Sunday, December 29, 2013

Damniyamgama: An Eco-village in Lagoswatte Sri Lanka

The 9th anniversary of the 2004 Tsunami had just passed and it seemed fitting that we visit a relocation village for people affected by the Tsunami.  The village of Damniyamgama, located in the interior of Kalutara (a village an hour south of Colombo) is the first official eco-village and was constructed by Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka’s largest non-governmental organisation.  The project received aid from many agencies overseas such as the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). 

A Typical Village Home
The Tsunami displaced about 250,000 people along the eastern and southern coastal belts.  After the disaster, many of these people lived in refugee camps, with relatives or in rented housing till a more permanent solution was found.  Unfortunately, the community that came to live here was not an intentional one in the true sense of the word.  They were displaced by a natural disaster unlike anything they had experienced previously and have been thrown together by their circumstances rather than by choice.  Many of these people were fisher folk and used to living on the beach, so living inland would have been quite a transition they needed to get used to.

It took us a little while to find our way to the eco-village.  Fortunately, in Sri Lanka, there are many people who are only too willing to help with directions and so with a few stops to ask for help, we finally wound our way through a rubber plantation and to the entrance of Damniyamgama.   A lady walking along the street points us to the caretaker of the village and we find a man who was more than willing to spend a few minutes with us and answer our questions. 

Communal Area
He ushers us in to his office located in the communal area.  We pass through a community meeting area, a library, a pre-school, a bank, a doctor’s office and children’s park.  On first glance, the village appears tidy and well kept with most of the essential facilities located on-site.  I must mention here that this blog is based on one person’s perspective and hence may have had a different slant had we spent more time in the village and had the opportunity to talk to more people. 

The village caretaker tells us the community moved in to the village in 2006, two years after the tsunami hit.  The village comprises of approximately 55 virtually identical earth-brick homes.  The residents have a temporary ownership of their home for a ten-year period and will be given ownership at the end of this period.  Each home has a couple of bedrooms, a living area, a kitchen and toilet facilities. I have spotted a number of rainwater tanks around and ask if they are operational.  He tells us
Village Care Taker
that he uses his rainwater tank to supplement the town water supply, but most people don't use the tank due to the time taken to maintenance it.  Each tank services about 5 homes, so maintenance must also be done in co-operation and collaboration with your neighbours.  Despite the cost, turning a tap is easy and convenient and most residents perhaps have not truly grasped the need to be more self sustaining and self reliant especially given the nature of rainfall patterns here. 

We enquire if the village is self-sustainable in food.  Being a lush, tropical country, cultivation is usually not difficult in Sri Lanka and most village households would have a number of fruit trees and some vegies growing in their gardens.  Sarvodaya had originally initiated a scheme that ensured this village was virtually completely self-sufficient in their basic food needs.  A co-ordinator from Sarvodaya provided the essentials of fertiliser, seeds and seedlings and provided the training to ensure cultivation happened on-site.  Unfortunately, with this co-ordinator moving overseas, the scheme appears to have fallen by the wayside.  The residents are caught up in their own lives and busy making a living.  No one has stepped up from the community to take over the co-ordination of the food production, which appears to be a shame. 

We wonder if a few people were willing to put their hands up to be the cultivators of food and everyone contributed a few rupees toward buying the essentials required, if perhaps this would not ultimately benefit the entire village and reduce the financial burden of each household.  Unfortunately,
Typical Rainwater Tank
the village seems to lack the co-ordination we have seen in similar eco-villages in Europe where food production plays a central role in their operation. 

Having spotted a few solar panels on the roofs of houses, we enquire about renewable energy.  He informs us that the solar panels are connected to batteries and needed to have special wiring and bulbs to operate.  We are informed that the company that makes the bulbs does not exist anymore and that the panels are not really operational.  I was surprised to hear they needed special bulbs for use with the solar panels but didn’t really get to the root of the issue. 

