Archives For Volunteering
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 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
The bus ride from Mannar town is what I am used to already: ridiculously early morning, followed by a confused inter-language checkout, followed by a touch of panic at the bus station trying to find the right bus, followed by and awesome nap before the bus starts moving. Then, just as sleep closes in, the engine starts, shaking the earth and rumbling like a tiny thunderstorm under my feet. The shriek of a Bollywood superstar follows a second later, mid-song, and I am as awake as I have ever been, adrenaline dancing through me.
My eyes open, and, after the first thing I see, I wish I had just kept them shut. A huge man, maybe 150 kg’s sitting next to me, picking a scab. It is like there’s a competition to find the creepiest person in the whole of Sri Lanka to sit next to me. The bus lurches forward with a burp from the engine and a puff of black smoke appearing behind us. I am at least looking forward to driving over the causeway from Mannar to the mainland, and then, it starts raining.
I am in the back left window seat, so water is coming in from the window next to me (which I try to close, but turns out to be totally shattered, so no closing this window) and from the door, jammed shut. At least I have a seat.
I cover my bag (with my laptop and camera in it, each in waterproof pouches) in my jacket – just to be safe. I get drenched, my stuff is fine. The people in the aisle seats are giggling.
Only three short hours later, and I was in Vavuniya, for a frantic minute trying to get on to my next bus heading for Jaffna via Kilinochchi (where I have to jump off). I find the bus, and (hooray) I have a two hour bus ride standing in the door frame of this bus, about 30 centimetres off the road. To be fair, this did afford me an awesome view.
When you arrive in Kilinochchi (“Kili”) the first things you see are two war memorials: the first built by the army in 2010, a “cuboid” with an artillery shell embedded in it and a lotus blossoming out of the crater; and the second, the huge water tower, built with World Bank funding, toppled over, shattered. The plaque on the steps of the water tower states that it was destroyed by the retreating LTTE (“Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam,” or the “Tamil Tigers” as they were popularly known) on their retreat. “The Cage” by Gordon Weiss (who worked with the UN mission at the time of the end of the war) states that the tower was “felled by an air strike” [in chapter five of the book, location 2114/9224 for Kindle users out there]. Ask any two people what happened and there will be a different answer.
When I arrived, I was dropped off beside the monumental water tower, in the rain with my bags. I ducked into a jewellery shop (or, as the locals call it, a “fancy” shop) to get out of the rain until I could hail a trishaw. The owner looks at me hopefully, and I feel bad, so I take a look at his jewellery. Sadly, I can’t pull off the elaborate (others might even call it gaudy) jewellery from the region. I duck back into the rain and jump into the passing trishaw, to the driver’s surprise.
I finally get to the LEADS office, and meet with Mr Jeya and his team. Without a second to lose, I am chewing through all the questions I have for him from Palmera Projects: mainly questions on the beneficiaries, the village, the other NGO’s working in the area, the Army and the PTF. Flying through these questions without any snags and I am feeling good about Kili, and I am ready to go.
We head for a quick pit stop (chicken fried rice, Sri Lankan style with mango chutney and a KIK Cola – “Lankan to the last drop”) and we are off to Malayalapuram. Now, I have become familiar with bad roads, but these roads were spine shattering: dirt roads with water channels running in parallel lines, each one throwing your head forward – you feel it in all of your body. I think these roads were meant for walking, or are in dire need of repair, because they were a joke.
Our first stop was to the local GS (an appointed government official responsible for a village or two, here, Mr Chandrabalan, who had been GS for the past 5 years). He produced for us the maps we had asked for – they were literally hand drawn, and to dubious scale. They plotted the location of houses, temples, tanks and paddy fields, but left out the locations of wells and toilets (a mystery why). However, the shoddiness of the maps was no representation of the GS, who was amazing, and knew absolutely everything about the village we were looking at, his Malayalapuram:
- 2000 persons;
- 90 women headed households (40 of these female heads of households are less than 30 years old);
- 70 toilets;
- 1 well for 5 families, most incomplete and not suitable for drinking, but drunk form anyway;
- Dry rations given by the WFP have been exhausted;
- 400 persons in the village will start recieving 100 rupees a week (about .85 AUD) in food aid from the government:
- Estimated cost of nutritional food for a month is 15 thousand SLR (about 130 AUD); and,
- Recent Government Health Department study showed 60 malnourished children, and approximately 20 severely malnourished children;
- There is some skilled labour – in the village of two thousand, there are:
- 5 skilled masons;
- 5 carpenters;
- 3 skilled electricians; and,
- 25 students training in computer works.
