Weligama, A Year On
A year on after the tsunami, the village of Weligama seems to have made considerable progress. No longer are people living in tents or sitting listlessly at the roadside, and the inhabitants of tsunami relief camps have been substantially reduced. However, in Weligama approximately 80 people still remain situated in these places awaiting local, government or foreign support.
Tsunami relief camp
As noted during our visit, many people are still living in temporary accommodation, partially damaged houses, or with relatives or friends. The Government have implemented an economic program, which is aimed to issue the sum of 250,000 Rupees to families whose houses were completely destroyed by the tsunami and 100,000 Rupees to those whose accommodation was partially damaged and who live within 60m of the sea. However, this is not nearly enough money for the re-building of a house and with the absence (for many) of regular incomes and other support, the struggle to be self-sufficient continues.
Tourism appears to have returned to the level achieved before the tsunami, partly as a result of funds invested by INGOs/NGO's and individuals. The market for most appears to have become more competitive and the prices on many commodities have been subject to inflation.
Driving down the coast from Colombo to Weligama, we were encouraged by the progress we saw. The villages of blue tents had been replaced by numerous temporary shelters, and locals were also beginning to rebuild their own houses. The initial impression of the situation was that life, for most, had returned to normal. However, on a more personal note, talking to the recipients of Ath Welak's first initiative and other locals it was apparent that many people had been neglected and were still in need of support. A proportion of locals are living in temporary shelters on land that is soon to be reclaimed by the owner, leaving them once again homeless and with no opportunity but to return to the tsunami camps. Still people do not have the necessary tools to begin generating an income and most people display anger and frustration towards the government and other organisations for their lack of support and failure to deliver on their promises.
Therefore, it is evident that many of the victims of the tsunami have made little progress in the last year not through any fault of their own, but rather as a result of little practical and financial support.
Living in a small, dismal and dark temporary shelter with thirteen other people, Amarawathie continues with her daily business preparing breakfasts for the village fishermen. Life has improved slightly for Amarawathie and her family in the last year since our visit: she no longer lives in a tent but instead a temporary shelter and her husband has been the recipient of a bicycle, which means he can once again deliver fish to the local shops. However, the temporary shelter situated 3km from the village presents significant difficulties with transferring her goods to the town to be sold. As a result of these difficulties, she loses a percentage of her income through expenditure on transport to and from the village. Despite this she earns a similar income to that before the tsunami.
The demand for breakfasts rises in direct correlation to the success of the fishing industry at the time. If there is a depression due to poor fishing conditions or lack of fish to catch, the fishermen will not embark on their daily expedition out to sea; which consequently means Amarawathie will have fewer breakfasts to prepare.
The land that Amarawathie"s temporary shelter was built on is soon to be reclaimed by the owner. As a result of this Amarawathie will have to be re-housed or more than likely placed in a tsunami relief camp.
The lack of control Amarawathie and her family have over the decisions made about their housing situation and ultimately their future creates a feeling of reliance on foreign sources, thus resulting in a disheartening lack of autonomy and independence.
The equipment donated by Ath Welak allows for the generation of an income, which will contribute to the families living costs but perhaps more importantly emphasises the importance of feeling empowered and self-sufficient, and not being dependant on foreign support. It is clearly evident that the donation of this equipment by Ath Welak has been highly beneficial in Amarawathie's struggle to reclaim a sense of autonomy. Furthermore, it has provided her with the means to regain a feeling of normality and security.
Amarawathie outside her temporary shelter
Ranjit, his wife and kids are sadly still living in the camp in the temporary accommodation shelters, while his mother and father stay in a small room just next to the restaurant. Unfortunately, the success of one project is inextricably linked to the success of another. If there are unfavourable fishing conditions there will be fewer fishermen to eat at Ranjit's restaurant and no fish to serve. As a result of the influx of fishermen operating in Weligama due to boat donations such as that of Ath Welak's, Ranjit and his family have experienced an increase in trade. Although we were unable to see any new restorations within the restaurant (as with the catamaran) it must be understood that Ranjit's family are still living in a displaced persons camp and must primarily meet their basic needs.
We visited Ranjit's restaurant on a national holiday ("Poya" – a full moon celebrated by Buddhists). We were also fortunate enough to have been able to sample some of their fine cuisine. No sooner had we sat down at the table, which was thankfully still standing strong, than the restaurant started to fill up with more customers. Seeing hopefully a true reflection of the normal pace of the business made the evening especially enjoyable.