It’s time for us to get going.  The caretaker has been helpful and answered many of our questions.  We get the impression that people are happy here in the village and grateful to have a place to live.  Yet, perhaps they have not been empowered or educated enough to understand the benefits of an ecological life and we wondered if this were the reason some of the ‘eco’ aspects of this village appear to have fallen by the wayside.  There used to be a fair bit of volunteering and ‘shramadana’ or communal activities that had happened previously but that to has fallen victim to the fact that people in the 21st century don’t appear to have any time. 

The village of Damniyamgama is a great starting point for ecological development in a country such as Sri Lanka.  A displaced community of people have now found homes and are forming bonds with their new neighbours.  However, projects like this need dedicated people on-site to keep the momentum going.  While in Europe we found that communal living seemed to generate a lot of committees and meetings to keep them ticking over, here in Sri Lanka there seemed to be an absence of such gatherings and hence no rallying point for the community to grow and move forward to a low carbon future. 

The Future Generation

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Educate a Child: Raise a Village

The Children in the Village

I had heard about the Educate a Child Trust started by a family relative Dr Pramilla Senanayake over the years.  During our visit to Sri Lanka, we were fortunate to meet up and chat to Auntie Pram and we were inspired by the work she had done with the Trust as well as the work she had gone on to do in establishing a village for people affected by the Tsunami in the Kalutara region.  We have decided to visit this project and explore the work she has done first hand…

The idea of helping with the education of children in Kalutara was born many years ago while she was staying at a hotel in the area, on a visit to Sri Lanka from the UK where she was based at the time.  Her
young son was playing with a couple of young children who lived on the beach and she enquired why they were not in school.  She learnt then that their families could not afford to make use of the free education available, because they had no money to buy school supplies. 

A Typical House in the Village
Out of that chance encounter was born a project that has now spanned 29 years.  The project started small, with Aunty Pram buying supplies for the kids on the beach each time she visited.  As the years went by, the children who rolled up each time she visited grew and the ‘Educate a Child Trust’ was born.  The Trust enables a donor to pay for the educational needs of one child.  The kids are given shoes, pens & pencils, books and school uniforms, enabling them to make use of the free education available in Sri Lanka. 

In 2004, the families of the students she was helping were badly affected by the Boxing Day Tsunami.  The Trust then set about looking for a place where a village could be constructed to help house the
The Community Centre
people displaced by this tragedy.  Nine years later we are visiting the Dediyawela Village in Kalutara.  Verna, an English Teacher at the school, accompanies us on this visit.  We arrive to find a village with great infrastructure and a pleasant atmosphere.  We stop at the large community hall and Verna leads us upstairs where we sit down in her office to hear stories of the wonderful work the Trust has accomplished for the people of the village here.

The community centre is used to conduct additional classes for the children in both English and IT.   English is taught in the open air space downstairs and IT in a special computer room.  

Learning About the Project
We learn there are 48 families housed in the village here.  In addition, children from approximately 850 households in the area benefit from the school provisions the Trust provides.  The Trust also pays for 7 teachers, 2 health care professionals, and provides a free mid-day meal for the kids who come to the community centre for classes.  The women in the housing complex take turns in preparing the lunches for the kids and hence this becomes a source of income for them.  Aunty Pram has arranged for various doctors and specialist to visit the clinic from time to time.  People in the village, as well as the 850 families in the school program, benefit from this arrangement. 

The Trust has many success stories and we hear of children who have gone on to study medicine, become nurses and accountants and excel in other fields.  It is amazing what one chance encounter has resulted in. 

In Latha's Home
After our briefing sessions we are warmly welcomed to the homes of a couple of the occupants.   Latha has prepared tea and short eats for us.  We sense she is really house proud as she shows us around her home.  A typical home in the village has 2 bedrooms, a sitting area, a kitchen, an outside toilet and open spaces that residents are able to close in to create additional rooms.   She has enclosed the additional space available in the house to upgrade the house provided with a pantry and indoor bathroom.  The floor is tiled and a Christmas tree lights up the living room.  She relates stories to us of her life before and after the Tsunami.  She is eternally grateful to this project and the work Pram has done for the people of this village, which has enabled her to give her children a better life. 