- All of these persons got their training in Kilinochchi Town, there are 2-3 persons in training currently.
So, the GS knew his town back to front. But what he knew wasn’t good news, this town really needed help.
We jumped back into the truck to meet some families. The first few families I met were all women headed households: the first because of divorce; the second because her husband was incarcerated; the third because her husband passed in the war. All these women had children less than 4 years old, and they were taking care of them themselves. All of these women were less than thirty years old. They worked day-labour for the rich Town land-owners, either as domestic help, or tending the massive paddy fields these persons owned. Their children were dependant on health-department vitamin supplements for their micro-nutritional balance. They worked all day, with their aunties or mothers taking care of their children, and then worked all evening in their home-garden, trying to grow some food, first to eat, and, then, if possible, to sell.
I asked a women here to show me her well. She led me to a dug hole in the ground with milky white water in it, littered with tadpoles, twigs and garbage.
“Do you drink from this?” I ask her. “This, this is good clean water” she replies.
I am not sure what to think.
I ask her, “where is your toilet?” She points behind the house and says “Jungle”.
Afterwards, we met a few women in a spice-packing shop built by a priest (they call them “Christian Fathers” here). Four young women were working: sitting on the floor, cross-legged, with piles of spices on one side of them, piles of plastic wrapping on the other side, a kerosene flame between them. Each women packed a bag full of spices, then ran it across the flame to seal the bag. Each women’s fingers were scorched, blackened. But these women were the lucky ones, the employed ones.
By this time, I was beginning to feel ill, with that feeling where you are acutely aware of your bones when you know you are going to have a fever imminently. So we head home, to the “Hotel Sela” – a lovely little guesthouse with, I am not joking, a cement diorama in front of it of a Godzilla ripping the head off a chicken. No idea why. But, why not?
It is four in the afternoon when I collapse on to my bed in my “Ehh See” room (an air-conditioned room), not to wake up until the next day.
To see more photos – check out my flickr album!
My fourth day in Mannar, a Saturday, was jam-packed with activities. I arrived at the office at 7 in the morning, to start my work. At 8:30, we were off!
International Disabled Persons Day
First stop, international persons with disabilities day (which was actually on the third of december, but was celebrated on the 10th in Mannar town). It was held in the local “differently abled persons” rehabilitation centre, and the guests included UN and USAid staff, priests and nuns and many disabled persons, mainly the physically disabled.
The ceremony started with a garlanding of the VIP guests, and a blessing by the Father of the local church (who, somewhat strangely, put a “pottu” – the red forehead dot – on those whom he blessed).
Subsequently, the government minister who was present at the event cut a ribbon, and we proceeded to an exhibition in a temporary palmera leaf hall erected at the back of the compound. The hall was filled with the handicrafts of the disabled persons – dolls with custom-made dresses, candles, religious statues, all things created by these people within the “Differently Abled Persons Rehabilitation” initiative in Mannar.
I saw these handicrafts, and met with the amazing disabled kids (between the ages of 5 and 25, with disabilities ranging from severe autism to Down’s Syndrome or physical disabilities) who had created them, all so proud of their work.
After this exhibition, I was sent to the main hall, to the front row, where I sat, patiently, on the floor with the younger children, and drank the tea and ate the butter cake that was offered to me. The kids got Milo. I was a little jealous. Then a young girl, maybe 15 years old, who walked with crutches, came and pinned a badge on every single person in the audience, saying that they participated in the International People with Disabilities Day ceremony.
