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At the Mercy
of the Wind

By | Stories

Sri Lanka’s southwest monsoon season is a blessing … and a curse

 

I n the hill villages of southwest Sri Lanka, people have learned to both love and fear monsoon season.

It can bring moisture vital to the crops and native plants that give the region its lush look. But it can also give birth to so much rain that that mudslides bury entire villages. That is what happened May 26, when water came rushing down from high peaks in the interior. More than 200 people died when already saturated soil separated from hillsides and a flood of mud 30 feet deep destroyed everything in its path.

A monsoon is not a torrential rainstorm, as conventional wisdom would have it. It is actually a wind that affects large areas and reverses direction seasonally. It can, of course, trigger conditions that lead to rainstorms. In fact, monsoon winds produce wet and dry seasons in Sri Lanka, India and the rest of southern Asia.

“It is what we have to live with,” shrugged Saresh Singh, a farmer on the lower slopes near Barudaliya where killer mudslides are a fact of life. “It is part of our culture. It is part of who we are. Really, we can’t live with it and we can’t live without it.”

Thamara Weerasinghe, a microbiologist at the Open University of Sri Lanka in Colombo, said monsoons bring levels of moisture that are vital to the soil and environment.

There are two very different monsoon seasons on this teardrop-shaped island. From May to September, the southwest monsoon can trigger heavy rains in the southwestern area of the country, known to locals as “the wet zone.” So wet, in fact, that it can produce rainfall in excess of excess of 110 inches. The northeast monsoon (December to March) can produce dry weather.

In between are two periods known as intermonsoons, according to Sri Lanka’s Department of Meteorology.

We have been making lot of adaptable varieties and organizing other mechanisms to live with less water and all that. … But it will be a great trouble for us

Thamara Weerasinghe

The first intermonsoon season runs from March to April. The second takes place in October and November and it produces peak rainfall, normally heavy thunderstorms. This is the season that is hit by tropical depressions and cyclones in the Bay of Bengal, when the whole country can be walloped by strong winds and widespread, long-lasting rain, sometimes leading to floods and landslides.

It all depends on where you are. And when.

In the capital city of Colombo, about 75 miles north of where the most recent mudslides occurred, there has been little concern lately about monsoon rains. They get rain during the southwest monsoon season, but it comes and goes and is often of short duration.

Ian Lockwood, an environmentalist who teaches at a school for international students in Colombo, has taken note of the rainfall patterns in and around the capital.

“Here, the monsoon season is very different from other parts of South Asia. Here in Colombo, the weather doesn’t change that much during the year,” Lockwood said.

“The monsoon is more a broad seasonal shift in rainfall patterns and it peaks in May and June and that’s it. People ask, ‘Is this monsoon season?’ and I say, ‘Yes it is.’ ‘But it’s not raining!’”   

In the nation’s farm belts, the lack of rain has led to desperation, not exactly what an ordinary observer might expect from a place with monsoon seasons.

In fact, Sri Lanka’s farms have been crippled by the island’s worst drought in 40 years. It ravaged the country last year and even the May downpours that triggered mudslides weren’t nearly enough to replenish reservoirs.

The rice crop – a vital food source for Sri Lankans – has been devastated. Production is expected to drop by 40 percent and many small farmers are barely feeding their families.

Weerasinghe noted that rice is the “main staple food in Sri Lanka” and it depends on seasonal rainfall, as do other plants. And with reservoirs so low there is little water for irrigation. It is so bad, she said, that farmers are abandoning their rice paddies.

“We will be facing lot of issues. …The country is getting ready for that, actually. We have been making lot of adaptable varieties and organizing other mechanisms to live with less water and all that. … But it will be a great trouble for us,” she said.

And the dry season is not far off.

The Asian Pipeline

By | Stories

Science scholars from Sri Lanka’s highlands flock to Mississippi

 

N ilmini Karunarathne and Nalaka Liyanage met at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka, where they were studying chemistry and physics.

When they got their degrees, they heard from former classmates in America at a place called Ole Miss. It’s great, they were told. You should come too.

So they left behind their life in Kandy, leaving its lush tropical rainforest hills and a country still recovering from a civil war to begin doctoral studies in Mississippi.

They fretted back about tuition costs and the familiar life they would leave behind.

Then they saw the gleaming science labs, the modern equipment and the green, tree-shrouded campus in Oxford. The university had a state-of-the-art Ph.D program, unlike any other they had seen. And that’s what that led them here.

Initially, adjusting to life in America was difficult. There was new food, new traditions, a new culture, new clothing styles and oh, those Southern drawls.

They had been told what to expect, how Mississippians would be extremely social, very talkative, more so than Sri Lankans.

But when they arrived, they were surprised to find the climate brought flashbacks of home.

The humidity in the summer was like Sri Lanka during monsoon season, the air steamy and heavy. The only thing different was the winter. That they didn’t have in Sri Lanka.  

Over time the couple has begun to blend in with the locals, adopting Oxford’s small-town Southern charm and its vernacular into their vocabulary. Their English at times is broken and when they answer questions, responses are still usually short, often consisting of “yeah” and “no.”

“At first, it [adjusting in Oxford] was hard,” said Liyanage. “Whenever we went to a place we didn’t know the procedure. For example, self-checkout in Walmart. But with time, we got familiar with those things and now we are fine.”

They’ve been in Oxford about four years now.

Liyanage, the husband, arrived in 2013 after completing his B.S.A. at the University of Peradeniya. He’s more introverted than Karunarathne, but displays a warm smile when his home country and course of study are discussed.

“In our country we do not have many facilities to do the Ph.D program. In here, we have a lot of facilities and opportunities,” Liyanage says.

He has already persuaded classmates from back home to join him here.

Friends had told Liyanage what to expect, what teachers to take, what courses were rigorous.

What he wasn’t warned about was how different the education system was.

Back in Sri Lanka, public education is free with the exception of the Ph.D program. And because Sri Lanka was once under British rule, the education system is similar to the British school system.

Connected through their love of learning, Karunarathne and Liyanage have always made education a priority.

Following Liyanage’s enrollment at Ole Miss, Karunarathne followed shortly after and dove into atmospheric physics. Karunarathne taught fundamentals of physics during the fall semester. Despite their busy schedules, the couple finds time for each other and family, finding a balance between studies and home life.

The Sri Lankan population in Mississippi continues to expand, according to Karunarathne. “We have lots of families here,” she said. “There is another girl who works in this department, and my brother, he is also here.”

This small branch of Sri Lanka is steadily growing across North Mississippi, from Oxford to Starkville. They’re concentrated in the sciences — from biology to physics —  and they find ways to connect with each other.

