Contrasting lives

Postscript:  After reading this post, my sister Maeve offered this quotation from C. Joybell C. which is an absolutely perfect accompaniment to the intention of this post.  Thanks Maeve!

“The strength of a woman is not measured by the impact that all her hardships in life have had on her; but the strength of a woman is measured by the extent of her refusal to allow those hardships to dictate her and who she becomes.”

It’s been a busy few weeks for me, both at work and socially with gatherings, and of course yoga.  I feel like I have been here forever yet it’s only been two months since I arrived.

I’m like an old Pro dishing out wisdom on living and getting around Colombo to a newly arrived Land O’Lakes guy who is here for a couple of weeks doing some work for another project.  A friend we met a few weeks back, returns home to New Zealand tomorrow night.  I’m already saying farewells yet I’ve only just arrived!  It’s the nature of this kind of work methinks.

I was at a US Thanksgiving party last night out in the ‘burbs.  I have only ever been downtown Colombo or stomping through paddy fields in the far North since I arrived, so it was interesting to check out the ‘burbs with their beautiful homes, well maintained gardens with pools, walking distance to the local school etc.  Oh, and tales of finding cobras in kitchens (two stories actually – what the ****!!).  When I calmly asked what does one do when one finds a cobra in one’s kitchen, I was told (equally calmly I might add), to back out slowly and call for help.  Apparently the gardeners know what to do.  If ever I live in a house in the ‘burbs of Colombo, I will ensure to hire a gardener.

It was an interesting group of people at the party, all working in some capacity in international development – either at NGOs or with donor agencies like myself.  Given it was a US Thanksgiving party, there were mostly Americans there with a few Aussies along with me, declaring myself a Canadian in political discussions and Irish when it came to rugby.  A pity the Ireland vs Australia rugby international was on after the party, I wonder would those Aussies have been as haughty??  Ireland won you see.

But I digress!  All I am really trying to say there is a rather significant layer of Colombo society that is made up of foreigners, hence the abundance of coffee shops, high-end bars and restaurants, gyms and yoga studios that rival any in North America, and many high-end retail stores catering to the ex-pat need for foods and brands from ‘home’.

I head to the North Central Province again this week and in preparing for my trip, it has given me pause to ponder the very different lives women in Sri Lanka lead, depending on where you come from, where you live and what work you do.

My home base is Colombo (for now) and as I go about my day to day life here, I have bumped into many young Sri Lankan women who are quite exceptional.  The ladies I work with are multi-talented, many of whom are studying for degrees or masters while maintaining a job, as well as caring for their families – raising children, cooking, cleaning etc.  Not everyone has a maid here.

I am finding there’s quite the level of optimism in Colombo with a strong sense of entrepreneurship, particularly in the creative realm.

  • One such young woman has been enticed ‘home’ for a well-paying Colombo-based job in designing wearable technology for a world-known sports brand.
  • Another young women is using her business skills to market handmade clutch bags made from beautiful fabrics, some of which are sari silks and Sri Lankan batiks.
  • Yet another worked for a large juicing chain in the US and is now returned home to produce fresh juices using traditional Sri Lankan fruits and Ayurvedic principles, all nicely packaged in mason jars with rustic-looking tags tied with twine.  They would be at home in any Wholefoods.

Granted these women are educated and from monied families, not every women in Colombo has had these same experiences.  But there is certainly a growing number of young women who are gaining independence from the shackles of traditional expectations of what they do with their lives and are embracing this relatively new freedom to do so.

Once I leave the city limits of the capital, all that changes.  Almost immediately the world is transformed and life gets far more difficult.

In and around Vavuniya, the town was under tight control of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) during the civil war and therefore a target for much of the heavy fighting.  The district suffered untold damage to it’s people, farm lands, the economy and infrastructure.  Over 300,000 were classed as internally displaced persons (IDPs) who ended up being uprooted during the civil war and moved to refugee camps far from home for their safety.

Post civil war, India was one of the primary countries who set up housing projects in northern Sri Lanka, in an effort to build replacement houses and relocate IDPs to permanent homes.  Because much of the land was littered with landmines and water sources were seriously disrupted, many could not return home to the smallholder farm they had known all of their lives.  I can’t begin to understand what that would be like – losing your home, your land that your family has farmed for generations, having to start from scratch all over again without the help of many of your family members, killed or maimed in the war itself.  To this day, there are still over 12,000 IDPs who have not yet been given permanent homes – the civil war ended in 2002.  That’s a long time to be without a home.

As part of the work I am doing, we visited one such home that was built as part of the India-sponsored housing project.  They are a rather simple design, walls of concrete with tin sheets for a roof making it exceedingly hot inside.  From what I gather, it was a rather complicated process to qualify for one of these homes and assumed there was an able-bodied male in the house to do a lot of the construction work.  Given the injuries, loss of limbs due to landmines and deaths many families suffered throughout the war, many households did not have an able-bodied man to help with construction, and the funds allocated were not enough to hire construction labour in his place.  As a result, many homes have not been fully completed.

One of the India-sponsored replacement homes I visited recently

One of the India-sponsored replacement homes I visited recently. The mother I reference below is at the entrance to the right of the photo.

Such a pity they did not follow the time-tested design of a traditional rural home such as the one pictured below.  These homes are made of mud / wattle walls with a high-pitched thatched roof to shed rainwater easily, minimal windows to keep the glare of the sun out, a pilla (verandah) to catch the cool breezes out of the heat of the sun, and separate building with half walls for the kitchen.  A house much better prepared for the heat of the tropics, far cheaper to build and could be built by all family members.

There were a handful of traditional-style homes still to be seen.

