Monday, November 5, 2007

Life is no more uncertain

I awoke with a horrific dream. I had been staying at Hotel Peacock at Hamamamamthota in south west Sri Lanka, six hours from Colombo, listening to the sound of wild waves throughout the night. I wondered how this hotel had survived the tsunami. The entire Hamananthota district had been swamped by the tsunami, and around 4,500 people lost their life. You can see the sea from the open terrace of the hotel which doubles up as the coffee shop, it is less than 50 metres from the sea. I dreamed of a flooding sea, roaring waves and the sound of screaming human beings.

The next day, I was shocked when my Sri Lankan activist-translator friend Mr Indica told me more than 60 hotel guest and staff lost their lives in the tsunami, others were rescued and shifted to safer hotels. Perhaps I was in the same room where one of them had spent his or her last minutes! I steeled my heart. Here are thousands of people who lost their families and are trying to rebuild their life on the same shore. I am here to listen to their stories and understand the inner strength of people in overcoming crises.

Ayisha is a 21-year-old mother of a two-and-half-year-old child, whom I met in Kirinda Godana village. I met her through the Ruthunu Rural Women’s Organization. Her husband has been suffering from eye cancer for the last five year. She looks healthy and pleasant and was feeding her baby. This organization works in southern Sri Lanka to improve the socio-economic conditions of the most vulnerable women and their families. She seems at ease with me and starts talking to me in Sinhalese. It happened on the flight as well. Does a Malayalee woman from India look like a Sri Lankan? I don’t know! I traveled for six hours into the interior of Sri Lanka, but the villages could have been those in Kerala. Sri Lanka is less populated and uses less land for housing; it looks like the Kerala of 15 years ago. They have no doubts about my identity and even the police at local travel security checkposts spoke to me in Sinhalese

Mr Indica translated Ayisha’s story. She got married when she was 17 to Premadasa Perera, who was in his 40s. He was a mediator to god and chanted for worshippers. Her grandmother found him for her. She is the third of four sisters. He is from Kaluthara and they kept moving after their marriage. She now lives in the deep interior, near a wildlife sanctuary. Most of the land around is wet, and over 100 families have settled here after the tsunami.

In the early days of their marriage, her husband worked in a stone quarry and earned over Rs 600 per day. Following an eye infection, he couldn’t work any more, and underwent three surgeries before the cancer was detected.

I asked her about the tsunami nightmare three years ago. She said, “My neighbours told me about the tsunami. They ask me to run, but my husband stayed back as he was unwell. I ran with the others, as I had someone very special to protect—I was pregnant. The sea came very close to our hut, but did not destroy it. I ran I don’t know how many kilometres. Finally a vehicle from the city came to rescue us. My hands were empty, but my stomach was full.”

Hambantota district consists of 12 divisional secretariat (DS) divisions and 592 Grama Niladhari (GN) divisions. Hambantota is one of the districts severely affected by the tsunami and one of the poorest. 16,994 families or about 78,968 people in it were affected by the tsunami, while 3,334 families were displaced and 3,067 deaths reported. 2,303 houses were destroyed and 1,744 houses partially damaged.

According to government statistics, 35% of its population is below the national poverty line. Its vulnerability was exaggerated by the tsunami, which devastated peoples’ livelihoods. The poverty of the women in Sri Lanka, in particular, has drastically increased in the last two decades and is linked to their unequal situation in the labour market and status within the family. In Hambantota, the unemployment rate for women is 40.5 per cent, as against 13.4 per cent for men. The economic prospects for women are poor compared to national figures.

Ayisha finds herself in a peculiar position after the tsunami. Because of ill health, her husband could not find work, so he used to beg at the Kirintha Temple, where a lot of tourists and locals came to pray. But after the tsunami affected the whole area, people simply deserted the place. From then onwards, he was totally dependent on the community. Since they were all in the same boat, they tried to avoid him. A lot of organizations worked for post-tsunami relief, rehabilitating those who had lost their family members, homes and livelihood. But by their criteria, Ayisha has not lost anything! But nobody would loan her anything any more, and the last days of pregnancy were spent in terrible and unimaginable poverty. Her husband used to cry day and night with fear for the future. Ayisha had no hope when the baby boy was born.

In Tissamaharama area, a lot of property was destroyed. There is a need for post tsunami development projects that specifically target women. The morale and self esteem of the women is very low, which has led to the neglect of their children and youth. Many have children and youth that they struggle to care for. There is a need to create livelihoods for women that generate enough income so that they are economically and personally empowered to care for themselves and their families.

The Ruhunu Rural Women’s Organization was founded in 1984 to help alleviate the problems faced by rural women in the villages of Dikkubure and Andupelene, near Ranne Town, Tangalle DS Division, and Hambantota District.

RRWO staff addresses other community problems such as access to water through their rain water harvesting program, health & hygiene and environmental problems through the kitchen improvement/efficiency programme and establishing home gardens and the provision of family latrines. RRWO now works in over 46 villages, has developed over 47 CBOs and has over 2,500 direct members.

With the help of Action Aid International Sri Lanka (AAISL), RRWO start working with the objective of Immediate Humanitarian Needs in the tsunami affected community, their psycho social care, livelihood support and also capacity building.

They decided to support Ayisha because their criteria are flexible. They supported her husband’s medical treatment. But life remains difficult. As she is attractive, it was unsafe for her to stay in a mud hut without doors. She cant forget the night she attacked by a masked man! He touched her leg and try to molest her. Her husband cried for help, but nobody came--the whole area was deserted after the tsunami. So RRWO built a proper house for her family. Ayisha knows her house costs Rs. 5.3 lakhs: she keeps an account book. “When we laid the foundation of the house, no one came. Earlier I had friends, but once I fell sick, most of them didn’t talk to me, perhaps they were worried I would ask them for a loan.” They are also scattered after the tsunami. In their village Kirinda Godana 60 people died and it is a flood prone area.

She is waiting for a good date to shift to the new house, where she won’t have to worry about any more floods and human attacks. She will feel much more secure. Her husband seems confident as well. Ayisha cannot sit idle; she wants to take her life beyond uncertainty.

Their house is in an area called “100 hundred houses”, a resettlement colony of tsunami affected people. Ayisha is now planning to sell plastic goods provided by RRWO in bi-weekly market at her colony. They have already given her a bicycle for transport. “My husband will transport them by bike and we will sell them together. I also want to learn to ride a bike so that I can transport the goods myself.”

Ms Nadika, activist from RRWO, says, “We have allocated Rs 5,000-7,000 as initial support for their livelihood. We think there is a market for plastic items but we try for try it for three months and see how it works.”

Ayisha is waiting for market day. Life is not that uncertain for her any more. She is looking forward to it.


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