“We have some parties here and there,” Liyanage said. “We invite all the Sri Lankans here because there are a lot of families in the pharmacy department and science departments.”

Despite the rivalry between Mississippi State and Ole Miss, they connect through activities like cricket and and celebrate the Sri Lankan New Year, Aluth Avurudda, in April in Starkville, where a larger group of Sri Lankans is located at Mississippi State University.

They have a startling observation about Oxford. “Kandy looks like Mississippi. It’s not a trans-city like New York. It’s just like Oxford,” Karunarathne said.

She insists there are more things to enjoy in Sri Lanka, however. “You can cover the entire country within a week. It’s small and we have a great variety of climate.”

The couple’s love for their new home runs deep and has grown stronger through time. Mississippi’s hospitality, its history and appeal is not something they plan on leaving for a while. Until they get their degrees.

“One thing is, in Sri Lanka we cannot achieve a degree like this. So it’s really a big thing in my life — in our lives,” Karunarathne said.

They are not alone.

One thing is, in Sri Lanka we cannot achieve a degree like this. So it’s really a big thing in my life — in our lives.

Nilmini Karunarathne

For Achini Kumari, Oxford is now home, a place to settle.

Oxford is a predominantly Christian community steeped in Southern charm while her home country is a repository of Buddhist faith and culture. But like Karunarathne, Kumari insists that the town itself — its atmosphere, its proportions, its friendliness — is not too different from her home town of Kandy.

I have twin daughters, and they’re exhausting,” she laughs. “But, I love it here. It’s a second home.”

Kumari came to the United States at age 7. Her dad had once been a researcher and professor in Pennsylvania and her mom, a high school teacher. Education ran deep in her family. When she returned to Sri Lanka, it wasn’t long before she returning to America, this time coming down south to Mississippi in 2006.

America had always been a second home, a place of familiarity.

“They say that Mississippi is twice the size of Sri Lanka,” Kumari says. “In scale, Sri Lanka is small and isn’t as clean as Oxford. The public transportation system is also different.”

But the town’s charm was captivating, and so were the people. She smiles at the memory of her first friendly encounter in Oxford.

It was at the bank.

“The greetings were surprising to me,” she said. “The ‘Hey, how are you’s.’ It was very welcoming.” She knew she had made the right decision.

From the beginning she wanted one thing: a degree and to someday teach. Kumari had always been a reader. She loved English literature. But she also found pleasure in logistics and the idea of learning how to program and write an application. She looked at Facebook often, wondering whether she could make something like it. Instead, she discovered that she enjoyed teaching more and decided to pursue an education degree.

In the classroom, she occasionally engages her students about Sri Lankan history. “Usually they are curious, but sometimes they don’t want to ask,” Kumari said.

People she meets ask her about the culture, the religious makeup of the island, and the civil war.

They’re not questions out of the ordinary, especially those about the war.

Kumari recalls going to school and amid a wave of suicide bombings by Tamil terrorists, who pioneered the deadly art. At that time, suicide bombings were something alien to the rest of the world. But in Sri Lanka, they were common.

The bombs found their victims everywhere.

“It could be children, it could be adults, it could be women, it could be young boys. Nobody really knew. It’s something no country should ever have to face. And even with everything that’s going on in the world, there’s always a small percentage of people that create the biggest messes,” she said.

You could never let your guard down during the bombings.        

“You have your parents going off to work and you’re going off to school, and you’re in a situation where you don’t know what will happen. That’s terrifying,” she said.

Even in the calm serenity of Oxford, she occasionally has flashbacks of fearful times in Sri Lanka during the war.

With the little free time that she has, she enjoys traveling with her two children. So far, they’ve been to Arizona, Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas.

She has built a home. She communicates with her family through Skype and Facebook. Separated from them by more than 9,000 miles, it’s hard to not be homesick. But now she considers traveling there as a journey, and Oxford as home.

“I used to think that I would go back to Sri Lanka full-time, but recently I’ve been changing my mind. I’m so used to it here that I prefer it. You never know, I can never say that I will never go back,” she said.

Strange New World

By | Stories

From a fertile island in the Bay of Bengal to the red clay hills of Oxford

S hoes lie all in a row by the front door. Inside, the smell of warm spices fills the air. It is a Saturday night in late July in Oxford and the Hewamanna family is hosting its monthly gathering for 20 other Sri Lankans living around Mississippi and the greater Memphis area.

The sound of laughing children in the living room blends with the rumblings of men speaking around the dinner table. It feels warm and bright, like a family holiday. The women stand in the kitchen preparing the last of the traditional Sri Lankan dishes, from seeni sambol buns to chickpeas and different rices. They catch up over wine and share what’s been happening in their lives.

Mallika Hewamanna skates around the house making sure her guests are comfortable. She offers drinks and pre-dinner snacks. She hovers over her stovetop, adding final fresh ingredients, some of which have come from her backyard garden.

Four or five families from North Mississippi and Memphis are tucked away in different corners of the house, speaking to each other in Sinhalese, their native tongue. Relics from their homeland are on display, including a traditional carving of elephants parading in the yearly Esala Perahera festival in their hometown of Kandy, whose easygoing atmosphere reminds Hewamanna a lot of Oxford.

The easy melding of these people from the other side of the world into the hill country of Lafayette County shows how in an age of tightened immigration policies and nationalism fed by fears of terrorism, people from far, far away can still find a happy life in parts of America.

It is amazing how often people abroad encounter people from their hometown or country, and Sri Lankans are no different. They spring from a proud and ancient culture that bends over backward to help visitors and guests and make them feel at home. And home is just what this house feels like to these expatriates. It is warm and friendly and feels like family which, in a way, it is.

The Hewamannas are just one of a growing number of Sri Lankan families in Oxford. In 2006, they came so Mallika could pursue doctoral studies in pharmaceutical sciences. Access to doctoral studies is limited in Sri Lanka and out-of-state tuition at Ole Miss is low enough to be attractive to students from far away. The family liked Oxford so much that she thought nothing of getting a job here with Elsohly, a local laboratory. Her husband works as a school bus driver.

Nights like tonight are a reminder of the growing community they now have in America, but the transition to a new life in the red clay hills of North Mississippi had its share of obstacles. Learning English as a second language and learning to drive on the right were just a few of the challenges the Hewamanna family had to deal with.

It is amazing how often people abroad encounter people from their hometown or country, and Sri Lankans are no different.

The youngest seems to have had it easiest. Isuru Hewamanna was just 6 when they moved to America. Now he has begun his senior year at Oxford High School.

Isuru remembers knowing only the English word “teacher” when he arrived. It took around 6 months for him to adjust, with the help of his first-grade teacher. He has since become a top student, competing in math, science and debate competitions. He is interested in studying science like his mother he wants to be a biomedical engineer and would love to attend Ole Miss. But his dream school is MIT.

