As I walked by the sea yesterday afternoon, passing rows of broken buildings, a woman hailed me. People often shout hello as you pass by – it’s all the English they know. But this woman called me over asking ‘how are you? Do you live here or visit our country?’ She asked whether I liked Sri Lanka, how long I was staying, what I had come to do, had I been before. She understood all I said in response. She offered me food but I declined because I had to get back to the college (and didn’t want to contract anything, frankly).
But we started talking about tsunami time and I asked whether she’d been in her home when it came. They had run. And lived – all of them, even their small children (one a dot in nothing but her pants was running in and out of what’s left of the back of their home.
She invited me to look round. There wasn’t much to see. Two rooms still had something approaching a roof on it (that's where all the family slept), the rest are open to the elements save for a bit of plastic sheeting tied to the jagged top of the brick work – where the original roof had been torn off in the storm.
I asked why she’s had no assistance from the government. ‘because they been fighting the war, against the tigers. But now we won, help will come. It take long time cause we poor country.’ She is fiercely loyal to her government; their victory is her victory, proud, no doubt, of the banners flying not far away from her home lauding the triumph of the government forces over the terrorist tigers.
But what kind of government keeps it’s loyal people hanging on so long? And how long will she have to wait for the government to finally act on her behalf? And will it insist that she move the other side of the railway line, away from the sea, where her husband ekes out a meagre living as a fisherman?
The 500 rupees I gave her toddler ‘for milk’ (about £2.50) seemed more insult than charity or act of good will. He kid’s face lit up and she beamed a thank you before running off behind a wall where another family member was washing clothes.
If I lived here (grand gesture time…), I think I’d be wanting my church to visit, to assess what could usefully and helpfully be done for these people with them setting the agenda for the kind of assistance they want. I’d like to take William and Gary to visit. I’ve no doubt they’ll tell me that there are hundreds like this family and this little community on the other side of the tracks from relatively prosperous-seeming Dehiwala.
I feel helpless and guilty in the face of such need. I wouldn’t last a night in that house. And having had the sea come and attack me, rip the heart out of my community, tear the roof off my home, how could I lie awake at night and listen to the sound of the waves crashing on the beach 20 feet away from where my head was?
She asked me what I liked about Sri Lanka ‘is it the always smiling people?’ she asked. That’s certainly a big part of it. I left her on the step thanking me for stopping by, hoping I’ll visit again and smiling broadly as I went off along the beach. I’m not sure how or what I feel.