Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sri Lankan journey: Big needs, small needs, chickpeas, and the heart

I'm exhausted from my night trip to Colombo from Batticaloa but I have to start at least to write about our experiences in the East our last day. It's incumbent upon me I feel to communicate the depth of experience, and to reflect on the true nature of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan friendship that I encountered in Batticaloa. 


But before I write I have to tell you about the chickpeas on the train. It was early on our trip to Batticaloa but far enough into the train ride that we were already feeling pretty grubby. The hands especially. They feel sticky, gummy, much too dirty to use for eating. 


Along comes a vendor with small packets of chickpeas. They are Rs 20 for a small pack. I see people are buying them so I take the dive, filthy hands or not. The chickpeas are perfectly cooked. They are packed with one or two curry leaves. There is clove. There are other aromatics I don't know. In fact they are so unusual in this mixture I can't read them-- only detect their presence. It is a perfect morning wake up breakfast someplace past Gampaha.  


Last night I am at a loud and lively cricket club in the poshest corner of Colombo, cheering on a friend who had a singing gig there. There is smoke and booze and the open building plan exposed to the beautiful night breeze is not enough to waft away the smell of fun. Large plates of chickpeas are served, the same "recipe" as from the train. The chickpeas are canned and mealy. Onion and peppers have been chopped in. Heaps of the bland starch are served with plastic spoons. 

The equation is not as simple as posh is bland and poor is spicy. It is about care and caring, what we used to call "curating" before the term was taken by advertisers. 

At our Batticaloa guest house we are greeted by pleasant staff whose English is good. They are our handlers for the first few days, taking care of meals and this and that, whatever we perceive we need. Behind the scenes, just a few meters from all the activity, right on the guesthouse "campus," the owners stay behind the scene. It is several days before they emerge, longer until they introduce themselves. 


First Mr. Thavarjah takes less than five minutes with us. The next time is is still a test, barely longer. On ensuing days the visits are a bit longer and finally our two field trips, the first one short and bland, to the kovil and experimental farm, the second longer, spicier, more dramatic--to Kattankudy and the Sufi mosque. 


It is our last afternoon, just several hours until our train. I mention to Thavarajah about my son in law Jose, who will be visiting Sri Lanka to see some of the YMCA people. I was told the day before that Thavarajah's work in the Methodist church was connected to the Y, and that he was a past president of the Batticaloa YMCA. I ask Mr. Thavarajah a few questions about what the Y in Batticaloa does, especially their work with hearing impaired children. Micro loans, community development, child safety are several of their concerns. And as I probe I listen. Carefully. How do they provide aid to families? What is the structure of their work? How are families identified, assessed, followed during the process? It occurs to me that the process is what we'd call "granular," finely tuned, well thought out, and carefully undertaken, details attended to. Something like Thavarah's large garden. Something like the small bag of chickpeas. Something curated. Small steps. 


Comes to mind our New Zealand friends at the guesthouse here to check up on the aid activities of a large international childrens' fund. They are popping into communities, doing activities with children, meeting with local "partners" who siphon the money. It is a large endeavor full of photographs and fuss. They are driven everywhere and nowhere. They are fed large portions. Their footstep is large and their impact is ambiguous. Computers, sports equipment, school uniforms are generously given by well-meaning clueless donors. These field visitors are as clueless; "we're teaching them to cook," "we're teaching them hygiene," "we're helping them take better care of their children." The cheek is immense and shocking. Partly because it comes out of the mouths of educated well-intentioned and well-mannered people. With a pile of money behind them.  

I mention this to Thavarajah. He knows. 

He asks if we'd like to visit the Y. We only have one small bag each and the train station, which he's taking us to anyway, is just a few minutes away. Why not take one last tour? A small tour which for me had large impact. 


The YMCA is large and new. It is cared for and an event that just ended has left chairs and a bit of a mess around the place. We are shown the assembly hall, the offices, a meeting room, a classroom. What about the deaf school?

Thavarajah thinks for a moment and decides to take us. The school is right next door. A teacher greets us. It's Saturday so there are no lessons. Children are brought in by van during the week but there are maybe 20 children in residence. First we don't see them. 


We see classrooms. Activity rooms. Walls and stairs. Visible signs of the learning environment. Sign language charts in Tamil, Singhala, and English. The rooms are much, much darker than classrooms in America. They are dim, like many interiors we've seen here. What does this mean culturally? Are these classes dim on purpose?

We have heard from Mr. Thavarjah that many children lost their ability to speak or hear when they saw their parents murdered by LTTE terrorists in front of their eyes. Are these dim classrooms designed for children who have experienced the horrors of terrorism? Are they PTSD-related? Or is it a cultural norm? I've never been in a classroom here. But these rooms are small. Intimate. Close. Almost suffocating in their near-darkness. 