He runs cross country for Oxford High. He joined the Boy Scouts in second grade and excelled at that, too. He earned the coveted Eagle Badge, Scouting’s highest rank.

His Eagle Scout project? A well-engineered 12-foot bridge over a stream at Camp Lake Stevens. “I got members of the Sri Lankan community to help me,” Isuru explained.

Help and support is exactly what a lot of these families give to one another in Oxford, a place with a climate not so far removed from Sri Lanka’s but a culture so very different. They work hard at maintaining Sri Lankan traditions and at the same time, fitting in. Local cricket teams sponsored by the university are another way that Sri Lankans, including Isuru, have gotten involved.  

Perhaps the biggest difference between there and here is religion. There are no Buddhist temples in Oxford, a town saturated with Protestant, Catholic, and evangelical churches. There is a Buddhist retreat in Batesville, but the closest Buddhist temple is in Memphis, and Sri Lankan families often travel there with food for the monks. The Hewamanna family typically makes the drive north once a month.

Many holidays are considered sacred in Sri Lanka, a land of frequent festivals, so many that some politicians lament the fact that holidays seem to pop up every few days, interfering with productivity. And Sri Lankans here continue to celebrate holidays well, even though they are nearly 10,000 miles from home.

One particularly popular one is the New Year’s Festival, when families play traditional games such as musical chairs and “Pin The Tail on the Elephant.”

The Hewamanna family happily discovered that the Sri Lankan Student Association at Mississippi State University celebrates this tradition, so they try to make the cross-state drive to Starkville to join in when they can. Approximately 60 Sri Lankan students, faculty and their families attend each year.

There is no similar organization at Ole Miss, where most Sri Lankans are doctoral students. Such an organization could raise their Oxford profile and might allow a greater number of Sri Lankan students to find one another and meet on a regular basis.

Until then, the Hewamannas’ home will do quite nicely.  

They can
never forget

By | Stories

On the morning after Christmas 2004, an earthquake registering 9.3 on the Richter scale roiled the waters of the Indian Ocean off Indonesia. It sent a wave — one of the biggest ever recorded on earth — zooming toward the busy beaches of Sri Lanka at supersonic speed.

Tall and powerful enough to swallow multi-story hotels, the monster crashed ashore at a mind-boggling 500 mph. A killer tsunami.

The people had no warning. More than 35,000 died. More than 21,000 injured. A million left homeless. Cars, houses, hotels, trees and beaches were swept away. Total damages: More than $2.5 billion. A government ill-prepared, poorly equipped and prone to corruption couldn’t handle it. Millions of dollars poured in from all the over the world and that, too, was mishandled. The misery lasted days, then months, then years.

Thirteen years later, those who were there still wake up in a cold sweat.


H ashan Raja was just 7 when the tsunami struck.

 

He was visiting his grandmother well inland from the beach and does not remember seeing the actual wave but remembers the immediate aftermath – brown water everywhere. Twenty years old now, he still reels from the shock of losing his best friend and his home in the same instant.

“I wish it had never happened,” he says with sudden fire in his eyes. He glances down at the tattoo needled onto his arm in remembrance of his best friend. “Hashan,” it says. They shared everything, including their first name.

“When I see the tattoo, I remember all the things we did together,” Raja said.

Those were good times, the best. They would eat together, sleep together, just like brothers. When his best friend died, he didn’t know what to do with his life, Raja said, sadness clouding his face.

The government was slow to respond, then haphazard and ineffective in relief. It tried to enforce a bold new law banning construction within 100 meters – nearly a football field – of the beach. Later, the government’s enforcement resolve crumbled in the face of a lucrative new wave of beachfront resort hotel construction. But it was too late for Raja’s family and many others who had had to find other housing quickly.

With their home washed away, Raja’s family moved inland. His father was a fisherman but the tsunami took his boat and hundreds of others. The new home was too far away from what had been his livelihood. He had to learn an entirely new way of life. Today, he drives a tuk-tuk, a three-wheeled taxi. The fisherman has become a landlubber, fishing for fares.

The surge of new construction was not all bad, at least not for the local economy. Once fear of the beach subsided and towering new hotels sprang up, the economy for surfboarding and surf shops was better than ever. Now a shiny Marriott towers over the beach here, looking out to sea where the wave originated, fed by a distant undersea earthquake.

Encouraged by the peace that followed a vicious civil war that tore the countryside asunder, the tourists are back. White sand beaches once littered with corpses are now crowded with surfboard vendors and refreshment stands and T-shirt salesmen and sunbathers. Now, Raja works the Weligama beach as a surfing instructor alongside several other people affected by the tsunami.

One of them is S.K. Sahan. He was 11 when it happened. He was working the beach that morning. He remembers how the ocean pulled way back from the beach, farther than it had ever pulled back before. He remembers watching the wave build. He remembers the brown color of the water.

He got swept up by the first of three towering waves and managed to grab the limb of a tree and pull himself to safety. He clung to the tree for an hour before help arrived. He was lucky. He saw many bodies floating in the frothy water beneath him.

His home was gone, his family forced to live elsewhere, far from their beloved beach. His school was washed away.

“We had [a] one-month holiday, then they built another school [inland],” Sahan said. “After 2 to 3 months, we could go to another school. The [first] school was not comfortable. It was small rooms to study and teach in.”

Relocating children into different schools was just one of many obstacles people faced. Help arrived first from neighbors and relief organizations. People came from all around to help rebuild houses and try to make life as “normal” as it could be. But normalcy came hard. Most people here say it took nearly five years to really feel normal again. Sahan explained that it took people a year or two just to feel good about getting in the water again after seeing so many of their loved ones washed away.

Some people have never been the same. Some may never be.

Sahan says he still jolts upright in the bed at night, tormented by dreams in which he sees the tsunami coming. Like many others, over time he has learned to overcome most of his fears. He even lives close to the water and has become a surfing instructor.

I had never heard the word ‘tsunami’ at that time, so I wondered what it was. That means it’s a wave. And I decided to immediately go because I knew that if that comes my mother and my sisters, everyone, will perish.

Sahan and his friends have had to acknowledge this tragedy and carry it with them in their new normal, building new lives the best way they can.

But still the memories linger. How could they not?

“In the morning, I got a call from my sister,” recalled Nimal Martinus. “She said, ‘There’s a problem. The beach is coming out. The ocean is coming out.’ I started laughing. I said, ‘Oh you are just pulling my leg, it’ll never happen.’ Then, I hung up the phone because I thought she was joking.”

