microa on Feb 18th 2010
A Village in the Jungle
After a few days in hot, smoggy, congested Colombo, the capital city on the edge of the Indian Ocean, I headed south to the first MicroAid project site in Hambantota. (A quick aside: as I write this, in my small bungalow, with it’s lazily twirling ceiling fan, and rippling mosquito net, the smell of cooking fires in the air and the wall of the thick tropical jungle just outside, dozens of tiny ants—my friends, for lack of choice—are meandering on, and in, my keyboard. Apparently they are attracted to the electricity, but I also hope they might be cleaning out all the crumbs of past snacks I have consumed while writing over the years. I am trying not to kill too many of them as I write this blog.)
A series of productive meetings with helpful contacts and local NGOs in Colombo set up a network for the projects that were to come.
On the drive south along the coast, reminders of the tsunami were everywhere, debris and destroyed houses, fishing and tropical tourist towns that have not recovered, but also new construction and successful recovery efforts. It reminds me that there will be a lot of work for MicroAid in Haiti, down the road, when the world’s attention has moved on.
Here in Hambantota, a town which was as hard hit as anywhere—fifty thousand were killed, with hundreds of thousands displaced, and thousands of orphans created—last year on the fact-finding mission, I had met a family who was still in need of a house after theirs was destroyed by the wave. They were very poor to begin with.
Over the years, many an INGO had promised to help, but never came through. The man, M.R. Soodin, is an industrious brick maker, but is living hand-to-mouth as he supports his wife, three sons, and three daughters. All the kids are going to school, except for one of the sons who works at the salt “factory.” Salt is the biggest industry here, after fishing, and the salt-works makes salt by the age-old method: flooding huge pools with seawater and letting it evaporate. This set-up reveals the flat and low-lying nature of the area and explains why the tsunami so easily swept across the region and penetrated so far inland.
At the budget meeting with the head mason, the interpreter, and Mr. Soodin, and his family, they were surprised when I questioned many of the costs of the individual items–for things such as bricks. The quote: 8.5 rupees per brick. I had done research on construction material costs in the area and knew they were 5 rupees each.
And so it went, line by line: truck full of sand, steel rebar, truck load of gravel, bag of cement, 4” roof beams, a kilo of nails, etc. Every item to be procured at the lowest cost. During our meeting, a tropical deluge moved in quickly from the east.
Everyone pitched in to help cover the bricks that were waiting for the kiln—valuable inventory that took all precedence. Finally, an approved budget, and construction begins…
A quick note about the wildlife in the area—Hambantota abuts one of the major Sri Lankan game parks and there doesn’t really seem to be an official boundary between them—at least not for the animals. (Think “Beverly Hills ‘adjacent.”’) I was invited to a special performance of a children’s singing group the other evening by another NGO that runs after-school programs. I usually try to walk everywhere I go, so when I told my hosts I would arrive on foot, that perplexed them, but they were polite and did not mention anything except that I should find a ride home from the event, which was in a hall in a remote marshy area, because at night the elephants might come onto the road and trample me. Yo, taxi! Another quick fun one: In other places you might turn on the light in the bathroom before you enter to check for cockroaches, or spiders, or geckos; here that is all true, but add to that list, cobras! You never know when one of these cute critters might have slithered in and taken up residence behind the toilet.
With such mundane day-to-day concerns, it’s hard to remember that there is also a huge political controversy surrounding the recent presidential election—the losing candidate has been imprisoned for “traitorous acts”: running in opposition to the incumbent. There is much discussion and debate in Hambantota, and more physical and violent response in other places. Here, we will continue to do our work…
Besides the house construction, MicroAid will be supporting the education of two tsunami orphans, for two years of primary school—otherwise it would have been a major struggle for them to attend. We will supply workbooks, transportation, lunch, additional tutoring, some doctoring (if needed), and shoes.
Each of these girls has a similar story: Both of their parents were killed at the Sunday market near the harbor, which was jammed packed the morning of the tsunami. Both girls were taken in by their grandparents, and now both want to be teachers when they grow up. They are in different villages, but that story is repeated throughout the coastal regions of this, and other countries. Through our local partner, The Woman’s Development Federation, which runs this smart scholarship program, we will keep track of our girls as they pursue an education and a brighter future. After two years, we can evaluate whether to support their academic efforts for another two.
So that’s it from Serendib, for now.
“Thank You” to everyone for contributing to this meaningful work. We are making a positive and direct impact in people’s lives—and that’s what MicroAid is all about.
I hope everyone is healthy, happy, and secure.
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