By this time, the kids at the front and I were getting a little restless. Why were we in the hall? Why was nothing happening? Lucky I waited, because the performance I was treated to was breathtaking, and all the performers were disabled. I saw comedy sketches, which were hilarious because of the their reliance on physical comedy; I saw dramas and I saw lots of traditional Tamil dancing: a group, a couple of girls on their own, and, the star of the show, an young girl, who couldn’t be older than six years old, performing a traditional dance in the most spectacular costume, that went for more than 10 minutes. And, it being Mannar (or, indeed, it being Sri Lanka), there were three blackouts during her performance, at which time she held her pose, waited for the music to start up again (sometimes several minutes) and continued dancing, to the absolute delight of the audience.
After wandering through the crowd, being stopped by every second person who wanted to get a photo and learn where I was from, it was time to go, we had a busy day!
16 days of activism against gender violence
After a brief lunch at the family of one of the workers at OfERR (Ceylon)’s Mannar Field Office, where I met his awesome son who is going to show me around Jaffna Town, I was off, for the first time, to Thalaimannar, the northernmost point of Mannar island. The trishaw drive was spectacular. One one side, a lagoon, on the other, dunes stabilised by grasses, palm and palmera trees peppered the landscape. We saw buffalo, goats, donkeys (we were still in Mannar, so it would have been strange not to see donkeys!), cranes, cows and more: the area was a natural wonderland (potential for ecotourism anyone?). We passed at least five ice factories (I think they are for the fishermen). We passed countless churches, temples and mosques, as well as the associated religiously segregated towns, “this is a muslim town, this is a roman catholic town” my trishaw driver would say.
Just as I was thinking “wow, the roads in Mannar’s regional island area’s aren’t that bad,” we left the newly constructed tarmac road, and drove around the machinery that had built it, indeed, the machinery that was still building it. We drove past what was until that point, the worst road I had ever driven on: a couple of times we had to push the trishaw out of a sand-trap. But, on a side note, I think these roads are nothing that my old Lancer couldn’t handle!
We arrived at Thalaimannar town a little later than we thought, but we explained that away because of the roadworks. We drove past another church, past a beautiful looking set of play equipment, and to the multi-purpose hall that had been built by an NGO, the “16 days of activism” banner hanging overhead. The women in the hall were sitting on three sides of the room, in groups with colour-coded saris. These represented each of the self-help groups in the town, and I must admit, the effect of their sari-uniforms was startling, they all looked so in charge and professional.
OfERR’s in-house council, Ms Sivalingam was already in the hall, and the women were doing a “male and female attributes” exercise, where women reflected which physical characteristics, jobs and household role were male, and which were female. After they had put themselves into these groups Ms Sivalingam challenged their characterisation, especially about jobs, where the women had proven themselves to be entrepreneurial through their self-help groups.
One group told stories about their 25 rupees a week translating to 2 lahks over the course of a couple of years. They told me stories of the project they had undertaken: net repair, selling of palmera products, of chilli powder and many more. The women, especially a Mrs Beauty (I know, what a cool name!) were confident and proud of themselves.
After these exercises and their related discussions, the women were organised into groups, and told to sing the traditional Tamil songs they had been taught as children. Each group started off quietly, and by themselves, but by the time the chorus came, there was clapping and all the women joined in: a real show of solidarity.
Finally, however, we moved on to the difficult topic for the day: gender violence. Where a second ago the room was echoing with mirth, at the mention of this topic, the room fell silent. One woman began sobbing. Whilst most of the women kept quiet, there were a couple of women fed up with the way they had been treated: they spoke out. They spoke of husbands intoxicated by arak, they spoke of the police turning a blind eye. They spoke of the lack of support in the village.
Ms Sivalingam, who had apparently heard these stories before, told the women of the support available to them in Mannar town, who would come to the women’s aid in the villages. She told of the Government projects targeting gender violence, and of the NGO’s that could help. It was moving, and it was painful to watch, but at least the women had a new hope from the organisations she recommended.
By now, the sun was setting and it was time for a sombre trishaw ride home. The sun setting past the Palmera trees and into the lagoon.
For more photos, see my flickr album.
Yesterday’s work was quite draining, and I got back to the hotel room exhausted. Before I could even have dinner, I collapsed onto my bed and was asleep within minutes. It was only about seven in the evening. I woke up the next morning at about eight: I guess it turned out that I really needed that sleep. As soon as I woke, I ordered a milk tea (or, as it should more appropriately be called, a glass of sugar with a spot of tea and milk in it) which is more effective than Red Bull at keeping my eyes open. Then I started to write all the stories from the day before, and all the progress reports that were to be written.