“Again, she rang me,” he continued. “She said, ‘Please, watch the television and there is something going on, funny.’ Then I told my wife to turn the television on and I saw that there were a lot of alerts and news.”

“I had never heard the word ‘tsunami’ at that time, so I wondered what it was,” Martinus said. “That means it’s a wave. And I decided to immediately go because I knew that if that comes my mother and my sisters, everyone, will perish.”

“So, I’m basically driving down in my jeep to get them, but I could not reach there,” he said. “I had to get down from my jeep and run because of the traffic. I started running because I wanted to save my mother first and then the rest of the people. By the time I went there, I saw so many people on the road crying, screaming, carrying their babies and little small things and running away from the coastal belt.”

“I never saw such a turbulence in people,” Martinus said. “They didn’t know what to do. When I started walking towards the ocean, I had never seen so much destruction. People were crying and I could not really walk because of so much debris.”

“I got a call from my mother telling me that her sister and her four daughters, all of them [are] gone,” Martinus said. “They have no trace. That was hard for me. That was my elder aunt.”

Thirteen years, and still the watermarks of the tsunami run deep.

Thirteen years. And still, they remember everything.

“We were helpless and we didn’t know what to do,” Raja said, speaking the words so many others utter. “We were not ready for a natural disaster like that to happen.”

Replanting His Roots

By | Stories

To Ian Lockwood, teaching what he loves about Sri Lanka’s landscape is a lot like heaven on earth

C OLOMBO Walking down an outside hallway, listening to exotic birds chirp and watching monkeys swing from one branch to another in the courtyard, he unlocks his classroom door and examines an empty room, imagining what it’ll look like the following day as students from all over the world gather at one school.

For American Ian Lockwood, an environmentalist at heart, it’s a perfect place to teach, surrounded by nature and shaded by mammoth banyan trees so ubiquitous in this part of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city by the sea.

After living in several places around Asia, Lockwood, 47, has found home as a teacher at The Overseas School of Colombo, where students represent 40 nationalities and where he is able to share his fascination with this fertile island’s abundant flora and fauna. He doesn’t just preach in the classroom. He takes them to a rain forest loaded with rare plants to see for themselves.

“You can ask my students,” Lockwood says. “The happiest times for them are not inside this classroom, it’s going out into different areas in Sri Lanka, learning about the environment. We go to different ecosystems on the island and that’s where some of the most important learning happens.”

Sri Lanka isn’t new to Lockwood, who arrived in 2005, after the deadly tsunami that claimed 35,000 lives and which his parents, on the beach at the time, “miraculously escaped.”

Even before that, his grandparents were missionaries as early as the 1920s in Jaffna, a provincial capital of 88,000 in the north. As a child, he was captivated by their fascinating tales of this ancient civilization and joined his family for a trip there in 1978 to see where his family had worked.

“We have old family roots here. We have this connection to Sri Lanka and I think that is why I came back here to live … I have always felt very much at home here,” he said.

Born in the U.S., he spent his early childhood in Kansas and Bangladesh, followed by studies in south India and Ohio but he finally gave in to the siren call of Sri Lanka. He quickly found that this was the place he needed to be.

“I got interested in environmental issues as a kid when adults took me hiking. I didn’t realize you could make a career by having so much fun and going outside,” said Lockwood.

With classes of no more than 15 culturally diverse students from all over the world, Lockwood tries to keep lessons interesting by not only covering Sri Lanka but other Asian countries. He teaches human geography and environment systems to 11th- and 12th-graders.

It figures that Lockwood is in charge of the school’s recycling program, encouraging students to reduce solid waste on campus, including the cafeteria, and urging the school not to use disposable items. He hopes his international students can take back what they learn to their own countries and share it.

There is a rich tradition of tolerance, of accepting diversity. The wealth of the country is to accept each other’s religions. Our school and me personally are really involved in that

Ian Lockwood

“In the future, I want them to have a much greater sense of awareness of the best things of the country,” said Lockwood.

About 75 percent of the student body is made up of international students. Some are from next door in India but others have traveled farther for an exclusive education including the rich culture and history of Sri Lanka. Native Sri Lankans make up the other 25 percent.

“I enjoy teaching Sri Lankans,” Lockwood says. “In a sense, I have the privilege of showing them their own country aspects of their country that they may not have been aware of. It is fun for me to be able to do that.”

Despite Sri Lanka’s reputation as a land of ethnic tension, Lockwood says, “There is a rich tradition of tolerance, of accepting diversity. The wealth of the country is to accept each other’s religions. Our school and me personally are really involved in that.”

Lockwood applauds the country and its government for its longstanding dedication to preserving land for wildlife and plant life unique to the island. About 15 percent of Sri Lanka is set aside for wildlife preserves and protected natural areas. He says that compared to other Asian countries, Sri Lanka does a “remarkable” job, especially for being such a small island.

“Sri Lanka is quite unique,” Lockwood says. “The Indian subcontinent is so diverse. There’s a lot on this small island where land is so scarce.”

The one concern that nags at him is garbage. Walking the streets of Colombo and other cities, it is easy to spot garbage bags everywhere. In Colombo’s many narrow alleys, there are garbage bags crammed into small balconies and stuffed in corners. Rats run freely in the streets. The strong smell of weeks-old trash lingers. Lockwood says that the lack of attention to garbage leads to health problems, including dengue fever, which plagued Sri Lanka this summer and fall.

Combatting the spread of dengue and malaria, both mosquito-borne diseases, is as simple as cleaning up cities, efficiently picking up garbage and getting rid of old tires and other places where stale water sits, creating perfect breeding pools for the pesky insects.

“[Government officials] don’t know how to deal with it,” Lockwood says. “It’s a problem that is easily addressed. It’s something I have been dealing with in my own home. The government has to play a role but citizens also have to be aware.”

Lockwood says Sri Lankans are very open and friendly and he wants to grow even closer to the country. For English speakers, that can be hard to do, but he knows that learning the local languages is key so he works on learning Sinhala and Tamil.

“I recognize that the more I can do with that, the more I can experience and the deeper I can go with the country,” he said.

Land of the Wild

By | Stories

Nearly 90 percent of Sri Lanka’s wildlife cannot be found anywhere else on earth

C OLOMBO — Huddled in a treehouse well above the ground, Deevaka Weerakoon waited for elephants. When the herd didn’t show up at the usual time, Weerakoon and fellow researchers climbed down from the safety of the tree house onto a concrete ledge below when they saw them.

The elephants had taken a different route, sneaking up on them from behind. Suddenly, several tons of elephant flesh were upon them. Terrified of being trampled, Weerakoon and his companions did the only thing they could. They froze, clinging to their small slice of space next to the tree as the leathery behemoths shuffled past.