When we finally visited to say our goodbyes upon leaving Weligama, Ranjit's father was once again busy with custom but thankfully not too much so to enjoy the customary cup of tea upon our departure.
Over a year after the tsunami, there are up to 20 families from this village alone still living in the camp and many people staying with extended family. It is not known whether Ranjit and his family will be re-housed, and until then the future remains highly uncertain.
Diawathie – "The Lady of the Lace"
Diawathie and I first conversed in the intense, unbearable heat of her donated tent, where she told me that before the tsunami she had made and sold lace. Ath Welak managed to provide Diawathie and her consortium of 6 with the machines and means to continue their work after the tragedy, in the hope that when the tourism industry returned they could sell their produce at a roadside kiosk.
We were elated to be re-united with Diawathie and see her not in a refugee tent, but in a home with her son and transformed from rags to a beautiful white Sari, restoring some of the pride and dignity that she so justly warrants. Over that last year Diawathie and the lace ladies have separated for a multitude of reasons, such as re-housing or moving to be with family. We were told also that the memories of the tsunami made living near the coast just too much for some and after recurring nightmares some ladies actually moved all together. Sadly there seems to be no consortium with the few that remain. However, with the machines donated they are able to seek employment within the same field. One lady now works with the "Leela Lace" company.
Diawathie now lives with her son Chaminda, and continues to fight an ongoing battle to rebuild their homes. Chaminda told us that many organisations, NGO/INGO's and religious groups have almost been competing to offer to help him build a house for Diawathie on his land. These promises deferred Chaminda from building his house, but as of yet have sadly not been fulfilled.
Diawathie with her family
Although the machines Ath Welak provided were only comparatively small items, they were the most appropriate aid we could gift to promote self-sufficiency and establish a sense of empowerment. As Diawathi is helping at home she can only make up to two meters of lace a day. She will sell her lace for 20 Rupees a meter, this equates to approximately 22 pence per day. To rebuild her home she will need 250,000 Rupees.
Since Ath Welak donated the Berrelu Kotta machines many other organisations such as OXFAM have followed suit.
As there is now a much larger production force and still a relatively small market, it is Ath Welak's aim to initiate a fair trade scheme, so the ladies can sell lace in the UK without being exploited for their labour. We hope that Diawathie and company's lace will soon be available in a Fair Trade shop near you!
As we approached the village of Weligama, our desperate attempt to search out the fine body of the "Ten Brother" boat amongst the array of scattered catamarans on the shore came to no avail. The donated Ath Welak boat was nowhere to be seen! Our initial thought was possibly the inevitable: it had been sold in desperation. However, our reunion with the fishermen told another story. In the past year the fishermen had agreed to set aside a percentage of each catch and invest it in a bank account. They collectively decided to sell the catamaran donated by Ath Welak and use the capital received from the sale and the money saved in the bank to buy a more expensive, more efficient and generally better boat.
The "Ten Brother" new and improved boat
The initiative demonstrated by the fishermen was encouraging, demonstrating that they could operate well as managers and also the practical element of the boat means that they can carry out their fishing expeditions faster and with greater proficiency. Furthermore, their savings mean they have money assigned solely for repair and maintenance work.
Since our last visit, the fishing industry in Sri Lanka has vastly expanded. Foreign donors and local NGO's have purchased a sizeable amount of boats creating a more competitive market, thus resulting in a reduction of the number of catches available. However, the changing status of our fishermen from workers to owners means that they are financially in a similar, if not better position after the tsunami than they were before. The same "Ten Brothers" remain working on the boat and are still splitting the profits equally.
Over a year after the tsunami, two of the fishermen continue to live in tsunami relief camps with their families. Sanjeeva, the young seventeen-year-old fisherman lost his father to alcoholism early this year and now has to support his mother and sisters single-handedly. The majority of the fishermen are living at relatives' houses and can see no hope of rebuilding their damaged homes due to lack of financial support from the government, INGO's and NGO's.
Dilanga, one of the fishermen who lost his five-year-old daughter to the tsunami is now the proud father of a 2-week-old baby girl. Predeep has also recently been blessed with the arrival of a newborn baby.
Dilanga's new baby girl
Since our initial arrival in Weligama, the fishermen of "Ten Brother" have made little progress in their pursuit of new homes. However, they are happy, with new arrivals and a sustainable income; and are also the proud owners of their own boat. Indeed, it would be far from presumptuous to state that being the owners of their own boat has had a profound effect on the mentality, motivation and happiness of these fishermen.