to Mannar town, to rest up for the busy day ahead — the progress update on our Mannar Region projects!
On last night’s bus ride from Jaffna, I met a very interesting person, who sat next to me, and without asking, paid for my fare. He was a young hardware salesperson and engineer who was just married in Vavuniya. His English was superb, and he was really kind.
Sadly, in the war, his brother went missing. He paid an extortionate amount to the LTTE to smuggle him out on a boat, headed for Australia. The conditions on the boat were horrid, cramped hungry and sickening. His boat was picked up off the coast of Indonesia by the Indonesian Navy. Before his, or any of the other people on the boat, could have their refugee status application analysed (in Australia, seemingly at the discretion of the minister), since they were in international waters, they were “escorted” back to Sri Lanka.
Back to the war zone where his brother had disappeared.
Back to the country tens of thousands of civilians were to die in the closing months of the war.
He is lucky to have survived. I am lucky that he treated me so nicely as a stranger in his country, considering the pains and consequences he went through to try to visit my country.
Arriving at Jaffna, I was in awe at the development that had occurred since last time I was here. The famous Jaffna teaching hospital was being refurbished, Nallur Kovil had a new pyramid entrance built and shopping centres more than 4 stories high seemed to be popping up everywhere. The Jaffna charm was still there, though, with the plethora of ’50’s cars still lining the roads.
I checked into a spartan, but cheap, serviceable and friendly “Jaffna Lodge” (about 9 AUD a night, a great bathroom/shower, a bed that was literally made from corrugated cardboard, but was surprisingly comfortable, and lovely staff) and was off to sleep .
The next morning, after the requisite hour of phone conversation with some idiot Southern USA girl about trying to cancel my master-card (when I told her I was in Sri Lanka, she seemed to forget that I knew English, and began speaking slowly and loudly), I was off to enjoy my favourite places in Jaffna on my day off.
A stroll (a bit longer than usual, getting lost a few times on the way) and I was at the most grand temple in Jaffna, the Nallur Kovil, dedicated (I think, though I may be wrong) to the 5 faced god Murugan – patron god of the Tamil people.
The new pyramid which had only been scaffolding last time I came was now complete, standing tall (100 ft!) and golden above the red and white candy-striped walls of the temple. Walking into the sandy courtyard outside the temple, I take of my shoes and set them aside. I smash a coconut (as do the others) as an offering on a darkened stone in front of the temple entrance and i take my last photo — inside the temple, photos aren’t allowed.
As I walk into the temple, like all the other men, I take my shirt off. I hear the Vedic chants of the Brahmin (the priestly caste) Ayer’s (priests) coming from the altar of the temple, the bells ringing, the horn blowing. Walking around the temple, I look at the murals: epic depictions of the feats of Murugan and the other gods. The roof is lined with tiny curtains that bellow with the wind and make it seem like the building is alive, and, indeed, breathing.
I walk through the temple, stopping in front of each god’s shrine, walking around the shrines with the other visitors to the temple. I tie a nominal coin donation to the tree in the courtyard, already mummified with colourful donations.
The ceremonial pond, surrounded by staircases going down to the water, is now full, bloated in the wet-season. When I came here in July, I could see right down the depths of this well, now, the water came up to greet me.
I make my way back to the central altar, because I hear a Puja starting. Bells. Horns. Tambourines. Chanting. Offerings from the masses placed in front of the gods via the Brahmins of the temple. The Brahmins were dressed in white fringed sarongs, with their ceremonial 4 stranded string lying casually over their shoulder and beaded prayer necklaces hanging off their necks. Each one had long hair (of varying degrees of whiteness), an intense look in their eyes and purposefulness and efficiency in their movements. A complex three shade Pottu adorned their forehead.
After the first round of prayer, the devotees offer slips paper (marked 100 – they probably cost a dollar each) to a Brahmin, who utters a prayer in each of their names and places the offerings in front of a shrine to the right of the main altar. I stay back, not wanting to offend anyone with my ignorance.