“I could have reached out and touched them, but if one of us got excited, all of us would have died that day,” Weerakoon said.

Until recently, elephant-rich Sri Lanka wasn’t on a lot of travelers’ bucket lists because of the island’s prolonged civil war. After the bloodshed ended in May 2009, tourists began paying more attention to this South Asian island, one of the world’s top biodiversity hot spots.

The wildlife is so ubiquitous visitors become aware of it as soon as they step out of the Colombo airport terminal. Monkeys clamber through trees eagerly watching to see if people drop any food. Tourists quickly learn not to leave backpacks or purses open because the little rascals will jump in.

There’s something for everyone: the majestic leopard, massive elephant, beautiful birdlife, and whales just offshore. There are monkeys, mongoose, sloth bears, jackals, crocodiles, water buffalo, wild boars.

While it took outsiders a long time to discover this hidden gem, the people of Sri Lanka have been embracing its animals and climate since ancient times.

Weerakoon is a conservation biologist in the Department of Zoology and Environment Sciences at the University of Colombo. He’s spent many years studying the wildlife, plants, and biodiversity of the island and loves to talk about it.

“In this one country within maybe four hours, you can see the largest animal in the ocean, come back, go to a close-by national park and see the largest terrestrial animal, and you can see the smallest animal in the world,” Weerakoon said. “We are blessed with many different kinds of species.”

Nature conservation, of both sea and land, has a prominent history here. The island’s first nature reserve was established in the third century B.C. by King Devanampiya Tissa, in this category at least, a man before his time.

Now, Sri Lanka, the 25th largest island in the world, has almost 15 percent of its land protected by the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Weerakoon said this kind of protection is vital because several species will disappear from the world forever if they go extinct in Sri Lanka. Twenty-six species of birds and 16 animal species can be found nowhere else.

In addition to wildlife reserves and sanctuaries, there are 22 national parks. The first park was introduced in 1938, with four parks added as recently as 2015. Some of the older parks are in areas affected by the civil war, which shut them down periodically. All 22 parks are now operating.

Each park has its own claim to fame. The most popular host leopards, elephants, sloth bears or hundreds of species of birds.

Covering the countryside in the southeast, Yala National Park is the most famous. The park’s popularity comes from its diverse collection of wildlife. In Yala, a visitor can see all of Sri Lanka’s boast-worthy animals within a single park’s perimeters.

“Udawalawe is one park where you can walk in any day, any time and see an elephant,” Weerakoon said of another popular preserve. “If somebody tells me, ‘Show me an elephant,’ that’s the place I will take you.”

Udawalawe sits in the dry plains and has monkeys, crocodiles, leopards, birdlife, and even large flying squirrels in addition to its elephants.

The largest congregation of Asian elephants can be found in Minneriya National Park one season a year. The park, located on the shore of an ancient reservoir built by a king more than 1,700 years ago, lies along a corridor where elephants migrate between the parks seasonally. In August and September, more than 300 elephants migrate to the Minneriya Tank. The event is marketed as “The Gathering.”

This annual elephant conclave has gone on for centuries, but only more recently have tourists discovered it, which raises concerns for wildlife conservationists. They fear the added traffic could negatively affect the fragile ecosystem of the reserve and the behavior of animals within the park. Conservationists worry about safari vehicles approaching elephants too closely and disrupting feeding or mating patterns.

The problem is the animals don’t always stay in the parks. When that happens, they tend to damage and destroy crops. In response, farmers attack and sometimes kill them. And once they’re gone, they’re gone.

“There’s a lot of conflict, mainly with elephants and other species,” Weerakoon said. “We lose 200-plus elephants a year mainly due to conflict.”

“It is not a matter of wildlife and people learning to coexist peacefully; it is just people learning to coexist with wildlife. Otherwise, there is no way that we can provide protection to a vast number of animals and their habitats.

Chinthaka Weerasinghe

He said poaching is not as big an issue as in Africa because all African elephants have ivory tusks, but only about 50 percent of female Asian elephants — and even fewer males — have tusks. But just because the island is less attractive to poachers doesn’t mean they aren’t here.   

In January 2016, the Sri Lankan government became the first in South Asia to publicly destroy a giant stack of 359 tusks confiscated from poachers —

its largest ever illegal ivory haul. The valuable tusks were crushed, then burned in an incinerator. Customs officials said they were sending a message that poaching would not be tolerated.

Yet, in this heavily Buddhist country, elephants remain important to temples, which use them during religious ceremonies and events. They are often chained within temples or used to dress up religious parades like the Esala Perahera, when 100 elephants are draped in colorful costumes and lights and marched through the streets of Kandy.

Capturing wild elephants has been banned for decades, but for just as long, an elephant in the backyard has been a sign of wealth, privilege and power. They are frequently used in weddings. Authorities have cracked down in recent years, confiscating dozens of elephants whose owners had no permit.

There are more than 6,000 elephants on the island, which considers them an endangered species.

With the abundance of wildlife and wildlife issues, comes an abundance of conservation efforts.

One of the leading conservation groups in Sri Lanka, and arguably the world, is the Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Society. SLWCS’s mission is to help communities continue economic development while protecting the ecosystem.

Chinthaka Weerasinghe is the operations manager at SLWCS.

“(The) majority of tourists that come to Sri Lanka are the sun, fun, and beach crowd,” Weerasinghe said. “Slowly and gradually, we are attracting tourists who are interested in observing the amazing natural wonders the country has, including its wildlife.”

With this much wildlife, of course, there are occasional risks, especially for tourists who get a bit too casual.

In September, Paul McLean, a 24-year-old British journalist for the Financial Times, left a popular surfing beach and ventured half a mile inland to relieve himself, afterward washing his hands in a coastal lagoon. A crocodile attacked, pulling him to the bottom of the lagoon, where he drowned. Crocodiles have also attacked fishermen. Earlier this year, a crocodile attacked an elephant. And in May, authorities issued an ominous warning: beware of stray crocodiles in areas inundated by the heavy rains.

Weerasinghe said Sri Lanka is special because nearly 90 percent of its wildlife is unique to the country, meaning it cannot be found anywhere else in the world because it has been evolving for millennia.

About 65 percent of its reptiles, 86 percent of its frogs, and 33 species of its birds are unique to Sri Lanka, he said.

“This is one of the reasons why we’re considered a hot spot,” Weerakoon said. “Because we have so many that are unique. If we lose them, the whole world loses them. That puts a lot of pressure on us.

“Compared to the size of landmass, the country harbors an extraordinarily rich biodiversity,” he said. “Even the territorial waters are rich with marine life and have one of the largest concentrations of blue and sperm whales and a large number of other whales and dolphin species.”