I ask about behavior, especially of boys. I've seen the girls now, some of whom are eager to make contact with us. They are expressive and we see it on their faces. The boys not so much. They are in the shadows and come out slowly. Some stay behind in the dark. The boys, I'm told, do act out. They are frustrated. They show anger. "Boys" I say and Thavarajah relates that three of his employees are hearing impaired, one with other learning-developmental disabilities. These boys, Thavarajah says, get very angry sometimes, especially at meal time when they're hungry and they think they are getting smaller portions or are being treated unfairly. 

How is it to teach these boys in a small classroom? The teachers must be incredibly devoted. I feel their energy all around. I sense the professionalism. And I sense the support they get from the community. One person has just come in to make a donation on her birthday and she is swamped by the girls who are hugging her, touching her, signing to her. 

We are shown "handwork" by the children. A paper flower, a birthday card. Children have appliqu├ęd fabric onto pillowcases and these are sold for Rs 200. We buy a few though we were not brought here to buy. 

We are served tea in the lobby of the school and the children gather around us. Some are shy and some are more aggressive. I struggle to make eye contact with each child and to smile. 

South Asia has the highest rate of child deafness in the world and Sri Lanka is among the countries where it is most prevalent. Here in Batticaloa the YMCA has taken great efforts with the leadership of a few people Mr. Thavurajah mentions, to meet this challenge. They are caring for their own people. They are going beyond treating and teaching deaf children. They are intervening in a social catastrophe that occurred with the conflict and the tsunami. 

They were intervening then during the social catastrophe. And they are anticipating the next social catastrophe that may come from places like Kattankudy and one by one they are strengthening children, families, and the community for now and for the future. 

Thavarajah mentions now he used to live just across the road from this neighborhood. He lives on the grounds of the resort now. He doesn't say why he moved. He does tell us that on this street people were burned alive during what he calls "the terror." He could hear their screams. I wonder. How could you not go crazy hearing this? I think of the bodies on the street. I think of drowned bodies from the tsunami. 

Thavarajah's story is like the aromatic presence in the chickpeas. I knew it was there but I couldn't read it. It took him two weeks to unravel it for us. 

"Is this too hard for you?" he asks. This is the first time on this trip something here has hit me so personally, so viscerally. I was open but I was unprepared. I forgot from my last visit how deeply personal relationships become here once you are trusted. You become trusted by being around long enough and speaking gently. Go fast and loud and you will not make contact. Stay close and still and a world opens to you as deeply as a cavernous cave. 

I was affected more than I thought by what Thavarajah told me. Not least because it came so quietly and after so many days of (limited) discourse with him. I hadn't considered that he would read my feelings. 

We drove up to another place, close to the street he showed us, "St. Theresa's retreat." We got out of the car and stepped into a quiet front area that looked deserted. Inside, a large hall with two sewing tables set up. Two young women doing close embroidery at a high table in what looked like very dim light. They were sewing vestments for an initiation ceremony coming up in Colombo a few days into the future. 

We were met by the head sister, who spoke good English but mostly spoke Tamil with Thavarajah. She had spent 20 years in Paraguay so she must have been speaking Spanish when she heard on Christmas Day her family had been washed to sea. She came back here and though she is not connected with the Y she has been teaching young girls to do fine handwork. The enterprise, more than 40 girls, is supported by sales of the work, which are mostly marketed in high-end hotels in Colombo. If I saw these in Colombo I'd think "nice" but I'd never buy them. Here they are not for sale and we were not here to buy but we have bought. 

Three hand towels for Jose's parents with gorgeous embroidered native birds of Sri Lanka. 

Most of the girls leave after they're trained, we're told, before they start making things that are saleable. It takes two or three years for a girl to be trained to do useful work but most of the girls leave for factories for fast money. The sole support for keeping the girls during training comes from sales. Some few girls go  back to the villages, sometimes they are set up with a sewing machine. Sometimes two or three women in a village get a sewing machine from the YMCA as a micro loan. These loans may be Rs 10,000 or so. Always paid back, I am told. 

In the West we are accustomed to big needs. Here it may be the needs are small because so many people have so little. In the West we do things Big. Big finance, big building, big agriculture. Big people. Here still most things seem to be small. Micro finance, small buildings, small projects. In the West we have big targets. The World Trade Center. Bataclan Theater in Paris. Here the targets are smaller but more powerful. Human hearts and hands. 

Here we feel each others' hearts. They beat in the dark in still places. Thavurajah's heart touched ours as he kissed us both goodbye in front of the night train.  


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