Travels to the south

Participants of the BasicNeeds programme

Where to begin, there is so much to tell. I spent the weekend in the South, in a place called Hambantote, which is on the southern tip of the island and extremely different to Colombo and the Western Provence.

The heat was something else, even the Sri Lankan’s I was travelling with where complaining of the heat. The humidity was 90 per cent, which is unbelievably high and even the breeze was hot.

I travelled with a bunch of other journalists from various other Sri Lankan papers and radio and television stations.

It was a media field trip with an NGO called Basic Needs, an organization which was founded by a British man Chris Underhill and brought to Sri Lanka in 2000. The aim of the organization is to help mentally ill people and their families to combat the illness and reintegrate themselves back into the community.

For years there has been a social stigma attached to all mental illnesses. These people were not accepted in the community and were ostracised. Many families hid these people away which only added to the stigma surrounding them.

With the help of Basic Needs this negative view of the mentally ill is being reduced and the people are getting help.

A number of years ago Sri Lanka had the highest rate of suicide in the world. This was due to a number of factors such as poverty, economic disadvantages and unemployment. Now with the help of programs like Basic Needs, all this is changing. Sri Lanka still ranks quite high, number nine, on the worlds suicide scale, but at least it is no longer the highest.

Can't remember the name of this beautiful flower

Life in the south is very different from the rest of the country. A doctor at a clinic we visited told me that many women become depressed because of the lives they lead. They are always at home cooking, cleaning, looking after their husbands and children and they have no personal lives. This lack of contact often leads to depression and the women come to the clinics to talk.

What I found particularly difficult over the weekend was the constant references to people being mentally retarded. In English it is not at all politically correct to use these terms. But people here are not concerned about that. I will have to get used to it, as I can’t constantly keep getting offended and worked up about how they put things.

I spoke to one lady during the weekend, through an interpreter, who told me her experience of the tsunami. She lived near to the coastal hotel where we were staying, with her family and she described the disaster which she remembered in so much detail and accuracy. She explained how the 40 foot wave swept over her and her children who were in a car, while she clung onto the car from the outside. Her children survived unharmed but her niece who was staying with them at the time was never found. Her own daughter, who was 18 at the time was severely traumatized and refused to go near the sea for a long time after.

Two very charming little boys at one of the temples

We visited numerous Buddhist temples over the weekend; they are the hub of many communities and a place where people feel safe and free to go to.

Everything was conducted in Sinhalese, so I constantly had to have someone interpreting for me, which was very tiring, but also a very good experience as a journalist.

Hardly any of the people we met could speak English and being white I was the cause off much interest. In particular the children were very curious. Initially they peeked shyly from behind their mothers however, they quickly got over their shyness and were following me around tugging at my cardigan.

After tea and an interesting dessert wrapped in a leaf I had to go to the bathroom. We were in a very rural and poor area and the bathroom, which I was shown to by three lovely women and a little girl (none of whom could speak a word of English) was a shack behind the temple with a hole in the ground. I proceeded to go the toilet, nearly wishing I hadn’t asked, but the women were so friendly I felt obliged to go. The entire time I was in the shack the three women and the little girl waited patiently outside the door for me to finish, after which they threw a bucket of water onto the earth floor. Next time, despite the charming company, I shall refrain from using the bathroom in very rural areas!

The bus journey through the countryside was extremely pleasant and as I mentioned before very different from the Western Province. Most of the landscape was very barren and dry with salt marshes peppering the coast.
Inland was a bit greener with sporadic stretches of fertile fields. We drove along one small river, rather dirty in my opinion, where numerous people were bathing in the river, washing themselves. Women were washing clothes, and children were paddling in the water. It was a hub of activity.

It was a fascinating trip, ammunition for a lot of writing.

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