Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Sri Lanka  , North Central,
Sunday, January 15, 2012

“Watewanderawa” is a Sinhala expression signifying a seven point, round trip pilgrimage. What better way to define our quest to reconnect with seven women in the Mahaweli.

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. In June of 1990, just as these groups began planning their entrepreneurship projects, Gerry and I left the area to begin work in Kandy, so I was unable to follow their progress. Until now.

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. Within a month of completing the data collection, twenty-five Tamil women had offered to assist her in collecting money to build a small centre designed to offer training in cane weaving, reed weaving and sewing. This never happened, due in large part to the escalation of the war. Tamils and Sinhalese are now living harmoniously in Vijyamalar’s village, and say all they want is peace and a way to make a living. In our search for Vijyamalar, we found her sister who was living in squalid conditions with her husband and her severely disabled brother. She informed us that Vijyamalar had married well and moved to her husband’s home in the east. Eventually reaching her by phone, she told us that she was both very happy and very sad. Happy that we had come in search of her, but sad that she was not able to meet us.

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. Yes, they were miraculously rescued, but were not able to return to the devastated area for an entire month. Aria Wattie started her group work (cultivation of green and black gram, mung beans and other pulses) with only three women, but this number gradually rose through her leadership. Having appointed a secretary and a treasurer, and even opened a group bank account, they had the promise of real success........if only life hadn’t gotten in the way. Living in an area especially targeted by the LTTE, Aria Wattie and her family sometimes had to leave the house and sleep in the jungle. Her eighteen year old son was so enraged by this that without his parents knowledge, he enlisted in the Sri Lankan army and was killed in battle. It’s been thirteen years since his death, but Aria Wattie’s eyes still fill with tears as she recounts the story. Because he joined the army, the family is living in a very comfortable house - a fact that her husband, now dead five years, found so difficult to accept. Aria Wattie continues to live in the same house, together with her eldest son who experiences constant back pain due to a childhood injury. However, she now has grandchildren who light up her life and provide her with a real reason to live.

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. Like many of the others, she was happy to report that the training she had received all those years ago had made a real impact on her life. She went on to work in a training and supervisory role for a foreign organization exporting fruit to the Middle East, and she was frequently called upon in a leadership role for the organization of various women’s groups. With two children now in school, she works hard at supplementing the family income by selling string hoppers to hospital patients. “Dedication plus” is what I would call it, as she gets up at 2 am every day, lighting the wood fire to begin the time consuming process. The twinkle in her eyes together with her wide smile indicated that she had reached a very happy stage in her life.

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. In a very short period of time after the study, she and ten women formed a group intent on cultivating fruit trees that would eventually lead to the processing of cordials. They held their own in heated discussions with the Mahaweli staff, and were eventually granted a temporary permit for one acre of land. Now 62 years old, Bebi Nona recounts those days when she worked tirelessly to clear the land. Expecting full support from the remaining ten group members, she became frustrated when they arrived dressed in their dainty saris with plenty of excuses why they couldn’t help her, and was eventually forced to abandon the project. Success however is not based on one activity alone, and I’m pleased to report that Bebi Nona went on to form thirteen small groups in her community - volunteer groups involved in improving health, education and the arts. Over the years, her makeshift abode has been transformed into a beautiful brick bungalow complete with modern furniture, all made possible with the income from a small shop she built at the roadside. A few years ago she slipped while washing the floor, resulting in a shortened leg that affects her mobility. A few days later and in spite of her disability, she was directing a lively drama at the local community centre. What an inspiration!

I have seldom seen a woman with the energy and enthusiasm for life that Bandara Menike exhibits. Inspired by her work as a data collector, she too was determined to work with a group of women on an agricultural project. Meeting considerable resistance along the way from several of the women as well as the Mahaweli staff, she was undaunted in her determination. She managed to thwart the Mahaweli suggestion of “appointing” group members, feeling that this would detract from group cohesiveness and strength. She fought the male farmers who suddenly decided they wanted the land for their own project, and they eventually gave up and came to help clean the land. She made pleas to the Mahaweli staff to allow her two to three years to achieve some form of success - if after that period of time it clearly wasn’t working, the Mahaweli could reclaim the land. Convinced of the benefits of collective action, she also proposed that 25% of the profits made from their endeavours be used as a common fund for the community. What vision!! It took a while for us to wipe away the tears of happiness on reconnecting. Even before the welcoming cups of steaming tea appeared on the table, Bandara Menike had brought out her treasure chest of memories, including certificates of training programs, and laminated photos of us all in 1990. Beaming from ear to ear, she led us into her “training room” where the walls were covered in posters related to group work, nutrition, health and finance. She has trained many women’s groups in this room, and also uses it for her extensive group loan program which is based on the successful Grameen Bank model. We were already in total awe, but then were taken to see the original plot of communal land, allocated so many years ago. The five acres have since been divided into ten sections (for the ten group members), with a living fence surrounding each one. A number of years back, the women entered their joint acreage in the government competition “Let us Grow and Build the Country”.Taking first prize, they used the 75,000 rupees to build a well for their gardens where they grow mango and banana trees, peanuts and every manner of local vegetable. Monkeys and peacocks have become a terrible menace, but these women will not be defeated in their attempts to provide a better life for their children and community.

..........to be continued

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Claudia Thierry on

Sharon, how rewarding to reconnect with project members after so many years!


everywhere on

ahhh Sharon,
You continue to amaze, inspire and make me proud to have you as a friend.. So so glad you found your women and what great stories. Now we have to do both a 'Burmese'' and a 'Sri Lankan' documentary!

Liz Jennaway Eaman on

How wonderful to see that the seeds you planted really did well even after you had left. truly inspirational!

Thanks for sharing!


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