Some traditional-style homes remain but alas, not in the Vavuniya district.

Countless young men lost their lives in the civil war, decimating the population of it’s share of able-bodied young men.   Many more young men are still unaccounted for with several mass graves having been uncovered since the end of the war.  The mother pictured above at the entrance to her replacement home, thought we were from the local police when she saw the white SUV pull in.  My heart went out to her when I learned she had thought we were coming to tell her that her son’s body had been found.

Another home we visited, I counted one young man in his early 20s, the sole male of the household with 3 generations of women.  He would have been just a kid when the civil war was underway which is primarily why he is alive today.  The father and head of household plus sons in law of the daughters were all killed during the war.

I was fortunate to have these resilient women feel comfortable enough with me, to give me permission to take their photos.


Grandmother and granddaughter

Grandmother and granddaughter

Mother and daughter

Mother and daughter

Granny making paalchoru (milk rice) for breakfast, it being the 1st day of the month. Notice the earthen pot stand allowing for the wood to be burned underneath.

Granny making paalchoru (milk rice) for breakfast, it being the 1st day of the month. Notice the earthen pot stand allowing for the wood to be burned underneath.

I loved meeting this household of women, who proudly showed me their fields of brinjal (eggplant) and red chills, and had me, along with all the men that were with me, sit and have a cold drink and a chat.  The men said they had never been offered a cold drink before this.  I told them they needed to engage with the women the next time and listen to their stories!!

After we left the women behind, I was encouraged to hear discussion amongst the men in the vehicle, commenting on how difficult it must be for these women to feed and take care of themselves, given the conservative environment they find themselves in.  Even if these women could find a paying job, it would be frowned upon for them to work outside the home.

As we were driving through a small village, and given my clear interest in finding out how the women were doing in the district, we called into a lady who is part of an Egg Program that sells free-range eggs to to health-conscious folks in Colombo every week.  She is recognized as a community leader and has morphed into the role of team lead, responsible for the collection and readying of hundreds of eggs from her own hens and those from other women (some but not all are whom are widows).

She has also managed to get herself a microfinance loan which allowed her to purchase the tractor (see it in the background above).  She rents out this tractor to local farmers, providing her with another source of income.  And she nurtures plants and sells them to the local garden centre.  Smart lady.

She joins the ranks of many women across Sri Lanka who are breaking into the world of Entrepreneurship.  Which (again) just proves two things: do what you know best and keep it simple.  The Sri Lankan women I have met thus far, in both urban and rural environments, are doing just that.

About Kate Coffey

After 30 or so years in the investment management industry, 2013 saw me turn my life up-side-down, making my way first to Nepal, then Bangladesh during that first ‘year away’. The year took me on a journey I did not expect, had me fall in love with Nepal and its people, and become inspired at the work of Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Centre (SIRC) located in Bhainsepati - 2 hours east of Kathmandu in the Saanga foothills. Since 2014, I have returned to SIRC numerous times, working closely with the folks there in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquakes. In Bangladesh I marvelled at the strength and resilience of marginalized women who have the courage and audacity to break the rules and make a better life for themselves and their children through microfinance programs with BRAC. 2016-2017 saw me embark on a totally new experience in Sri Lanka, a place I never would have chosen to end up in. It’s the 40C+ heat, big humidity and tropical snakes & animals that scared me! But I ended up love love loving! my time there, working with predominantly Tamil small business owners in remote villages in north and east of the country, trying their best to recover their businesses and the lives of their employees, after decades of a civil war. My time in Sri Lanka made me realize my hard-earned business skills and experience can really be put to good use! The work the BIZ+ team and I did there ended up earning me International Volunteer of the Year Award in December 2017, presented on Capitol Hill, Washington DC no less. I am currently home on Bowen Island, in the west coast of Canada, shoring up my finances before I head off to who knows where, for my next expert volunteer assignment. This blog initially started out as a travelogue of sorts to keep friends and family worldwide updated while I was off on my travels in 2013-2014. Since then it has morphed into a life story of the many places I have lived and worked and of the wonderful people I have met along the way. I hope you enjoy.
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7 Responses to Contrasting lives

  1. Just getting back to reading your posts after returning home. I had a lot of catching up to do around here! Loved hearing about these women. Can’t believe one of them had the foresight and/or chutzpah to buy that tractor! Brava!! With which language are you conversing with when chatting with these women? I wouldn’t think the older ones would have much English?

    • Kate Coffey says:

      I bet you are glad to be home! That pilgrimage had you pulling from your toes. You did real well, the Big Fella was looking after you! . None of these women have English (not even the young ones) so one of the guys translated my side of the chat to Tamil. Generally Tamil is spoken in the north and Sinhalese in the South. English is not as prevalent outside of Colombo as it is in Nepal believe it or not. It’s not part of the school system. Welcome back!

  2. Mick Canning says:

    Some inspiring women there.

  3. Renée says:

    thanks so much Kate for another of your many great interesting reports!!!

  4. Becky Dawson says:

    Hi Kate! Wow you can write 🙂 It must be so inspiring for the locals to meet you! I’m glad you have met these courageous rural folks – what a gift of real world from our uber multi-stimuli lives here. Twenty-two days to Vipassana for me – planning on taking flannel sheets with me. Cheers to your next great coffee and your humbling life. xo becky

    • Kate Coffey says:

      Great to hear from you Becky. I’m DELIGHTED you are going on the Vipassana retreat, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did … flannel sheets are a good idea and at least there will be no mozzies or massive spiders :-). And hey, it’s those ladies who inspire me …. my life is pretty easy in comparison. Much love to you xo

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