Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Healing wounds

Another full day of teaching. The students were fairly responsive, which is good. Some of the assignments I read last night were very good indeed – much better than I was expecting. It’s always nice to be pleasantly surprised by things!

I visited the health centre where one of my students works and am going back in the morning to lead their devotions at 8:30am.

It's a place where a friend of worked for some time and which we visited three years ago. It continues to be an amazing place, offering primary health care to all kinds of people, some of whom can pay something and some of whom can pay nothing. It has Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Tamil and Sinhala people all receiving the same standard of care.

Steve, the director, explained to me that, following the experience of the tsunami, where they went out to people in need, the staff are very keen to do more outreach work, taking medical care to where the people who need it are and not just waiting for them to come to the clinic.

After all, he says, most of the word God is go!

They already run a medical outreach programme in the North East, a spin-off of their tsunami response. There are lots of places where such work is still needed in Sri Lanka.

The recession means that finances are stretched, however. The Sri Lankan rupee is linked to the dollar but most of the clinic's donations come in sterling which has fallen against the dollar. Added to that, Sri Lankan inflation is running at 25%. It all means that a pound doesn’t go anything like as far as it did a couple of years ago.

Sri Lanka is in the throes of agreeing an IMF loan. One of the conditions for that loan will probably be that the rupee is allowed to float free of the dollar. In purely financial terms that probably makes sense. But it will be catastrophic for inflation in the country as the rupee will plummet and prices of imports, especially oil and other essential raw materials will go up. That means bus fares will rise and other basic costs for already hard-pressed people.

Added to that, the recession in the West has cost about 100,000 jobs in the garment industry. Because we are not buying as much from Marks & Spencer, Gap, Top Shop and other high street names who source a lot of clothes from this country, people are losing their jobs. Recessions always bite hardest on the poorest. Tightening our belts – by not buying new trousers or belts – means families here often lose their single wage earner.

And who says they don’t believe in structural sin, in systems that unravel and hurt the least able to cope?

The challenge for the church on this island is growing by the day. But if the students I have in my class are anything to go by, there are lots of people in the churches able to rise to this challenge and make a tangible difference to the real lives of thousands of people here.

The health centre is in the throes of redoing its publicity. Everything it produces is in three languages – Sinhala, Tamil and English. I have noticed that around the college here too – signs in the toilets asking you to leave them clean for the next user, the sign announcing the opening times of the library and other notices are all in three languages.

Sadly this is rare these days in Sri Lanka. Many places have signs in just one language. For instance, many doctors serve either the Tamil or the Sinhala communities and all their signage is in one language only – this despite the two communities living cheek by jowl with one another. In the state hospitals, signs are increasingly in Sinhala and English only.

Is this a symptom of a society coming together after the war or of the continuing division between the two peoples that populate this beautiful place?

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