We leave the village feeling encouraged and inspired once again about the difference the actions of one person can make to the lives of so many.  Sometimes, embarking on projects of this nature seem daunting and yet the benefits of providing the basic needs of health care, food and a place to call home for those who are born less fortunate cannot be measured. 

Walking Along the Streets of the Village

Friday, December 20, 2013

Portrait Equality: Give Photos, Don’t Just Take Them!

I heard about the Portrait Equality project through the e-newsletters I get from World Nomads.  (  It is joint collaboration and non-for-profit project that seeks to give people in the developing world and remote communities a family photograph, in places where owning a photograph would be rare.   

The motto of this program is “Give photos, don’t just take them”. 

Sujith at the Mirissa Fish Market
An instant camera is provided on loan to photographers travelling in remote countries so they are able to leave behind photographs with the people they meet along their travels.  When I heard about the program, I wrote to Alicia at World Nomads to say I was travelling through Sri Lanka to visit family and that I would love to be part of this program.  Alicia wrote back to say the cameras were already out on other missions but encouraged me to take and then share the photographs with the people I met in my travels. 

Portrait Equality was conceived by the Browns, when they were travelling through Papua New Guinea and started sharing photos they had taken on their instant camera with the people they had met.  The reaction to this gesture inspired them to start up this creative and
Sujith's Friend and Co-worker
worthwhile project.   See their website for more information.

As it turned out, during a recent trip to the south of Sri Lanka, I visited a fish market at Mirissa.  It was while I taking photographs of some of the fishermen at the port that I was asked if I could mail them copies of the photos.  Their faces lit up when I said of course I could.  I showed them the photos I had taken and had the same reaction that many travellers do, when they share the images they have taken on their digital displays.  Faces light up and many on-lookers gather round.  I have now developed these photographs and sent them on their way.  I hope it will be a nice Christmas surprise to the fisherman I met and photographed.  So many travellers take photographs but often forget to follow through on their well-intentioned promises to send pictures back.  However, this little gesture could mean a lot to someone who has never owned a picture of themselves. 

Since coming back, I also had the chance to take a family portrait of someone who has been with my mother for many years.  In Sri Lanka, it is common to have a domestic who will help with meal preparation.  They often stay in your home and go home to their own families (often in the more rural parts of the country) about once a month.  Leela has been with my mum since my dad passed away in 2009.  A few days ago, her daughter, son-in-law and two grand daughters came for a visit.  As it turned out, it was the little ones birthday and a special day for the whole family.  They were all dressed up in their Sunday best and their eyes lit up when I offered to take a family portrait.  I took a number of photos of the three generations of this family and have now framed a couple of them and made copies of the rest to give to Leela as a Christmas present.  I know it will be much appreciated. 

Leela with her daughter, grand daughters and son-in-law
Portrait equality is a wonderful concept and a wonderful way for travellers to give back a little something to the communities they visit and the people they meet.  In this digital age when we take photographs for granted and share them so easily with friends and family on websites, blogs and and forums such as Facebook, we rarely pause to think that there are still many people for whom this is still a luxury.  They have never owned a photograph to display proudly on their mantelpiece.  This Christmas, don’t just take photographs…give them too.

Sharing the photos with Sujith

"Give photos, don't just take them." Portrait Equality

Monday, December 16, 2013

Southern Escape: A Visit to Galle, Mirissa & Uda Walawe

We have decided to take a break from Colombo and head south with my mum for a few days.  She has organised a Jetwing Tailor-Made holiday for us with Sriyantha, the Manager with whom we have dealt with on previous occasions.  Being able to design your own itinerary together with Jetwing is ideal for someone like me who doesn’t want to be just a passenger on a tour group.   See their website for more details.
Rest stop on the Southern Highway

Fisherman haul in the nets
A tailor made tour enables you to venture outside the beaten path if you wish, giving the traveller a unique taste of what this Island has to offer.   We have a new guide this year and his name is Mallick.  He helps us load our bags into the spacious van we have hired and we are on our way.   On my bucket list is a wish to see some whales in the wild and the stilt fisherman of Weligama.  I feel excited…