About four thousand words later, I hear a knock on my door. I am still in my pyjamas. It was my friend from Colombo here to pick me up. It was eleven in the morning. Time flies when writing!
A quick, maybe 5 minute motorbike ride and I am at the office. I eat my usual Mannar breakfast: slightly stale bread and coconut sambal, and then its back to work. More writing. Lots of photo editing (I had to get from about 1300 photos down to less than a hundred, and edit those 100 photos), a touch of video editing. In a blink, everyone had left the office for lunch. Having just eaten breakfast, I kept editing and writing.
When the crew came back from their lunch, I had a few meetings planned, so I had to tear myself away from the keyboard and monitor and get questioning.
My first meeting was with OfERR (Ceylon)’s Mannar Office general council, the absolutely lovely Ms S. Sivalingam. She sat opposite my desk in her pink sari and her long, platted black hair that was frizzy at its ends (made me think it had never been cut) and asked what I wanted. I asked her to try to explain to me the land title system (woohoo, Real Property!) of Sri Lanka and its implications for our Mannar projects.
The Bore Well and Toilets were on the private land of the beneficiary (who had their interests registered [thank you Ms Dorsett]); their interest was protected. The Rice mill was a little more complex: it was on the commons, but had been granted to the local Women’s Rural Development Service (WRDS) by the local Assistant Government Agent (AGA) and Environmental Agency. They had title over the land, and, thus, as beneficiaries of our Mill, our project was safe.
Afterwards, Ms Sivalingam and I chatted about Sri Lanka’s Legal system – it turns out she is an active barrister! She invited me to see one of her cases (which, thankfully, are mostly in English) when I next come to Mannar. How exciting!
I had my lunch at about three in the afternoon (plastic bag of rice and curry, two plastic bags accompanying, “gravy” and “soup”) and began to type again.
The rest of my afternoon was spent planning the rest of my Sri Lanka trip (prospective itinerary goes something like Mannar to Kilinochchi to Mannar to Jaffna to Mannar to Vavunia to Trincomalee back to Colombo). It seemed that I needed to travel all over the country a bit, but that was fine, because even the horrible bus rides are exciting!
I also planned to meet with a few other Australian volunteers from different organisations (Diaspora Lanka, Empower, and more) and I am excited to meet Jeremy, Shanil and Shyamika over the course of my trip!
By this time, it was ridiculously late (almost midnight), and the videos I was trying to upload were still uploading, so I left my laptop in the office, hopped on the motorbike and got back home to my lovely hotel room.
Since today was almost solely an office day, and, thus, there weren’t any photos, here are a few of my photos from the last couple of days that didn’t fit into the stories I was telling, but I still loved.
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.
I wake up shivering on a bus, with my mate from Colombo tapping me on the shoulder. This led to the emergency, dazed, oh my god I just woke up and the bus is about to leave my station but I still need to put my shoes back on and struggle to get my massive backpack out of the overhead compartment struggle that we all know and hate. I stumble out of the bus, weighed down by my backpacks and basically fall into a trishaw.
We are met by some of the Mannar staff at the room I am staying at (I would hesitate to call it a motel room, or even a guesthouse … but it was a room). I meet and greet and try as best as possible to politely let them know that it is 6 in the morning and I am totally exhausted from the bus ride. They tell me that today we will meet later, at 8:30 in the morning. I go to my room to have a quick nap.
Stained blue walls covered in smooshed mosquitoes (balck from the mosquito with a tinge of red from the blood they had drunk, gross), a single bed with a dodgy mattress and a tangled, sorry looking mosquito net dangling above it. A flushless toiled (you have to manually flush using a bucket of water). A tap for a shower. Fill a bucket with cold water, pour it over your head. Shampoo. Soap. Another bucket. The heat of this place makes it forgivable though, almost pleasant. But it is cheap, I was willing to try it out. The MJM, not quite the height of Sri Lankan luxury.
