September 10, 2005

Forgotten Smiles

The dispossessed people of Sri Lanka continue to wait for help from a government that has failed them. Yet, in the midst of suffering and loss, they demonstrate the most unexpected reserves of smiles and laughter.

The message was repeated over and over - "The government no help". I am walking along the foreshore of Dewatta, a fishing community on the western outskirts of Galle. There are fishing boats and outriggers along the beach and powerful waves crash into the shore and nearby breakwaters. Even without the tsunami the force of the ocean is impressive, but across the road the tent communities are by far the more compelling sight. Hundreds of people occupy the land on either side of the railway tracks, living in camping tents donated by foreign aid agencies during the tsunami emergency response.

There is no shortage of young men who want to show me their homes. Firdous is the most persistent talker although his English lacks the employ of tense and definite articles, "Very problem. Tsunami coming. You see my house you come now." I follow him through the village. Sewerage pools up near the tracks. Access to town water is provided by a single faucet, but it too is surrounded by the contaminated sludge. Between the tracks and the road there are very few standing structures other than tents, but across the railway line a few temporary timber homes are evident and some concrete houses that withstood the disaster.

As we walk along the tracks towards Firdous’ home the children gather around and there’s an air of excitement. They are laughing and full of fun, jumping around and playing. Some practice their English and ask questions. A chance to have their photo taken starts them up again and they go a little crazy to grab attention – even the older ones. The mothers are smiling and laughing too.

Firdous points to each of the families who have gathered around and explains who has lost a mother, father, sister, brother, son or daughter. They in turn respond to acknowledge this momentarily, matter of fact, and then continue laughing and playing with the children. For me the experience is quite surreal that the depth of their personal tragedy is absent from the conversation. They speak very little about what has happened, instead focusing on what their current needs are. There is a shortage of work that compounds the problem and, for men like Firdous, the sea is no longer a provider of income, "No good life. I am fisherman. No job. No good life tsunami coming".

Several families show me their tents. They are large camping tents that would look right at home in a caravan park. Most are double lined with very strong plastic. They are effective in keeping out the rain but have poor ventilation and get very hot even on a cloudy day. What strikes me most is the bareness inside the tent. There is literally nothing to see. One half may contain a single bed, but mostly the families sleep on the floor. There are no chairs, cupboards, wardrobes or possessions. Nothing.

We take some more photos and talk a little about the lack of aid. Everyone I have met today says the same phrase, over and over, "Government no help". There is no evidence that anyone has a plan for people like Firdous and his relatives. Home building projects run by international aid agencies require land ownership - tent people like Firdous are in a precarious position as the government has mandated changes to title deeds for land within 100 metres of the shoreline. There is very little political will to compensate tsunami victims and if the issue hasn’t been addressed 9 months after the disaster then it probably never will be. In the absence of insurance, title deeds and work the temporary scenario is looking ever more permanent.

As I leave I wave goodbye to the children. They are full of smiles now, but what will become of them when the laughter stops?

September 07, 2005

Agents of Change

The work underway to restore basic living standards in Sri Lanka may have attracted some negative press, but we need to make sure that we do not lose sight of the achievements and continue to support the hard work ahead.

I have heard people complain about the disaster response and the various NGO's who have bene involved. I hear things like the futility of building wooden houses because they are not safe from thieves, that too few houses are being built to give everyone a home, that people have to wait too long for their home, that agencies demand too much money or labor from the home owner, that some of the roofing is made of tin or asbestos sheets, that people are afraid of returning to the their land near the water.

To all those people who wish to bag the disaster response I simply say, come over and see if you can do better - there is brilliant work being achieved here and however inadequate the response may seem, the response has been vital and life saving. The majority of aid recipients have in fact been very appreciative but they naturally want more.

People have been very afraid to return to the shoreline and with good reason. These individuals have experienced horrendous trauma and loss, but they are moving back to their land and rebuilding with the encouragement of NGO's. In some cases aid agencies have decided to build homes before the people return. Once a house is built the family will change their mind and be happy to start building a life around the new home. Often the biggest hurdle is getting just one family to return - everyone is happy to go back so long as others go back too. No one wants to be the first.

The handout mentality in Sri Lanka is regretably common and the idea of contributing to the work or cost of the rebuilding is a genuine hurdle for many people - they believe the government should replace their home. Aid agencies usually operate around a system of owner investment which requires money to be paid back (interest free and at extemely small rates) and demands the owners to work on the house as well. For people who are disposessed of home and family the need to work and earn money is not insignificant of course, but the 'sweat equity' can be contributed by family and community in addition to the owners themselves. The fact is that agencies can build a lot more houses when the owners are involved, and the finished product is treated with far more respect and possession when the family helped to build it. The bitter reality of international aid is that often we can only help those who can help themselves.