Weerasinghe said organizations such as SLWCS fill a crucial role of mediator between wildlife and humans. The organization’s motto is “Empowering people, saving wildlife.”

“It is not a matter of wildlife and people learning to coexist peacefully; it is just people learning to coexist with wildlife,” Weerasinghe said. “Otherwise, there is no way that we can provide protection to a vast number of animals and their habitats.”

Tourists can volunteer with conservation groups or visit places such as the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage that house orphaned or injured elephants. Others join guided safaris in national parks to photograph animals or camp out overnight.

With the exception of farmers whose crops get munched or trampled, the people of Sri Lanka are famously fond of their wildlife.

They are also fond of what it can do to their wallets. It takes only a cursory glance at the many safari ads in tourist magazines to see just how much Sri Lanka’s people and wildlife are intertwined. And how the island makes the most of it.

The Garden of Eden

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A paradise of rare plants collides with farmers who need land, loggers who need trees. Something has to give.

T his fertile land of lavish greenery has become one of the world’s top biodiversity hot spots, home to hundreds of plants found nowhere else on earth.

Of the island’s 3,210 flowering plant species, 916 are endemic, meaning they can only be found in Sri Lanka. The island is awash in orchids, with 74 endemic species and others considered extremely rare. The rare daffodil orchid, found in the central highlands, grows here but has become increasingly hard to find as a result of increased collection and deforestation. There are many trees, mosses and ferns found nowhere else as well.   

Sri Lanka ranks 15th in the world in biodiversity per land area. Even when competing with mega-countries like the United States and Brazil that have a much larger land area, Sri Lanka remains a top 25 country for biodiversity.

It is an old, unfortunate truth: Once discovered, a natural paradise is often threatened. Sri Lanka is no different. Its natural beauty has long been under siege, its dense rain forests and government-protected parks and preserves in constant danger of encroachment from illegal farmers and loggers.

As late as the 1920s, half the island was still under forest cover, but by 2005, this had fallen by about 26 percent as development, sprawling tea plantations, rice farms and logging operations whittled away at it. Between 1900 and 2000, Sri Lanka lost an average of 26,000 hectares (about 66,224 acres) of forest a year. Today, about 30 percent of the island is forested and a small amount – 412,000 acres – is considered primary forest, the most biodiverse form.

Fortunately, the loss of tree cover has slowed to a near halt thanks to tough conservation laws and an aggressive forestry program designed to protect woodlands.

As lumber production grows, forest cover shrinks. A part of the widespread deforestation came as population growth accelerated the need for housing and fuel, driving the lumber industry to feed on the wealth of the island’s native trees. The island is home to ebony, mahogany, satinwood and teak, many of which are utilized for furniture production. The industry is primarily harbored in the Colombo suburb of Moratuwa.

A lot of hotels are actually very eco-friendly here. Most hotels are conscious of the local flora and fauna

Ian Lockwood

The island also possesses a large quantity of rubber trees that are not native to Sri Lanka, but the industry still accounts for a large portion of the country’s exports. It is a perfect example of the constant conflict plaguing a country whose economy depends so heavily on an industry that has the potential to destroy what makes it unique.

Other industries have put pressure on forests as well. The country’s top export, tea, is a major thread in the fabric of Sri Lankan economics and culture. Tea is not native to Sri Lanka. It was planted by a Scotsman named James Taylor in the mid-1800s, when the island was a part of the tea-conscious British Empire, and the industry has prospered ever since.

“Our culture depends on the tea,” said Madawa Marasinghe, manager of the Kadugannawa Tea Factory in Kandy.

It is so popular here that the average Sri Lankan drinks around seven to eight cups of tea per day, according to Maliki Perera, a 22-year-old guide at Kadugannawa.

Sri Lanka is one of the world’s largest tea exporters. According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, Sri Lanka exported $1.22 billion in tea in 2015 compared to China’s $1.17 billion. The OEC also reported that tea makes up more than 10 percent of the country’s exports. Tea plantations draw tourists. People from around the world travel to experience the lush green terraced hillsides that resemble giant wedding cakes. The experience gives tourists a window into a major slice of Sri Lankan identity.

Yet the vast terraced tea plantations have gobbled up forest land and hampered efforts to save endangered plants by cultivating them on new lands.

The government knows its plants and forests are special. People lovingly refer to their island as the location of the biblical Garden of Eden. They consider the landscape so important that Article 28, Section (f) of the country’s constitution states that a Sri Lankan’s duty is “to protect nature and conserve its riches.” In 1994, the government drafted the National Biodiversity Conservation Action Plan with the help of multiple organizations including state agencies, non-government groups, and university professors. The plan’s main objective was to put an end to timber felling in wet zone forests, including the Sinharaja rain forest, and put 13 wet zone forests under complete protection.

In 2016, the United States Agency for International Development analyzed Sri Lanka’s biodiversity. USAID found that while the government should closely monitor minor threats to forest cover, the outlawing of logging in wet zones and other areas has kept forest cover fairly steady over the last 20 years.

For residents of the island, such threats do not go unnoticed.

“There’s small encroachment in different places,” Ian Lockwood, an American environmentalist and elementary school teacher in Colombo, said.

Lockwood said Sri Lankans understand the importance of conservation.

“A lot of hotels are actually very eco-friendly here. Most hotels are conscious of the local flora and fauna,” he said.

Above all, Lockwood stressed the importance of never being complacent. He preaches conservation in his classroom and aims to teach his students about the natural riches their island has to offer.

“It’s about education,” he said.

Tears of Joy

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The tsunami destroyed all hope. Then the women got together. And everything changed.

 

T ears slowly crept down her cheeks as P. Pigawathi Silva told how she and the other women of this humble village overcame tragedy and male bias to create a better life for themselves, their children and their community.

Silva, one of the community’s leaders, has received awards from the Western Province government for courage and dedication to her family after weathering a 2004 tsunami that killed more than 35,000 on Sri Lanka’s southwest coasts.

After her home was inundated by the towering waves, she and her family fled to higher ground, lucky to be alive.

“I lost everything,” Silva said. “I was psychologically very disturbed. It is only my three children and husband left. I lost direction in life. Then I got to know about this (women’s) society and I decided to join [it]. My tears are for happiness, joy. My past was full of misery … But today I am happy.”

The tsunami that struck Silva and thousands of others shook the region to its core. But it wasn’t the last tragedy that would strike this already poor place. Earlier this year, the village was devastated by vast mudslides that destroyed houses and claimed dozens of lives. To top it all off, the heavily male workforce was beaten down, discouraged, in need of motivation. After all those losses, the village desperately needed hope, desperately needed a plan for resurgence.