A younger Brahmin calls me forward sees my confusion and says “name”.
I reply “Yohanan” — what the locals call me and what I think is easiest for them to say.
The Ayer responds with “Yohanan” followed by some chanting: brief, but purposeful chanting.
He offers me the plate of ash. Again, seeing my confusion, he dips his finger in the turmeric paste (or Saffron? The yellow coloured paste) and marks my head with a Pottu. He then pinches some ash between his fingers and puts a line above the Pottu he had drawn.
I pace my hands in front of my (like the other devotees) and step away, but he calls me forward again. He takes the candelabra that he had next to him, calls together the other Ayers and parades around one of the idols. After, he brings the candelabra to me, and takes my hands in his, putting them over the fire to feel the warmth. The other devotees rush forth to put their hands, too, over the fire.
I say “Rommah Naandri” (many thanks) and I step back, my hands again clasped in front of me.
I take a seat and listen the rest of the chants and songs, and lose track of time sitting in the sand in the temple that was breathing around me.
As much as the temple is a ritual, so is the post-temple requirement for all adults to take their children to the famous Rio Ice-Cream Parlour. A happy, busy place surrounded by empty pretenders. A decent ice-cream too! Not really that delicious, but the atmosphere and presentation is remarkable!
After my quick ice-cream and a stroll through the markets, I head back to the “hotel” to read about what had just happened in Nallur Kovil, and found myself on a multi-hour Hindu Mythology Binge. After hearing these amazing stories, I totally wanted to read some of the primary sources, especially the Ramayana, who’s story seemed fascinating. Then, I read that these epic stories are literally 10-20 volumes long. Maybe I should save it for an especially cold winter’s day then.
In the evening, I, again go for a walk, this time on the seedy side of Jaffna on the way to the lagoon. Where the main street is filled with bright lights, flashy old cars in ridiculous colours and scaffolding towering high into the night, the side streets still bear the scars of war. Half-buildings that are now squats. Roofless buildings turned into concrete lace by gunfire and shelling. Children playing on the sides of the street. Teens and older men sitting drunk on sandbanks on the side of the road.
I make it to the beach, but where I was expecting a promenade, there was a navy base, with a 18 year old Sinhala speaking soldier telling me to turn off my flashlight and head back. Hearing the target practice in the base behind me, and seeing the darkness around me, I became (I confess) a tad nervous. I headed back in the direction that I came and became horribly lost. I look to my iPhone’s GPS for guidance – No Service (thanks Etisalat!).
Thankfully, the drunks in Jaffna are ridiculously friendly and have great senses of direction. After chatting with a cycle-gang of older teens with their bottles of Arak and Lion Lager at their side — the alcohol on their breath stinging my nostrils as I tried to keep a friendly face — one of them told me to hop on the back of his bicycle.
Not wanting to get on the wrong side of a gang of twenty somethings (even ones on bicycles that were friendly and spoke good English) I jumped on to the handlebars of the bike, and in a few minutes I was home at the hotel – with a new Facebook friend to boot!
This time, when I visited Jaffna, I didn’t get to see my awesome friend Paran, or visit Jana or Karthi’s families, but I will be there again in a few days, and I hope to meet up with them soon!
I wake up (as is becoming way too common) before the sun rises, before the chickens caw and before the multi-denominational morning prayers fill the air. I realise I have no cash to pay the hotel for my night’s stay. I check my wallet. Deep Breath. I check again. Deep Breath. No Visa Card. Oh Crap!
I have a meeting at 8:30 with the Colonel. Big army man, totally bald, punctual, I imagine.
I literally jog to the last place I used it (thanks Commonwealth Netbank) – an ATM. But the shop is closed. Oy vey! I know this will be an hour on the phone … lucky I have my spare green-card (key-card? its the maestro one – but no online purchases for me).
The Colonel [redux]
I get back to the hotel and jump into a trishaw. It starts monsooning. The trishaw struggles up hills and slips and slides like a mad japanese drifter. Twice I have to get out in the rain and help the driver shove it back on to the road.