The quality of houses being built is a difficult one to address. What standard of home should be built for any given family? Should they all get the same standard home or should different standards apply to people with different standing within their community. If you improve the quality of building for one family then you may be denying a house at all for another. It has been suggested to me that community leaders deserve a home that reflects their position and the service they have given to their community. It should therefore be in the hands of that very community to offer resources in accordance with that standing, rather than expecting the NGO's to differentiate.

Looking closely at the standard of homes built by various NGO's and by different divisions within a single agency you will find significant variations. The size of the home, the standard of roofing, the quality of finish, etc. One agency only recently stopped using asbestos roof tiles for example. The health risks are well known to western people but less so in Sri Lanka. But at the time the cost and availability of terracotta tiles was not practical and the projects would grind to a halt otherwise. The difficulty in managing construction costs has escalated as demand for basic materials and labor outstrips supply. Market forces comes into a play; a truck load of sand now costs triple what it did prior to the tsunami. This not only impacts the effectiveness of aid agencies but causes problems for anyone who wants to build whether tsunami affected or not. In most cases the permanent homes are designed to be extended upon easily should the owner have the means to do so, and the reality of having a real home that becomes the focus of rebuilding a normal life is far more important than comparing one house to another.

We all appreciate that victims of disasters are disadvantaged beyond comparison but let's not attack the very agencies and their volunteers who work day after day to improve the situation. They need your support more than ever.

(Read about building houses in Sri Lanka with Habitat for Humanity)

September 04, 2005

Universal Footprints

Although I travel a lot it is rare that I cover the same ground twice. Sri Lanka is a rare exception to that rule, and to my surprise it seems I may leave a stronger impression than I first thought.

The short group adventures which characterise the majority of my journeys gives ample opportunity to make connections with your fellow travellers. I had assumed, however, that the impression left by myself and my companions upon the local people we meet was fleeting and insignificant. We roll into a town or city one day and roll out again in 24-48 hours. Our group is one of many that arrive month after month, not to mention the other tour operators who bring their own visitors in regular succession. We are like a gentle mist that rolls over the landscape and receeds as the day awakens, leaving behind a light covering of moisture which itself will quickly evaporate as the sun bears down above.

My perception changed today when walking down the hotel corridoor to my room. My key had been allocated to the cleaning ladies so they could tidy up, so when I found them they promptly dug around for it. They both looked at me and one said, "You were here before!" And she was right - my last memory of Negombo was leaving this hotel at 11pm for a ride to the airport just days before the tsunami hit. But they had recognised me, remembered my face, and politely asked where I had been. These were the same cleaning ladies when I last visited the hotel.

And a little universe of possibilites suddenly emerged before me. Far from being a light mist that fades away it would seem that some kind of footprint does indeed remain. However small. I delved a little further into my new found universe and re-acquainted my consciousness with friendly store owners, gentle jewellery makers, informative tour guides, happy restaurant cooks and contemplative hotel security guards. A broad band of connections were there to be reviewed; momentary assistance to help lift a sack of grain, indignant anger at a mischevious tuk tuk driver, philosophical discourse with older and wiser locals.

Knowing this universe exists makes me feel very responsible for my actions. Suddenly it makes sense that a single smile when buying a bottle of water and make a difference to someone's day. Avoiding dramatic scenes in hotel lobbies when they screw up your booking takes on a deeper meaning when you realise that even if they did make a mistake, you have the potential to make it even worse for them. Last but not least, the manner in which we wealthy western tourists distrubute money in poor countries leaves a lastingly indelable mark on the lives of young children who are best to cultivate skills for working, not begging.

It's so easy to foget that we actually impact the lives of everyone we meet. This statement is so obvious we overlook it's significance. I enjoyed a quiet chat with a colleague and friend who, not 12 months earlier, led me around Sri Lanka. He has been secretly in love with a girl for over seven years now, their clandestine relationship kept hidden from her parents and hence his life shared with her in the smallest of tender moments. She recognised my name from a passenger list, and sent her regards to me especially. To know that my name would be included in their limited opportunities for communication is an honour beyond all others.

It is amazing to realise just how permanent one's footsteps really are, and the opportunity that exists to leave behind something worthwhile. But I have my new found universe, so nothing is ever really left behind.