My tears are for happiness, joy. My past was full of misery … But today I am happy.”

P. Pigawathi Silva

That is when Silva and many women like her stepped up to the challenge. With help from Norway’s Strømme Foundation, they discovered that together, they could use their combined knowledge and skills to better the community through self-help programs and committees. The women were taught practical skills that they could use to make money, boost the local economy and improve the education of their children. The women, many with little more than an elementary school education, learned to plan, to dream big, to work together to help each other and the whole community. Suddenly, where despair reigned, ambition was born.

“I started doing some farming, started half an acre of tea … but I invested my income for my children’s education. That was my priority,” Silva said.

She said that when the women began to work, they had to deal with backlash from men in the village who did not approve of women participating in village leadership or usurping the role of breadwinner. Yet, when the women showed how their work benefited the local economy, when money started to appear, the men took notice. They got with the program, a major shift in this male-dominated society.

“At the beginning we had challenges with the men,” Silva said with a smile. “Of course when we do good things, they like it and they support it, but in the past it was a different story.”

But, even with everything she has done for her family and for the village, Silva said that she has received more in return than she ever could have hoped for.

“My dreams were rebuilt without being dependent upon others. I wanted to rebuild my family, wanted to educate my three children, wanted to have my house and wanted to have some income for us to live,” she said. “I started building self-confidence after meeting these women in these groups. Listening with them, working with them, I realized that I have a future.”

Try It. You’ll Like It.

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Foodies are flocking to sample this spice island’s unique tastes.


I ’m strolling down the buffet line, trying to understand the food choices by their unfamiliar names, sometimes guessing by color and smell. I consult a fellow tourist. Not sure. With high hopes, I shove food on my plate and move on to the next option. Finally returning to my table, I dig into this mystery meal, hoping that it isn’t too spicy or different tasting for this picky eater.

In Sri Lanka, a spice island if there ever was one, the flavors are different. So are the colors. There a zillion spices in the country and they are used on just about everything you can eat. You may order grilled grouper and find it covered with a thick red spice. It’s much the same with plain old chicken. But hey, these people know their spices and they know what they’re doing. Is it good? Ask the locals. Ask the tourists. You may be surprised to hear similar answers.

“The spice does not bother me,” Mathuga resident Dinesha Kumari said. “It adds a tasty change to foods like rice.”

Whether in the capital of Colombo or in a more rural area, the pickiest of eaters can find food tailored towards American tourists while in Sri Lanka. Spice is in everything so whether checking out the buffet at your hotel or after looking at top ranked restaurants online, ask your server what to expect when trying new foods.

Even the least adventurous eaters may discover that after a while, the hot, spicy taste grows on you.

“I grew up in a home where we always had spice,” American-born Colombo resident Ian Lockwood said.

“Sri Lankan food is pretty spicy but the hardest part is traveling to somewhere where it isn’t so hot. What do you do when you go somewhere and the food is bland? When traveling in the U.S. this summer, we carried around small chili packs,” he said.

Tourists looking to dig deep into Sri Lankan food can find family-owned restaurants on almost every street. Small grocery stores are also easily accessible for snacks. Genetically modified foods were banned in Sri Lanka in 2001 so when compared to snacks found in America, there are healthier options here.

If you are looking for more food options, be ready to spend money. Googling “fine dining in Sri Lanka” will take you to many restaurants and grills located in some of the country’s most upscale hotels. Visitors can choose between rooftop lounges or elaborate buffets on the beach. No matter your preference, you can expect to spend $20 or more on these meals.

Stuck between the ocean and the busy city streets of Colombo is Galle Face Green, a stretch of lawn occupied by both locals and visitors looking to purchase food from vendors in tents or take a stroll by the water at sunset. The regal Galle Face Hotel nearby, built in 1864 when the British occupied the country, is known for its lavish guest rooms as well as its restaurant and bar and the buffet on the seaside terrace.   

We serve food options including American during our lunch hours then more Sri Lankan options for dinner.

Suresh Liyange

“We serve food options including American during our lunch hours then more Sri Lankan options for dinner,” said Galle Face Hotel buffet chef Suresh Liyange.

Mount Lavinia Hotel is another elegant antique in the heart of the capital. In the white and shiny foyer, visitors are greeted by doormen decked out in white uniforms including above the knee shorts and tall socks. Once the mansion of an English governor, Thomas Maitland, the hotel is named after Maitland’s secret lover, a local dancer named Lovina. Now it serves tourists from all over the world. Australian chef and media personality Peter Kuruvita was so intrigued by the food options here, it inspired his first cookbook.

“They have one of the best Sri Lankan buffets I’ve ever had,” Kuruvita said.

When driving around town, Americans addicted to fast food can easily spot familiar restaurants including Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut. Some food options are similar to what we are used to but there are also other things, including more dishes of chicken rather than beef.

“KFC and Pizza Hut are delicious and have good service,” says Kumari.

These dishes are not only for tourists. On a regular Wednesday night, locals pack the joints. It isn’t unusual to see Sri Lankans eating in obvious tourist haunts.

“The locals come here too,” said Pavithra Ranasingha, bartender and cook at Mosvold Villa in Ahangama. “They usually order Sri Lankan food but at lunch they sometimes order American food.”

On this island in the Indian Ocean, fresh seafood is a staple. Travel blogger Mark Wiens of Migrationology recently created a list of  top dishes to try while in Sri Lanka. Not surprisingly, seafood dominated the list.

As the island’s reputation for exotic food has spread, travel bloggers have made the pilgrimage to cities such as Colombo to sample fresh seafood like crab, fish, prawns and lobster, often spiced in the Sri Lankan way. Kanrin Beach Hut is one of the city’s seafood restaurants where menus aren’t provided. Instead, a server brings out a platter full of options so customers can easily pick from the selection.

It’s only natural that an island would serve a lot of seafood, especially along its coasts. After all, Sri Lanka’s seafood sector has given the island’s economy a boost. In the aftermath of a three decade civil war, there has been a continual rise in tuna fishing. Sri Lanka is expanding its exports of tuna with the likes of yellow fin and big eye species.

The Sri Lanka Export Development Board reports that the seafood sector has grown five percent within the last five years with buyers flocking here from across the world, including the U.S. Other meats, including shrimp, are all exported from Sri Lanka in large numbers.

Oh yeah, about that buffet line. Don’t knock it ‘till you try it.

Sometimes the weirdest looking options are best. At first I was put off by that yellow stuff covering the mystery meat but darn, it was good. The moral: Try it. You might like it.

The Crusader

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How one man’s mission helped thousands escape poverty.

