This set of questions was sent to me by a writer for the Phoenix, Swarthmore’s paper. They are writing something about me/the tsunami. (Phenomena of equal importance in the world, clearly.) Anyway he sent the questions and asked me to answer them via email. No doubt the resulting article will be far shorter than the answers I wrote, but actually it’s nice to set it all down. This sheer amount of content needs to be published (lightly edited, but that’s my job) in order that I don’t feel I wasted 45 minutes writing it. Those of you who will read the Phoenix, enjoy the preview! Let’s hope the article doesn’t make me sound like an idiot.
1) Why did you apply for a Fulbright Scholarship?
I had studied abroad here for five months in 2002 with the ISLE program, an exchance program. Last year I applied for a Fulbright in order to continue some social-history research I started then, and because I desperately wanted to come back to this wonderful place.
2) What study or research were you performing in Sri Lanka before the tsunami struck?
I was researching the social history of Sri Lankan marriage, where the different traditions come from, how they are now changing, how people choose their spouses, how family relationships change when children get married, what role marriage plays in the lifecycle here, etc. I was also studying Sinhala, the majority language here.
3) Where were you when the tsunami struck? What measures did you take to ensure your safety? Did you suffer any injuries?
I was at home in Kandy, in the central mountains of the island. I wasn’t anywhere near the coast and thus not in danger. Reports of the tsunamis sort of trickled in all day, with me first hearing about it from a friend via SMS (warning me not to go to the beach, which I had planned to do for New Year’s Eve) and later from a trishaw driver, who I almost didn’t believe; I thought I was misunderstanding him when he told me how many people had died and how much of the coast had been affected. Actually I had a really nice day, that day, aside from trying to find out what had happened, including lunch at the botanical gardens, a visit to the big Buddhist temple in Kandy, etc.
4) How would you describe the tsunami?
In what way? I mean, I wasn’t there. On the coasts, it was absolutely devastating; many places I knew well were reduced to rubble. At the same time, the wave action was influenced a lot by shoreline shape and land height, so there are whole places that got flooded but not trashed.
5) What is the state of the relief effort in Sri Lanka? Are the resources from relief organizations and agencies sufficient? Are some necessities more valued and needed than others?
Because the trauma was so much located along the coasts, and doesn’t extend THAT far inland, we have largely been able to supply relief materials (food, medical stuff, even building materials) from local stocks. That's important for people out in the world to know; also it's better for the economy if goods are purchased here rather than expensively shipped from abroad. There are plenty of Sri Lankan doctors and contractors and whatnot to see to the relief and reconstruction. The problem is that there isn’t a coordinated plan or way of organizing all the response work that needs to be done: the government didn’t have a disaster-relief ministry or department. Some camps are heavily staffed and very well-run, and some are barely reachable by roads (due to tsunami damage and the usual rainy-season washouts). The necessity is for people here to get organized quickly but that’s difficult when there’s no infrastructure. The humanitarian and NGO sector wasn’t prepared to deploy supplies or to train volunteers. A ton of early relief was simply small groups or organizations from the inland/unaffected areas, buying and collecting supplies and trucking them directly to the coasts. Now things have calmed down some and there’s more central organizing, more tracking of the supply convoys, etc. All this stuff is very political here—for example the JVP, a Marxist-nationalist movement and political party, are flying their flags and wearing their insignia in the camps where they have a presence, even though the central government claims that the relief effort won’t be politicized.
6) Is the humanitarian response to the tsunami from relief organizations and agencies like the United Nations and American Red Cross noticeable and active?
Noticeable and active, yes, but to my mind the local organizations are doing a better job, because they have more local contacts and actual knowledge of the peoples’ needs. There’s a major gap between international organizations (INGOs) and local NGOs, in terms of funding and practical experience, etc. The big groups are rich in terms of funding and trucks and whatnot, but the small groups can marshal themselves much faster and deal with local troubles like bad roads, cultural issues, etc. Their feedback loops are shorter, basically. Also the big groups are pretty sluggish in terms of meeting arising needs—local people are helping hugely. People inland who have nothing, are very poor, are still contributing what little they can: I heard a story from a friend about his convoy in the Northeast going through dirt-poor villages and people running out of their tiny houses to donate a kilo of rice, an extra pot, literally the shirts off their backs. The difference between local groups and big humanitarian agencies is that it’s a job for the INGO people; for locals (poor or not) this is a tragedy for their people and their country. The emotional difference is apparent.
7) What is the state of sanitation in Sri Lanka? Are relief organizations and agencies still concerned about the spread of disease due to the lack of sanitation caused by the tsunami?
