We were surprised today--quite surprised, when the lady at the front desk asked Janet whether we'd be able to give money to the school where her sister works. "They spent more than one lakh (Rs 100,000 ) on school supplies in December and now they need help paying it back." "But Mr. Thavarajah introduced us to Sister Helen last week and we bought all the kids notebooks and backpacks and art supplies." "That's a different place," she said. "The girls' home you went to is an orphanage. This is a school. And every one of them is Christian." (Does it make a difference--especially to us--the only non-Christian white people for miles around? Maybe the only ones on the island?).
She proceeded to open her smart phone and show Janet photos and videos of the Christmas pageant, the children costumed and dancing and her brother-in-law cavorting like a Sri Lankan Santa Claus. Why did Thavarajah take us to the orphanage, Janet wondered. Didn't he know this was the place she was talking about last week when she mentioned her conversation with the front desk person?
Maybe he did and maybe he didn't. Maybe he knows about this school and maybe he ignores it. Maybe he misunderstood because Janet did, and mentioned "orphanage" because that was her best understanding. Whatever. The need is endless. Several hundred dollars' of school supplies poured into one cause doesn't fill the need of the next. It's a pocket that won't fill. And just as we suspected in the first place, throwing money at it won't fix it. And incidentally it's lovely to make the orphans happy with Santa costumes but what about the money they knew they'd need for the required notebooks? (Janet says she'd like to introduce loose leaf paper. Come on. Don't you remember the stupid trapper-keepers we had to buy for our kids each year? And how useless they were?).
The endless pocket is a sign of systemic dysfunction. It reminds me of a visit I paid to my dentist a few years ago. An innocent cleaning. His assistant, Kenisha, was poking around in my mouth when she found a pocket where calcium from the tooth was draining into a gum that was disintegrating. There was a half inch hole that would only keep growing. A kind of cascade of rot. No cause was found. The tooth had to be pulled and I had an ugly gaping hole for a year. I think it was about systemic dysfunction in my work life. A horrible dean and a confused chairman, professional poison in a constant flow, no way out that I could see. Maybe I was grinding the teeth. But I was wearing a night guard! I was so upset I asked my doctor If something else might be going on. Was I losing bone mass in other parts of my body? Amazingly an X-ray and bone mass imaging were taken, mistaken with someone else's, and I was misdiagnosed with osteoporosis. A difficult year it was until the mistake was traced and the hole filled.
Among the indignities was a stupid "expert" at one of our leading hospitals in Boston who spent about three minutes with me and insisted that if only I took massive amounts of vitamin D I'd be cured. I felt like I was in a whirlpool quicksand of quacks and idiocy and bad intentions and good intentions gone bad. It was ugly.
So here I am in far eastern Sri Lanka. The needs are wrenching. The solutions are inadequate. A perverse system of international handouts and outlandish ideas that are supposed to provide solutions has evolved to fill an endless pocket of need, a society rotting from within as the result of a cruel civil war, terror and repression, ongoing ethnic and religious tension, widespread mental illness, and unimaginable natural disaster. It's a world of quacks and cheats and corruption. Wish I could say it was a pretty place.
There is no end to the hole of need. It seems sometimes the mutual hates are overwhelming, and I wish it were as easy as microsurgery and installing a beautiful fake porcelain tooth.