 

A s a young man, Nimal Martinus rose swiftly through the ranks at a prosperous tea plantation in Sri Lanka’s highlands, managing more than 1,000 workers as the big farm’s second in command.

One day, as he supervised workers carrying bundles of delicate, freshly picked tea leaves, one of them dropped his precious load, a terrible error in the proud, quality-obsessed world of Ceylon tea production. Martinus quickly prodded him in the back with a stick, reprimanding the man for his mistake.

In obvious distress, the man stared silently at his boss for a long time. Then he spoke words Martinus will never forget.

“Do you treat me like this because I am poor?”

Martinus stared back, speechless, appalled. That night, the words of the worker rattled around and around his brain in an endless loop, tormenting him. After a sleepless night, he quit his job, vowing to do something that would help people.  

The workers’ words not only changed Martinus’ life, but subsequently the lives of thousands from South America to Southeast Asia.

In the three decades since, he has taught bush people in Cali, Colombia, how to use radio transmissions to pressure the government for help; worked to eradicate prostitution and opiate addiction in India’s Golden Triangle; helped remote villages in The Gambia create their own television station to draw media attention to their problems; and helped reduce school dropouts and human trafficking in Bangladesh and Nepal. He helped small, destitute tea farmers in Sri Lanka escape poverty by processing and selling their own tea, skirting the middlemen who usually consumed the profits.

Now, instead of chasing the good life, he was changing the lives of the poor, showing them how to take things into their own hands and build a better future for themselves and their children.

But it didn’t happen overnight. And it was never easy.

After resigning his plum plantation job, Martinus went to India to study sociology and management. He wanted to learn how to teach people to alter their own lives and pull themselves out of poverty. He traveled the world trying to understand issues related to poverty and developed a loose but effective system to mobilize and transform villages.

“We create participatory methodologies,” Martinus said. “For me, development is nothing but getting people to think consciously, critically, so that they will be able to find solutions rather than waiting for outside advice.”

Martinus’ deceptively simple self-help philosophy is based largely on the belief that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to poverty. It varies according to the circumstances people face.

I am a social worker, I am a facilitator, I am an educator, I am a leader that will stand behind and beside, not always in the front. But more than anything else, I have passion, and I understand people in the same way that I understand myself.

-Nimal Martinus

He has pursued his crusade by himself as well as with groups such as the World Bank, the Strømme Foundation, Save the Children, Worldview International, the United Nations and UNESCO, always with one purpose: to help people in struggling communities identify weaknesses and strengths and come up with their own personalized solutions that come from within. What he doesn’t do is what the vast majority of well-meaning foreign charities and foundations do — force solutions from his own culture on the locals.

His secret: He spends no less than five, and as many as 10 years living in the communities he helps mobilize.

“You have to learn by doing; there is no shortcut for that,” Martinus, 60, said. “You must first listen to people and understand how they live. Go to people, live with them, eat what they have, and start where you are.”

One of the first places Martinus put this theory to the test was in his home country of Sri Lanka, on the south coast where he was born. He decided to look at the challenges, problems and potential of impoverished fishing communities, which are notoriously isolated and unsophisticated.

“I spent five to six years working with the fishermen, learning about them, going in the boats and canoes, throwing the nets, but also trying to understand their perceptions and how they perceive life,” Martinus said. “I think that was the biggest experience I ever had in my life, because there was so much poverty and misery and so many challenges.”      

By living alongside fishermen in Negombo, Martinus earned their trust. They had been poor so long that they had lost hope they could ever do better. Over time, he was able to pinpoint why they could not make any money. The main issue, he said, was a lack of educational motivation coupled with a societal distrust of banks. Martinus helped them create education programs for their youth as well as a banking system run by the fishermen, for the fishermen. The banks handed out loans that helped the fishermen buy better equipment.

“Changing their mindsets to become self-helpful was my mission. I wanted to show people that they have the capacity, the resources, but first they need to change the way that they think,” Martinus said.    

He was able to persuade the women of the village first. The men, many of whom spent their off hours in heavy drinking, were reluctant but jumped on board when they saw the women making money.

“We were not united in the beginning,” says Paliyagataye Nilmini, one of the female village leaders. “We were competing against each other for survival, but we realized that was a foolish thing. We realized as a small group we could help each other and come together as a powerhouse in the village.”

Before they banded together, Martinus said, the fishermen were exploited by boat owners and unaware of their basic rights.

By coming together and pooling their resources, the community was able to conquer many of Ngambo’s problems as well as improve the schooling of their children. They were also able to move past a big cultural barrier: getting this traditionally male-dominated society to accept women in leadership roles.

“I started building self-confidence after meeting these women’s groups, listening with them, working with them. I realized that I have a future,” says P. Pigawathi Silva, another of the female village leaders.      

It is the same with the small tea farmers Martinus helped organize in and around Baduraliya, further south along the coast.  There, you can see it in the eyes of the women, hear it in their voices. Flush with success, they are full of confidence, proud of what they have done, ready for whatever is next. After all, they have each other.

Renuka Jayasingha, 47, recalled how organization helped her children. Their tiny school had only two teachers and five classes. “So our children could not get an education.”

In the old days, they would have thrown up their hands in helplessness.    

No more. “We had 90 members so we got together and went to the local education authorities. But they were reluctant. They would hide. They did not want to face us,” she said.

The group knew just what to do. They organized a demonstration and paraded with signs in front of the officials’ offices. Here came the TV cameras. They got national media coverage.

“Within one week we got seven teachers and now it is functioning very well,” she said, a triumphant gleam in her eye. “The strength came from this program, from the group.”

Now, there is a whole network of villages plugged into the group.           

“Now people saw that they were gaining power and had strength,” Martinus said.

The power of the group also put money in their pockets. The small tea farmers had long been “exploited by people who did not give them a proper price,” Martinus said. Before, they were poor and marginalized and easily intimidated. Many of the women had little or no schooling and didn’t read or write. Now, they were negotiating with factory owners, direct-marketing their own tea “and making a good profit.”

Martinus plans to spend a semester teaching at the University of Mississippi. But not just teaching. He would like to explore the Mississippi Delta to see if he could make a difference in the lives of poverty-stricken families who have depended on welfare for three or four generations.

This single-minded devotion to the elimination of rural poverty around the world started with one life-changing interaction at a tea plantation. Those simple words — “Do you treat me like this because I am poor?” —  changed one man and gave him a lifelong mission.

Martinus is quick to point out that he didn’t do this by himself.

“I am a social worker, I am a facilitator, I am an educator, I am a leader that will stand behind and beside, not always in the front,” he said. “But more than anything else, I have passion, and I understand people in the same way that I understand myself.”

 

NIMAL MARTINUS: ON THE MAP