Heading to the office for a breakfast of Pittu (some sort of rice tube sprinkled with coconut) and Dahl curry, which was absolutely amazing, and we are almost ready to go visit the field. But first, I asked for a quick explanation of the bureaucracy of the area: the hoops that need to be jumped through to let us build a rice-mill here. Two hours, an exasperated interpreter and several cups of tea later, I wrestled together an 11 step plan involving many government agencies: merely the skeleton of the time line I need. I can see that everyone is getting a little bit bored of this exercise (I am too! So many TLA’s! So many government parties! So many authorizations needed), so I call off my interrogation for the day, and schedule two hours after tomorrow’s trip to the field to fill out the dates I need.
So, now, we are heading to Nedunkandal, the village outside of Mannar (about 45 minutes away, on the mainland) where the Palmera Projects rice mill will be built. Wow, the place is totally different from my memory of going there six months ago.
Firstly, before it took us an hour and a half by van to get to the village, over roads that were all but impassable (we had to ford several dry river beds to get there). Before, the ground was a dry red dirt, like what we imagine the Australian Outback looks like on an especially drought-ridden year. Before, the army officers at the checkpoint – validating my passport, checking out my Visa, asking me what I was doing so far away from where tourists usually go – questioned me for more than half an hour.
Now, the roads have begun to be repaired; only the last ten minutes of the drive were on unpaved roads. Instead of a four wheel drive van, we went four people sardined into a trishaw with all of my photo gear. Now, the land was a luscious, flooded green, with soil that looked dark and wholesome. The red dirt was replaced by green rice fields, marshland, water lilies. Where before the only animals we saw were mangy dogs, now, there were hundreds of perfect white cranes, cows, dogs (even ones that don’t look like rabies infested zombie dogs!), and we even saw a snake slithering, or, rather, swimming through the paddy fields.
The white cranes, in their picture perfect groups, reflections shimmering in the marsh below them, were only disturbed by the red signs protruding from the ground – red sign, white skull, Danger, Landmines. One thing that was very encouraging, however, was to see that local government and international aid demining groups were there to reclaim the farmland for the villagers were scouring the areas.
We get to the church in the center of the village, but the Father is at the school giving a Christmas-time sermon to the children. But Lima was there, the secretary of the Woman’s Rural Development Service, and who featured in Palmera Project’s Dine-It-Forward promotional video after being interviewed by Dilan and Keshini only a couple of months ago. Her mother sat by her side with a couple of her friends, wives of paddy farmers, all beneficiaries of our future rice mill. We sat under the shade cast by the church’s bell-tower and chatted a little. Chatted about children, grandchildren, school, marriages, the harvest, the micro-finance loans that they had received from the local bank, and more. It is good to hear from these women again, and I will be sharing some more of their stories later on in the trip (I will be interviewing them on video).
After our catch-up, we walked to the rice fields, and stopped along the way, quite a few times, to see the houses of the villagers. The first house I went into was beautiful. Pink like only a house on the subcontinent could be. Open doors, open windows. Weirdly intricated concrete adornments on the fringe of the roof, like extremely sturdy lace. Orange juice. An amazing place. The patriarch was home, and he told us his story.
They had moved into this house in the ‘60’s, and the father had grown up here. In the war, the house was razed on three separate occasions. In the ‘90’s, the family had to flee, not just from their home, but from the country. They went to India as refugees and stayed there until early 2000, where the cease-fire had left them with hope of living in their home, in their village, in peace. Instead, when the ceasefire broke down the family was driven out of their home, which was, again, destroyed. This time, the children of the house had grown up, and only one remained in Sri Lanka, the rest having emigrated from their homeland (to London, to Toronto and some even to Australia). So the mother and father, growing frail, had to flee the front lines. They were forced to leave their homes and trek into the Vanni to survive. They went to Kilinochchi. They went to both the No Fire Zones. They witnessed the brutal end of the war. But they survived. They survived and they made it home in 2010. But their home was destroyed. With money sent to them from their children abroad, they rebuilt, repainted, and, now, the father, in his ‘70’s, previously retired, must work in the Paddy fields to make a living. But he is happy because he is home.
