Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
187Trip End Ongoing
The Mahaweli is a large area in central Sri Lanka that was converted from scrub jungle to arable land through the construction of five major dams and a series of irrigation canals in the 1980s. People were relocated from overpopulated areas of the country, provided with small parcels of land, and encouraged to become self-sufficient through the cultivation of rice paddies. Seven women representing different areas of System B in the Mahaweli were identified and trained in 1988 to assist Tania and me in collecting data to assess women’s training needs. Following completion of the research, each of these seven data collectors formed a “Women’s Productivity Group” in her own area
Tania and I recalled with fondness those days when we zipped around on a motorbike, going from one mud hut to another to record the women’s stories, and to provide support whenever we could. Quite a different scene now, as we made our way in Tania’s 4 wheel drive vehicle. But first things first - nothing could be done without the obligatory courtesy visit to the Regional Project Manager to obtain his stamp of approval. It was fortunate that I carried our final report with me, as it seemed to authenticate our mission......and was even photocopied while we were in discussion.
So what were our expectations? We couldn’t really hope that these women would still be involved in their original group work, as more than twenty years had passed and some of them would now be grandmothers. These were not ordinary years, but years during which the war escalated in the area they called home, forcing some of them to spend many nights in the jungle. Years during which some of their children enlisted for service in the army, never to come home again. Years during which it was not unusual for elephants to stomp into their homesteads, smashing the clay pots and damaging the garden plots
In 1990, Tania and I decided to compile the stories of these women, thinking we might publish them under the title “Women of Courage”. Although forced to abandon these plans when our term in the Mahaweli ended, we never forgot our courageous women. The following is a summary of our experiences, both then and now.
Of the seven data collectors, Fauzil was the only Muslim. Her life was anything but easy. She was definitely the poorest of the seven and lived in a tiny, cramped mud hut with her husband and five children. Her husband had little sympathy for her, and refused even to visit her during a two week hospital stay when she finally decided to have her womb removed to protect her life. Yet in spite of her difficult situation and somewhat frail condition, she had a vibrant energy and demonstrated a real inner strength. She would glow with pride and satisfaction whenever recounting her achievements as a health volunteer and a group organizer. It was therefore with great sadness that we learned that Fauzil died many years ago. Tania and I had directed her to a Mahaweli fund for disabled children, and she had been ecstatic to receive some assistance for her oldest daughter who had a rheumatic heart condition. We tried now to locate her children, but were unsuccessful - the family had moved away after their mother’s death, and no one knew of their whereabouts
Kaliani Menike and her husband were selected to relocate from Kegalle to the Mahaweli through a competition. She noticed the announcement on a shop window, and excitedly rushed home with the details written on the palm of her hand. Her husband was not very favourable, but eventually agreed to apply. Expecting this new life with a free allotment of land to ease their financial concerns, Kaliani’s hopes were quickly dashed when she realized it would take at least two years just to clear the land and build a very basic homestead. They survived on World Food Aid handouts and the income from odd bits of carpentry. She felt like running home many times, but with two young sons to consider, she instead decided to dig in her heels and make every effort to improve their lives. Armed with her positive experience as a data collector, she enlisted six women to work with her on a small soya food processing enterprise. Unfortunately, the Mahaweli staff member who agreed to support their initiative was transferred, leaving the women on their own in a rather harsh environment. Tania and I spent considerable time looking for Kaliani, only to discover that she and her family had left everything behind more than ten years ago - presumably in search of yet a better life.
Unmarried, Vijyamalar was one of the youngest data collectors selected, and the only Tamil. She grew up in this area and remembered her childhood as a good one, but her village experienced bad flooding in 1957, resulting in the loss of all the family cattle. Then in 1978 her family home was destroyed in a cyclone, and had to be rebuilt. The family asked the Mahaweli for a parcel of land to cultivate paddy, but their request was not granted. In spite of their poverty, Vijyamalar had a very positive attitude and was trained as a health volunteer for the Mahaweli - her dream was to open a small health centre for women in the area
Aria Wattie grew up in this area, so knew of the hardships even before she and her husband were allocated their modest plot of land. She however was not prepared for the devastating cyclone of 1978. She had recently given birth to her fourth child and since her husband was away, was worried that she would not be able to see to the safety of her four little ones amidst the flooding. Their house was built on an elevated platform, but as the waters rose and filled the house, she knew that they would probably all die. She had no option but to place the children and herself on the bed and simply wait
We fully expected that Prema might be difficult to locate. The youngest of the seven, she was only nineteen at the time of the study. She consequently had some difficulty in capturing sufficient confidence and respect of the other village women to bring about any significant collective action. It took us three trips and numerous phone calls to the Grama Seveka (Village Official) before we discovered that Prema had also married and moved away from the Mahaweli. Fortunately for us, the home of her husband’s parents (where she now lives) was not too far away, so we were able to connect with her.
The 1978 cyclone was a significant factor in most settler’s lives, and none the less so for Bebi Nona. She and her husband first came to this area as illegal settlers, surviving on chena (slash and burn) cultivation. During the cyclone, they left everything behind and walked for 15 hours in order to reach safety. Returning to the area after the floods subsided, they discovered that all their possessions had been washed away and their house had crumbled to the ground. With the 750 rupees (about $7.00) and a legal land allotment received from the government, they put up a makeshift abode and restarted their lives. A woman of unquestionable determination and leadership, Bebi Nona had been instrumental in restructuring the questionnaire we used to assess women’s training needs
I have seldom seen a woman with the energy and enthusiasm for life that Bandara Menike exhibits
..........to be continued