We make it to the base just in time – I jog to the front, up a hill that the little tuktuk that could just couldn’t – and I hear from a soldier at the front:
“The Colonel is being expecting you” – this would have been a little more creepy but for the fragmented English and that the Colonel had made plans with me to show me his “like a baby” notebook factory.
Apparently, even though he was waiting for me, he wasn’t in too much of a hurry – as usual, I was left to stew in his office, staring at all the intelligence on the wall (was it really smart to put a civilian in a room with Army strength maps, Officer names and ranks plastered on the wall and all the rest?) left to browse the wall before he rocked up.
I heard a motorcycle stop outside the door with a choke and a metallic gargle. I heard the stomp of boots outside, and I knew it must be my old friend the leftennant saluting with all his might at the Colonel. I stood up and faced the door as he strolled in with a smile.
He downed a cup of tea (sugar-milk-sugar-with-a-spot-of-tea — the Sri Lankan staple) and offered me an Elephant House Ginger Beer (an “Eegeebee”), which I totally accepted (one of the best ginger beers ever). Literally a minute after he arrived, and after he had somehow handled 5 phone calls on his two mobiles and his semi-mobile sat-phone, he said:
“Ok. Now we go.”
Immediately, a van screeched to a halt outside, its doors rolling open. Before I could blink in surprise, the Colonel was already sitting in the van, chatting on his sat-phone, ushering me in.
A 10-15 minute drive later, we arrived at a small cluster of buildings on the outskirts of Malayalapuram, the village that we were looking to work with. There, the Army was looking to set up a sort of micro-industry centre for the town. Already up and running, as of the day before, was the notebook factory, proudly producing Malayalapuram branded notebooks, with an interfaith (apparently) hero on the front (a sort of Sri Lankan Shakespeare, I guess). Still to come was a thong shop (the shoes) and manufacturing facility, and, perhaps, more.
The notebook factory was temporarily housed in a preschool, which the army leased from the community when it wasn’t filled with bubbies. Their permanent building was built, it just required a roof (which the Colonel was looking to external donors to pay for, anyone interested?).
Walking in, it seemed like an odd scene, reminiscent of the old East German propaganda murals. The women of the village, literally working right alongside the soldiers, kids in their arms. The women were sewing together spines and gluing on covers, the army men were using their strength to pull shut the manual cutting mechanism. It was an absurd scene, but I guess, also hopeful: god knows Sri Lanka could use a little trust between the Tamil community and the SLA.
After a brief hard-sell (do you have money for the roof? no. But I will ask people, I promise) we were back off to Kilinochchi town. On the way, the Colonel and Father Praba chatted on the phone, and I was dropped off at Father Praba’s church/orphanage/asylum/home.
Father Praba – a man with seemingly infinite energy and heart
Father Praba opened the gate in a loose-fitting purple polo-shirt, slacks, and leather sandals. He was young, like he could have just finished university. To be honest, I didn’t actually think that it was him.
Embarrassingly, after he showed me a room (where I totally should have stayed, it was beautiful! – next time) I asked him when Father Praba was coming. He laughed and told me in a minute, then walked out of the room, and back in, and introduced himself. Thank god he had a sense of humour.
After our official meeting, we walked around the grounds, and he showed me what he did in town.
I saw the girls’ home he took charge of, for the many orphan girls of Kilinochchi.
I saw the massive kitchen on the compound for the poor.
I saw the Creche and Preschool.
I saw the facilities for the handicapped (who lived, ate and worked here).
I saw the farm where he grew everything the people on the compound (including his family) at (chickens too!).
I saw the first vineyard in all of Kilinochchi springing up from his yard.
I saw the only normal-looking cow in Sri Lanka (apparently donated by the dutch) which he milked for the children of the orphanage.
This was some of what he did in town.
His wonderful wife treated us to a delicious meal – white rice, fish curry and a freshly fried egg which we topped off with a mango from the trees outside. The place seemed a utopia, at least in the spiritual sense.