We are taking the new Southern Expressway for the first time and arrive in Galle in record time.  We have got lucky and stumble across a community of fisherman hauling in their nets.  The scene is a hive of activity and the sound of their singing fills the air.  “Hodi Hellai, Hellai ya”, the fisherman chant as they pull the nets in, both to lighten the task at hand as well as to maintain their rhythm.  It is a lot of work but when the net is finally brought ashore, there is only a small catch to
Galle Fort - UNESCO World Heritage Site
reward them for their efforts.  Fishing in this manner is very much a communal affair.  Volunteers always materialise whenever a net needs to be hauled in.  Depending on the catch, the fishermen employed by the net owner will distribute part of the catch.  Today, they may go away with nothing.

We stop at the Galle Fort to take in the view.  Before long we are approached by one of the Galle Fort jumper who dives into the ocean from the ramparts for about $20 dollars.  I look down at the rocks and feel nervous for him and a little hesitant to support a practice that might prove to be a dangerous pastime.  He convinces me that this is what he does everyday, he knows what
Galle Fort Jumper
he is doing and he needs the money to support his family.  There are seven jumpers and they take it in turns to make the leap and business is slow.  I reluctantly agree and watch in amazement at his agility and his antics. 

We enjoy a drive through the fort before Mallick parks the van and says we should walk around the fort to get a better sense of this place.  It was the Portuguese who initially came here in 1505.  When they eventually moved here in the late fifteen hundreds, they constructed a rampart to defend the city.  When the Dutch colonised Sri Lanka, they rebuilt the fort with a stone defence wall to render it impenetrable against the English, French, Danish, Spanish and Portuguese fleets vying with Holland for the supremacy of the seas.  

It feels much calmer to be inside the fort, than to be on the outside.  The narrow streets lend a more intimate feel to the place and we stop to browse the local shops.  There are also a couple of historic churches, mosques and other beautiful buildings including a museum within the walls.  The fort was eventually taken over by the British and is one of the best examples of a European fortified city in this part of the world.  Today, many artist and foreign visitors spend time here.  It would be a great spot to write if not for the fact the heat and humidity in the middle of the afternoon felt stifling! 

Stilt Fisherman in Weligama
We leave Galle for Mirissa, where we will stay for 3 days.  On the way we stop to watch some stilt fisherman perched on their ‘fishing sticks’.  Sri Lanka is the only place in the world where you will see stilt fishing although it appears to be a dying art. Sitting on a rather unsteady stick for hours on end in the hope of catching a few fish that will bring a few dollars is no easy task.  These days they hope the travellers passing by will not only take photos they will make contribution to putting some rice on the table.  I got the photos I wanted but it didn’t feel like a truly authentic experience due to the commercial nature that now exists. 

Barbecued Seafood on the Beach
Our resort at Mirissa was just what the doctor ordered.  We checked into a family suite and enjoyed going for a dip in the ocean.  The waves were crashing quite ferociously and we were buffeted and pummelled a fair bit but it was an exhilarating experience and a great way to relax.  We were also in for a delightful surprise for dinner when the resort staff moved the tables onto the beach, lighting candles and creating a wonderful atmosphere.  Tables laden with the days catch were then setup together with a BBQ on which our dinner was cooked.  It was a wonderful start to our southern escape.

Day two was spent whale watching.  The south coast of Sri Lanka is one of the best places in the world to watch whales.  From blue whales and sperm whales to spinner dolphins, the ocean is teeming with life.  Many of my friends have reported seeing hundreds of dolphins but at first we didn’t really see
"Tail Up" - Blue Whales off the coast of Sri Lanka
much of anything.  After hours out at sea, we decided to head back to shore but luck was ultimately on our side.  A shout from one of the boatman and we’ve turned the boat and start heading back just in time to see two incredible blue whales break the surface and blow air through the blow hole at the top of their heads.  It was the first sign of more exciting things to come.  We gasp as we see their massive bodies immerge just before they vanish into the depths of the ocean with their tails up in the air.   The largest of the whales they can grow to be approximately 30 m long and equivalent to the weight of 50 elephants.  We see this scene repeated twice before we head back to base for a second time. 