The next house I went to was Lima’s. Lima lived with her Akka and Ammama (older sister and maternal grandmother), and with her two nephews. Their house was a three year old “temporary shelter”, built of corrugated iron, palmera branches and a UNHCR tarpaulin. Akka (a preschool teacher) is sitting by yard with one of her three children. Her husband is in a detention camp in Colombo, awaiting trial. Ammama lost a son in the war. This family has been tried, but it is resilient. They still plow, till and sew their land. They harvest their rice twice a year. Each of them has another job on the side to supplement the family’s income.
But when they harvest their rice, they are subject to a bizarre reality. The paddy they harvest (only somewhat edible) has to be milled or sold. The family has to sell their entire paddy stock to buy rice for their family to eat. They get horrible rates for the sale, and are extorted in the purchase. If they choose to mill the rice at the closest neighboring mill, it means a 5-kilometer walk with kilos of rice on their backs. When they get to the mill, they have to pay double market rates (upwards of 6 rupees per kilo) since that mill has a monopoly.
When the Palmera Projects rice mill will be finished (in a few months, we are hoping!) Lima and her family will be able to mill their rice there. Since it is run as a social business, the rates will be much lower than the commercial mills, and the villagers will be able to keep the byproducts of production (risk husk, etc.) to use as fertilizer. They will save time, they will save money. Further, they will have another source of employment, and they will have a source of capital for any revenue generating activity they can think of – the profits from the mill used as a basis for micro finance.
But I am getting a little bit side-tracked. The day was still young and I still had a lot to do! We walked with Lima to see her paddy lands. Her Amma, with her back bent, was planting rice saplings in the muddy soil: flooded, muddy soil separated by miniature mud-walls to create an intricate system of beautifully green and grey rice and mud squared. I tried to walk to her on these mud walls, as I saw Lima and the children do, but the mud looked so inviting! And, also, I may have slipped. Suddenly, I was up to my knees in mud, balanced precariously, camera raised overhead. My shoes were almost lost to the mud, feeling like a suction cup, but, somehow, I rescued them. It is much easier walking barefoot in the paddy mud!
I tried my hand at planting these rice-saplings. It is backbreaking work. You have to wade through the deep mud, bend your back and plant these saplings by hand, each sapling of hundreds placed deliberately and carefully.
It turns out I pretty much suck at being a paddy farmer. After a little bit, my back was aching. I don’t know how the women managed. But, after trying my hand, much to the local women’s entertainment, and taking photos of my teachers, it was off to lunch. A lunch-packet similar to what I served at my Dine-It-Forward dinner in late November. One plastic bag with rice and curry, two plastic bags with different sauces: you bite the ends of these bags to pour the sauces over your food, and dig in with your hands (I am getting the hang on that!). We ate on the floor mats of our trishaw, arranged under the shade of a tree right by the paddy fields. It was serene, unreal. It could have been any afternoon in the past couple of hundred years, the only thing giving away the date was the camera slung on my back.
On the way back to the church, we saw what I had been wading through: not only was there mud, there were crabs (yes Danny, crabs, big mud-crabs with these great pincers that could totally claim a pinky toe) and, swimming water snakes! If I had seen these before, I might not have been so eager to hop into the mud myself.
After a few more interviews, it was time for the long trishaw ride home, and, then, time for a delicious dinner of Pittu with fish curry (totally under-rated, fish curry is delicious!). Then to the hotel room. A mosquito net that did nothing at all. The most broken sleep I have ever had. I woke up in the middle of the night counting more than 20 mosquito bites on my left arm alone. I have to change rooms (and the next day, I do). I am all for dingy in the name of saving money, but this place was just a little bit too horrible. Tomorrow I will move rooms to somewhere a little bit more lux (five dollars more a night for a bigger bed, a working toilet/shower and AC, count me in!).
In Mannar, instead of the usual lullaby of prayers and traffic floating through the window, I had a squeaky fan, the annoying buzz of mosquitoes fat from their dinner (of me) and the absolutely hilarious backdrop of donkeys Hee-Hawing. Mannar is filled with donkeys, they do nothing, they are wild, and they are absolutely hilarious!
Between my laughter at the donkeys (which my room-mate didn’t seem to understand), my swatting of mosquitoes and my scratching of mosquito bites, I managed to get to sleep. Tomorrow I have a 5:00 am wakeup, so just in time.
For more photos, check out my Flickr feed for the day.