Meg Dahlin from Portland Maine USA
“These people have no running water and just two toilets”. That was what we were told when we arrived at the Pitiwella camp, just north of Galle, one of the cities devastated by the tsunami that struck Sri Lanka on December 26, 2004. Our objective upon arriving last June was to get an orphanage started for children who had been affected by the great wave. But after having run up against several major obstacles at that particular time, the idea was abandoned. So, instead we found ourselves helping wherever we could be of use. One of the places that we worked at was a boy’s orphanage on the outskirts of Hikkaduwa, where we were staying. While there, we bought materials to build a fence around the perimeter of the orphanage, took the boys to buy new clothes and had a party for them at our hotel. We bought them sporting goods and toys. We even refurbished the once rusted and dull metal gate that greeted visitors of the orphanage, turning it into one suited for a palace, painted shiny black with gold trim. But still, that didn’t seem enough. We felt there was more out there to be done. And luckily, we found it. During our drive back from picking up the sporting gear in Galle one morning, our mission took on a whole new meaning.
Linda Garnham, Director of the UK charity A.R.C. (Aid Reaching Children) whom I had accompanied to Sri Lanka, had noticed a family sitting at the mouth of a river that flowed into the Indian Ocean Nearby sat the remains of homes where families of a village had once lived, now reduced to foundations with debris all around. There was a make-shift hut that had been thrown together in an attempt to provide shelter within a few yards of where a family sat who appeared to be washing themselves and their clothing. As we drove past that location, she said “I’d like to go down there and see if we can help that family sometime.” Several days had passed as we continued to try to find where help was more desperately needed. It was the discontent that we felt about what we weren’t doing that prompted her to finally take us back to that village a few days later. We were glad we went there, because we found more than just one family in need of our help.
When we arrived at the location where the family sat a few days prior, they were nowhere to be found. We asked a couple of men who were hanging around the make-shift hut if they knew where the family might have gone. “They’re up at the temple ground” one of them replied. We were given driving instructions to the location of a camp, which was within a mile of where we stood. As we drove in we saw dozens of tents or homemade huts that had been thrown together with whatever could be found to provide shelter. It was sad to see such living conditions for people there. Despite this hardship, they had managed to hold themselves together somehow. These people were very self-sufficient. The women used “coir spinning wheels” to make rope out of coconut husks which is later transformed into welcome mats and other household items found in countries such as ours. There were many fishermen from this village who had lost their boats and fishing gear that they needed to earn their living. There was a mason, some carpenters and other laborers, all eager to work. It was apparent that these people were eager to get back to normal living.
As we walked around the camp and talked to several of the villagers, we annotated the shelter numbers and the number of family members assigned to each one. As we entered some, we noticed many flies on the bedding, particularly the pillows. We felt that we had stumbled upon the very project that we were looking for. Every one of these people had been affected by the tsunami and was struggling. And there were a lot of children that would benefit from our help.
We were on a pink cloud that morning as we drove back to our hotel on the beach, offering us reprieve from the reality of Sri Lankan life. We had a nice view of the beach to wake up to every morning at the Coral Sands Hotel, the other side of which faced the streets where life was not so pleasant. We stayed at this hotel as part of the plan, to get money flowing once again into the community to help the people and businesses that had been affected by the tragic event. This was one of them. The entire first floor had been destroyed. A tourist who had frequented this particular hotel for many years during his holidays in December had been killed in the tsunami. Despite this devastation, resilience was abound. This hotel was one of many in the rebuilding process, the staff struggling for their own return to a sense of normalcy. We were greeted at mealtime by waiters dressed in colorful attire, just as they had been when business was thriving. Every dining room table was set. Lights were dimmed at dinner. Music played. Drinks were served at the bar. Some days we were the only guests at the hotel. Other days, there would be more as various organizations passed through Hikkaduwa on their way to other destinations and projects that awaited them. There were many people from many countries there at that time to help and on that particular day I was glad to be one of them.
Later that day, we met with a building contractor from England that had been helping us with the perimeter fence at the orphanage. When we told him about our discovery, he told us that we needed to verify that this was not a scam, since it was not uncommon for groups of people to gather at abandoned campsites during the day to get help from aid organizations and then return to their homes at night. So, we planned a trip to the camp which happened shortly after 9 pm that evening, to further assess the situation. We brought along members of several other organizations, in hopes of getting additional help for these people. As we drove into the darkness of the open area at the camp, the headlights revealed what we thought we would see. They were all still there. Many of the villagers came out of their tents, undoubtedly curious about our arrival at that time of night. Some greeted us with smiles. A few asked “will we get help now?” as Linda and I walked tent to tent, passing out mini clip-on lights that were donated to her organization and which the villagers found very useful since there was virtually no electricity.
The next day we called a village meeting. Using an interpreter, we then went into discussion of what A.R.C. would do to help them to get back on their feet. We were going to provide materials to help the people maintain their own self-sufficiency. This particular village had been helped a few months prior by a couple of organizations, but had been abandoned during the process, due to clashes with the Buddhist Monk at the temple on the grounds where the camp was located. This camp with a population of over one-hundred, was left with two toilets only one of which was functional, and no running water. It was our hope that the organizations that had accompanied us to this camp on the previous evening would provide these necessities as well as others. Meanwhile, we did our part. Since the fisherman had already been given boats by one of their former visitors, we decided to take one of them to buy nets and other materials that were still needed to earn their living. We then bought tools for the carpenter and the other workers. We furnished the tents with mosquito nets, to prevent flies from hanging around the beds. We bought the children toys. A bed was later purchased for a woman who was pregnant and sleeping uncomfortably.
Although our intended project did not materialize during this trip, we were still able to help people that had been deeply affected by the devastation. We left there knowing that we had played a significant role in helping these villagers. It will be interesting to see how Sri Lanka fares in the aftermath of the tsunami of 2004. A warning system is now being utilized in Hawaii to forewarn the affected countries in Southeast Asia of future threats. Despite that, there is much work left to be done in this region. It will take years to rebuild what nature took away in just minutes. And then there are the things that cannot be replaced. I thank the Student Senate of Southern Maine Community College for having sponsored my trip and A.R.C. for allowing me to take part in the project. It gave me the opportunity to experience firsthand the true meaning of humanity.
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