After lunch, waiting for the other members of BOLO (Brightness of Life Organisation) to arrive, we hung out in the church, which had distinctly Tamil architecture – no walls, a central shrine, it seemed identical to the hindu temples down the road. Whilst the kids played on the iPhone (AAAH Pah! a perennial favourite) Praba and I sat on the floor and leaned back on the pillars.
A parishioner came up to father and explained her hard times. A widow with children to feed. Praba, he told me later, being strapped for cash as well, gave her what he could (I think 300 rupees) in an envelope. He also pledged to loan her 3000 rupees if she were to start her own business – a food stall by the bus stand, perhaps? Praba told me that he was a little depressed in how seldom he could give these loans – some of the women just didn’t have a drive, he said.
The BOLO village
After the head of BOLO came back from work (he casts and paints cement planters, which he sells at a profit for less than five dollars each: paint is an extra dollar), we were off. Praba magically appeared in his Priestly Garb, and we sardined into a trishaw and were off.
The first stop was the village BOLO was working with (I couldn’t quite pick up the name: in Sri Lanka, if you ask someone to repeat something, they repeat it louder and faster – not the best for jotting names and notes). They had worked there for months, and Palmera’s nascent project with them (a series for the population educating them on proper poultry raising techniques) was to take place there. Our project would supplement a earlier project – the retrofitting of a preschool with solar lighting facilities to allow for evening tutelage for students from the region.
We met some families, all of them displaced, all of them recently resettled, some of them startlingly poor. The richer ones had chickens, the poorer ones survived on dry-food rations given out by the NGO’s and the “food stamps” given by the government. Hopefully, our poultry program will allow the town at least an additional source of protein (eggs, meat), and, perhaps even a source of income.
On the way back to the church, we saw that the evening school was filling up with children waiting in line to do homework alongside a tutor. I took photos of as many beneficiary children as I could – one of them, a darker girl, had haunting, sky blue eyes. Seeing these children so eager to learn showed me that Praba and BOLO had chosen a great tutor, and his successes in his “campus” showed me that he would be a great partner to work with.
The old Home for Boys
On the way back, Praba took me to Boys Home where he grew up, a massive complex of 6 or 7 buildings that everyone in town either went to, or knows of. Its previous magnificence is now reduced to a magnificence in memory, trees growing through the wreckage like a modern Angkor-Wat. The Chapel’s roof is gone, the hand-lettered motto underneath the crucifix “Ready to Serve” is pierced by shrapnel.
Oddly, the Mango and Coconut trees appeared untouched, Praba told me they were exactly as he remembers them.
“Living in this place was the time of my life” he said, slowly looking around the place he had called home for more than a decade. “There was never enough food, but when the teachers went to sleep, we jumped out of the window, crawled on the window ledge to reach the Mango tree, and we all feasted. The A level students would climb up the trees and cut coconuts down for all of us. We stayed away from the berries, they stained your hands and the teachers would always know.
“Every day we had to go to Chapel. At that time, I was still Hindu, but I didn’t mind.”
He leads me toward the dorm room where he spent his last few years doing his O levels and A levels. The wall were gone and half of the columns were bent in two. The stairs were broken in half. The top floor bent downwards like the building itself was in mourning. We scamper up the stairs, having to skip a few where they were missing.
Pointing to an alcove at the top of the stairs, he said “this is where I studied every night for my A levels, where no-one would disturb me”, pointing to the now missing left side of the building, he said, “this is where I slept”. Piercing the dorm with unnatural light, bullet-holes were scattered everywhere.
“Three times this school, this home was destroyed by air strikes” he told me, his voice breaking.
We venture back downstairs (carefully, as the stairs were creaking) and head to the main classroom. A family now squatted there, a disabled mother and her two children – the husband nowhere to be seen.
I spend the morning with LEADS looking at Diaspora Lanka and LEADS’ cooperative project, which looks very interesting. I went to visit the three villages (a christian, a hindu and a newly resettled muslim village) in the Manthai West District. These villages were on a longtime LTTE/SLA front-line, and were subject to much gunfire, aerial bombing and shelling: the towns were almost wholly destroyed.