There is a major initiative in somewhat-inhabitable areas to clean wells. No disease outbreaks have happened. Also, the camp populations are decreasing, as folks move out to stay with relatives. As far as I know, it’s an ongoing risk, but is being attended to.
8) Why did you decide to assist in the relief effort in Sri Lanka as opposed to return home to the "comfort" of the United States?
Well, there was no way I was leaving—the choice was to work on relief or go back to my research. I am trying, now, to figure out how to sort of bookmark the grant research and spend a few months on relief. I could easily just stay in Kandy (where my apartment and my Fulbright-affiliated institution are) and be just fine.
9) How are you assisting in the relief effort? With what projects and activities are you involved?
I have done website content editing for two organizations—Sarvodaya, a somewhat famous, longstanding (50 years) Gandhian community-development movement with offices and initiatives all over the island (www.sarvodaya.org) and Volunteer Sri Lanka, a new organization that is helping organize the huge inflow of volunteers both now and for the future (www.volunteersrilanka.org) and I strongly encourage everyone to look at these websites and consider helping fund Sarvodaya or volunteering in the future. I am still involved in both of these groups and in addition am heading out tomorrow for a two-week documentary filmmaking project with two directors; I am doing logistics and tech stuff for them. We are hoping to portray the strength, hope, and resilience of the tsunami survivors, in the first stage of rebuilding, in order to secure ongoing support and attention from the international community.
10) How has the relief effort progressed in the four weeks since the tsunami? How has your mindset and the mindset of others changed throughout that time period?
Well, as my good friend (and fellow Fulbrighter) wrote, it’s as if we are all trying to lift an immensely heavy burden together, and no one feels as if they can find a good handhold. At first it was really maddening to hear about organizational mishaps like the camps that got all food or all medicine, etc. Now that sort of story isn’t happening too often. A big part of my experience is that my mother and aunt were visiting me at the time of the tsunami and I had to divide myself, emotionally and timewise, between hosting/guiding them and working on relief. That was extremely difficult and I remember being inexplicably moody, having no patience, no appetite, etc. Once I realized that caring for them was exhausting me and making it hard to cope, things got better. I left them alone in Kandy for a few days and worked at Sarvodaya. After that I felt somewhat better, even just to have been a bit involved. Relief work and emotional healing are really related for me, which is partially why I can’t quite go back to the research yet. It’s very useful to be involved in work, otherwise one just feels unimaginably helpless and sad. It’s been great to work hard on these things, and also to be on the receiving end of so much international support (from strangers especially) and to get emails from people all over the world sharing their sadness, their hopes, their skills, and their offers of help.
11) When were you able to contact your friends and family to assure them of your safety? Were they in favor of your decision to remain in Sri Lanka to assist in the relief effort?
The phone lines were busy but operational in Kandy so I was able to be on my dialup internet and the phone to email and call folks at home. I was fortunate that my mother was here, because if she was back home, she would have probably been a lot more freaked out… she could see for herself that the country, in Colombo and inland is totally functioning. People have been deeply supportive-family, friends, former professors, everyone. People have also reminded me to take care of myself (physically and emotionally) very often.
12) Did any of the people you met in Sri Lanka lose their lives to the tsunami?
Very luckily (for me), none of my friends died. I know a lot of people, both Lankans and expats, in one beach village which was badly hit, but they all made it out with minor injuries. One friend’s mother died but I had never met her. It was really difficult, waiting to hear from people, though—you couldn’t get mobile phone calls out, because the networks were so busy, and the land lines were destroyed in the affected areas. I didn’t hear from some people until five or six days later.
13) What can students, staff and faculty at Swarthmore (and other people out in the world!—ed.) do collectively to help the tsunami survivors?
Fundraising is going to be really important in the long run, and simply staying in touch with the situation. I hope that some students can come here (maybe in the summer) and volunteer in rebuilding or education—as I said we have enough people here to DO it, but international attention will immensely help Sri Lanka in the long run. It’s a very misunderstood country especially in America; there is almost no American tourism or even contact here, and I would like for this wonderful place to be ‘on the map’ for more than just civil war and tsunami casualties. Anyway people can be involved in fundraising if they are capable, and also, sending letters of well-wishing and hope, perhaps eventually having pen pals or long-distance friends here, will be very encouraging for the survivors.
14) Do you have any information about the relief effort on the east coast of Africa?
No, nor elsewhere than here! I can barely keep up with local news.
15) What are your plans after your year of study and research in Sri Lanka is complete? Will you remain in Sri Lanka to continue to assist in the relief effort?
I really don’t know. There have been moments when I felt extremely homesick after the tsunami and wanted to leave NOW. I can’t though. This country, in some part, is my country too. A lot depends on what work I’m able to do now and how the state of affairs is in a few months.