Stilt Fisherman - Weligama
We drive back to Galle on Day 3, stopping once again to see some of the stilt fisherman on the way.  Our first stop is the turtle hatchery where we learn a little about these species.  Sri Lanka is home to 5 of the world's 7 species of turtles. They come ashore to lay their eggs but unfortunately, many of these eggs are poached and sold for about AUD$0.25 each.  The staff at the hatchery, together with volunteers work to recover these eggs and re-bury them in a safe place, giving these turtles a chance at life. Only fresh eggs can be eaten so if the eggs are saved in the first 24 hours of being laid, the turtles have a chance of being born.

Turtle Hatchery
After a little time in a tank, they are then released back to the wild and if they survive, they will return to this beach to lay their own eggs one day. The project we visited also takes care of wounded turtles as well and release them when are strong enough to survive alone in the wild.  Such programs are wonderful but underfunded in a country where a lot more funding is required for conservation.

We also visited the folk museum complex in Koggala, which includes the house that the famous Sri Lankan author Martin Wickramasinghe lived in for many years.  The grounds are peaceful and green and we really enjoyed browsing through lots of memorabilia from yesteryear. 

Japanese Peace Pagoda
We also visited the Japanese Peace Pagoda - a wonderful place to meditate if you were so inclined.  Beautiful views of the ocean and coconut palms swaying in the breeze remind you where you are.  It was lunchtime and we decide to check out the luxurious Jetwing Lighthouse Hotel for lunch.  The creation of Sri Lanka’s renowned architect Geoffrey Bawa, it is a beautifully crafted hotel.  We loved the minimalistic, rustic nature of the place with its wide-open verandas that afforded beautiful views of the ocean and let the sea breezes in. 

We head back for our last ocean dip and candle lit dinner on the beach.  On the way back we detour to Weligama to discover the monument and church honouring the first Methodist missionaries who were shipwrecked here 200 years ago.  That night, over margaritas and seafood we say goodbye to a wonderfully relaxing stay at Mirissa Bay Resort. 

Fish Market - Mirissa
We check out on Day 4 to head to Uda Walawe.  Our first stop had been the Mirissa Fish Market where we had enjoyed the hustle and bustle of a fish auction.  We had been amazed to learn the deep sea fisherman stay out at sea for 2 months before coming back to shore with their catch.  The scene was chaotic and colourful and I could have stayed here much longer than the short visit our schedule permitted. 

We visit a couple of temples on the way.  The first of these was the Devundara (meaning City of Gods) Temple, located in Dondra, the southern most point of the island.  A Buddhist Devalaya dedicated to god Vishnu attracts both Hindu and Buddhist devotees who were engaged in various acts of devotion.  From lighting oil lamps, to smashing coconuts and taking baskets of fruit and
Weerahena Temple
flowers to offer to the Buddha, it was a busy place.  The other temple we visited was the Weerahena Temple, distinct because of the massive Buddha statue at the entrance and the underground paintings and cartoons coverings the walls.  It was an interesting temple to visit and the views from the back of the Buddha quite stunning. 

The highlight of Day 4 was our visit to Uda Walawe.  We first checked into our accommodation at the Thuduwa Camp where we left our bags and my mum at the rustic chalets that will be home for the night.  The grounds are well designed and the chalets that look like they belong more in a remote Sri Lankan village reveal quite comfortable beds and washroom when you peeked inside.  

We drove to the Uda Walawe National Park where we exchanged our van for a 4-wheel drive jeep and setoff on our safari.  We were rewarded right away by a sighting of two elephants right by the roadside, quite unperturbed by our jeep only a few feet away.  As the afternoon wore on we spotted some rare birds, more elephants, mating peacocks, and a few crocs.  It was a great experience and we headed back to camp having come to the end of our fabulous getaway!  

Uda Walawe