The first village I visited was Pappamothai (excuse the spelling), a catholic fisherman’s village off the A32 (the Jaffna-Mannar road). It was resettled 2 and a bit years back, and was beginning to get back on its feet. We first went to the town centre, where there was a meeting with an Indian government representative about the construction of permanent housing.
On the way, I met a lovely Ms A Dahrmaseelee (again, excuse the spelling). She was a teacher specialising in remedial education, and had about 5 years under her belt before she was moved away from her home in late 2008. She left mannar, and headed north and east, fleeing the front-lines. When she was in the first “No fire zone,” like many others, she was injured by shelling, losing her arm at the shoulder. Three years on, she is just about to get a prosthetic, and just about to undergo rehabilitation. Until now, she hasn’t had the opportunity to work as a teacher, since no-one would hire her. It is a huge shame, since she is qualified, educated, experienced and specialised.
After meeting Ms D, we went to the ocean to visit the fishermen. All under licence from the government, they went out at night with their lanterns and cast their nets (fish nets, special conic nets for shrimp, traps for crabs) and, when dawn breaks, they go out to collect them. They sell the (delicious looking) blue crab, mud crab, shrimp and other valuables to a wholesaler, who carts them off to Colombo in an ice-truck to be exported. The rest is left to be sold in Mannar, or dried and sold inland. These fishermen sell their crab for close to nothing, to a wholesaler who sells it to an exporter, who sells it to an importer, to a processor, to a final consumer at a totally unrelated price. The well-being of these fishermen could be radically improved by organising them into cooperatives and having them cut out some of the middle men.
Next, we were off to Ter Udian, a hindu village that focussed on paddy cultivation. I met an inspiring gentleman who had sold all of his excess land to buy a tractor, which he now leases to other farmers for a massive profit. It is still on mortgage, but his entrepreneurism literally put a roof (one of the only roofs in the village) over hi families head.
The last village we visited was Kandal. This village was recently resettled and very very basic. All the housing was temporary, much of it mud-brick.
Our hope is to unite these three villages with a “road of reconciliation” that they might work together to wrench themselves out of poverty.
In the afternoon, it was a quick hop (like 5/6 hours) to Kilinochchi, and a night of rest at the familiar and homely Sela Hotel.
*Photos to come*
I am not sure what exactly the doctor gave me, but it is magic. I ate breakfast! I got out of bed without the world pirouetting around me! I feel like a new man!
And, just in time, it is eight in the morning and the people from LEADS are rapping on my door, together with the night-steward of the guesthouse. I open the door, still a bit weary eyed and they burst in behind me, enthusiastically. Breakfast was served (toast, toasted over a naked fire, and sugar tea – breakfast of champions) and eaten in a hurry. 7 tablets swished down with tea and I was ready to go.
Our first stop was to the Army base. Apparently we were meant to stop here the day before, but we had gotten away with it. I had thought that we didn’t need Ministry of Defence (“Emmohdee”) clearance to get anywhere, but apparently we have to let the army know when we got to Malayalapuram.
We head to the Army camp down a horrid road, thankfully, in our four-wheel-drive super-truck/ute thing. We are greeted at the door by a stern looking soldier, who calls over a stern looking leftenant, who offers us a seat and lets us stew for a little. To cool the mood, I ask the leftenant about himself, a thirty year old man from Kandy with two children, who had served in the army for thirteen years – since he was seventeen. I saw the recruits do a morning march, and may have been told off a little for taking photos of their marching (but without heart – they liked me already).
Then the leftenant looked at me sternly, as if to say I told you so, and told us to come with him into the base.
A slightly menacing glint in his eyes – “The Colonel would like to see you.”
We walk past the marching, assembled recruits, past a mess hall, a kitchen and some barracks and get to an office in a stand alone building, a Brigade Standard fluttering in front of the door. Before I had a chance to peek in, the leftenant steps past the doorframe.
A transformation, in a blink: his feet stamp violently, he slaps his hand to his cap in a stiff salute, his back jerks so straight that it looks like it is about to snap. He freezes for a second.
I wonder what I am meant to do. Before I can think it through, I kind of awkwardly hobble through the door, and nod my head, accidentally gangster-like. The Colonel ignores the leftenant, and giggles at my attempt at measured politeness. The rest of the party walks in to the room (the LEADS administrative officer and the Kilinochchi head of projects). Suddenly, a buzz of soldiers. Chairs appear. The soldiers are gone again. The Colonel smiles.
To my surprise, we begin casually chatting. We crack open a few (ginger) beers. We talk about Malayalapuram. We talk about the villagers, what they do and how they live. We talk about what people were doing to help the village: the Fathers’ packaging centre, the housing projects and the other plans. We talked about the Colonel’s personal project – his friends and him pooled together some money to buy an offset printer, a paper-cutter and an industrial binder – he built a notebook factory employing thirty villagers in his village.
As he put it in a follow-up email, though, “it is not a big one. Just like a baby.” He seemed to have taken real pride in his work in developing the town. I didn’t dare ask him details about his work before he became so interested in development.
After our conversation, we swapped “visiting cards” and I was off to meet Shyamika and her sister (from Empower, a Sydney based charity), who had apparently just been picked up by the LEADS monster-truck. The Colonel came out with me to greet them, and somewhat suavely blamed me for their not having a glass of ginger beer, “he [me, Yochi, Yohanan as the Sri Lankans call me] didn’t tell me you girls were coming, so he drank your cooldrink.”
Malayalapuram and Kilinochchi Town with the Sydney Sisters
After saying goodbye to the Colonel and the awkward leftenant (saying goodbye always seems to take a while in Sri Lanka, just a few minutes longer than what would ordinarily be comfortable) we jumped into the super-truck, and off we were to lunch.
The sisters deftly plucked at their food with their hands like locals. I shovelled away at my plain rice (because of my sickness) with a spoon. I still look like a fool when eating with my hands, I think I should just give up on it. We sipped KIK Cola, Necto and other bubbly sugar drinks (not half as sweet as the tea here though) and when lunch was over, we were off.
A bumpy road, a seriously bumpy road (it felt like I was in a paint mixer). I commented that the road felt like it was made by the devil. For some reason, the LEADS staff found this hilarious and burst out laughing – not quite sure why, but whatever, a good audience is a good audience.
Our first stop was the WRDS/RDS building. A building that, like many in the surrounding area, used to be grand. Now, its walls were riddled with holes, small ones from bullets, larger ones from shells. The back walls had collapsed, the roof replaced with Indian Government Aid provided tin. The presidents of the WRDS and RDS were husband and wife, and they were a little annoyed at their inability to serve their constituencies. Where, before, they had a flourishing agricultural co-op, and a savings club. Now, the had a broken building.
Next, we visited some houses of the villagers, each of them offering us a seat. Those families without a seat stood outside with us and offered us their bench. We visited a few woman-headed households. In one of the families, the mother’s husband died in the war, the twenty year old daughter, with a toddler child, was now a widower, forced to work hard day-labour to make ends meet. We visited the home of a land-mine victim, who’s leg had been amputated as a result of her injury, leaving her unable to make an income.
Throughout these visits though, hospitality was always shown. There was always a smile in the eyes of the families. This reminded me of a quote from the Cage:
“Despite the presence of death, fear and grief, life quickly assumed another kind of normality. ‘People still greeted each other in the morning with big smiles, and enquired after each other’s health, and told jokes,’” – Gordon Weiss at location 3763.
After the war, despite the poverty, the land-mines and the monsoon, this normality still existed: a hope.
After visiting some families, we hopped around for a quick sightseeing tour: seeing the controversial water-tower and the Government’s official memorial (the cuboid shattered by the artillery shell, a lotus growing out of it).
I had an amazing day with Shyami and her sister, and look forward to (hopefully) seeing them in Colombo!
Pictures to come