Through my Father’s eyes: reflections on post-war Sri Lanka 

Through my Father’s eyes: reflections on post-war Sri Lanka 
During the civil war and in the initial aftermath, I wasn’t allowed to travel to my Fatherland, Sri Lanka. Teenage angst aside, I could understand my father’s reasons – being Tamil put us on the ‘wrong side’ of things. In 2013/14, almost five years after the civil war ended, I finally made my maiden voyage and felt compelled to share that which I witnessed and absorbed during my visit. 

The people here are still at war… With greed, power and inhumanity. They are still fighting each and everyday, for survival, to recover, rebuild and revive the life they once knew, and they are doing it with the grace and dignity of kings and queens. Every single person I’ve met during my time here has in some way been affected by the war. Has lost someone, if not many people, dear to them. Has lost their home.

I’ve heard stories that will stay with me always. I’ve closed my eyes and tried to imagine the experiences that have been described to me. To be a 12 year old girl terrified to go to sleep each night in what should have been a “no fire zone” – a place of safety. Only to awake to dead bodies on either side of me. To be deathly thirsty that my only choice is to close my eyes and drink the only water I can find… The flowing blood red stream in front of me.

To be carrying my injured sister through shelling and shooting by fighter planes trying in vain to keep my wife and two young daughters out of harms way, only to later lose my sister … And be refused the right to respectfully say goodbye to her, forced to add her body to a pile of other sisters, mothers, daughters, wives, husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons.

If these haunting images weren’t enough, I’m also told of 30 newborn babies that were given up due to them being a product of rape during the war. Whilst rape is something that has become so commonplace in wars the world over, it will never cease to rattle me to my core when I think of the extra burdens that women – and girls – must bare as a simple result of being female. Being desirable and desired. And being thought of as something that can be taken, without consent. The brutality of this lingers with me. In a society with strict cultural codes and beliefs, these women will most likely now be seen as damaged and dirty, undignified and unworthy. Through no fault of their own. As a mother now, I put myself in the shoes of those 30 mothers (and countless more during the course of the 30-year-long war) and feel the flood of grief that would have ensued from carrying and giving away my child, the most innocent victim of them all. To not know who will be caring for them now, who will be feeding them, who will be loving them.

There are still displaced people living in “temporary accommodation” – which was explained to me as usually being a sheet of tarpaulin given to them by international NGOs. Nothing else to protect them from  the elements (monsoon season approaches) or wild elephants which frequently damage the camps. How is it justifiable that almost five years since the end of the war, people have still not been re-housed, or given more substantial shelter? Many Tamils have had their land, in the north part of the country (such as in Jaffna),  given away to army personnel. The painful irony is not lost on me.

My partner told me of an African proverb that comes to mind:

“When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”

No truer is this expression than during a war, where the very soul of the country, its people, suffer at the hands of those who are chosen to protect and advocate for them.
Sadly, in most cases, the ‘chosen ones’ instead serve their own agendas, line their own pockets, preserve their own privilege – all the expense of those they were chosen by and for. Sri Lanka is no exception, with its garish Government promoting itself as victors against ‘terrorists’ while the world looked on as yet another genocide took place before their eyes. That the grass suffered is an understatement. It was trampled, brutalised, betrayed and destroyed. The psychological and emotional scars of which will remain for generations to come.

We encountered a Museum of Weapons in Mullativu (established to “beautify” the area) and a MiG fighter jet mounted in the centre of Colombo – a grotesque display of deep seated fears if ever I saw one. The supposed powerful instrument of death that finally brought down the Tamil Tigers, in reality was used to drop bombs repeatedly on the “no fire zone” where civilians were ushered into during the final days of the war. It is here that they remained trapped until they met their inevitable and untimely deaths.

Bombs, Museum of Weapons, Mullativu

Bullets, Museum of Weapons, Mullativu

 

Despite the horrors experienced by people here, they are some of the kindest and most welcoming I have ever met on my travels. They reminisce fondly to a time when they were close friends with their neighbours, irrespective of their ethnicity or religion. Tamils and Sinhalese lived together peacefully and passionately, with many a mixed marriage to prove it.

Today, there are still bridges to be built, hearts to heal and scars to love anyway, before people can return to their harmonious co-existence.

My heart has been broken and filled in equal measure. My Spirit is still wandering the damaged streets of Vavuniya and trying to find pieces of the home my father grew up in in Jaffna. My Soul, however, knows without a shadow of a doubt that after the storm, the sun will always shine, and that the grass will grow back strong, healthy and full of optimism. 

All that remains of my Grandparent’s home, Jaffna


Note: the full collection of photos from the Museum of Weapons can be found here.

Unconditional Love

Journal excerpt: November 25th 2013

Location: Wayanad, South India

Amidst a day of perfect chaos I have found more than one moment of stillness and tranquility that I have been so deeply craving. Reaching a waterfall after turn after turn of luscious green fields of tea, and greeting the water with all of me… feeling the coolness rush over my toes.

Recharging the Soul

Later, meeting a pure and beautiful Swamiji who emitted Unconditional Love, with sweet gifts of prasad, smiles and acceptance.

Purity & Grace

Thus far, Mother India has shown me only the Unconditional Love that I know we all could be giving to one another. Loving the unexpected, I continue to trust that the Universe will provide all my Soul needs.

Mama India

Journal excerpt :: November 20th-21st 2013

Location :: Coorg hilltop, Western Ghats, South India

Without expectation but an abundance of excitement, I set out on a path of unknown beauty and perfection. A yellow brick road of luminous autumnal leaves line my path as I exit quietly from suburbia into utopia. A mostly calm, effortless journey brings me here… a mix of all the “homes” I have ever known in the depth of my heart… Mauritius, Lagos (and the as yet unvisited, Sri Lanka)… INDIA. Flawless. Dignified. Elegant. Breathtakingly BEAUTIFUL.

The tiredness of my journey cannot force my eyelids closed… I must absorb it all… people everywhere, smiles from their souls, colour, colour, colour, tuktuks and okadas and my favourite – the ever graceful cows roaming the streets with a radiant dignity. I feel my mother’s Soul beside me. I am already in love with the country that my ancestors have called me into… pulled me back to. I appreciate them for the force. I am here… I am home, again.

Following the chaos of traffic and hustlin’, we arrive at a true paradise. I hear birds and insects singing, Tibetan monks chanting, I am welcomed by our host family and I feel at ease. Everything is at once familiar but different… and it is all PERFECT. The landscape, the food, the smiles. Today, I feel the eternal truth that I am exactly where I am meant to be.

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Gratitude fills me up to the very top. Blissful life.

“Home”

People often look at me like I’m a little kooky when it comes up in discussion that I don’t believe in mortgages. I then struggle to detangle and explain what I mean by that. To be clear, I am fully aware of their existence, evident in the millions of people who are attached to one if not more, worldwide. However, I do not believe in them for the same reason I do not believe in, and have no intention of ever possessing, a credit card – I do not think they bring us happiness. Further yet, I think it’s very possible that they destroy the possibility of attaining happiness.

Personally, I don’t agree with buying beyond my means. I don’t believe in owing vast amounts of money to a “suited fat cat” somewhere who keeps adding figures to the amount I owe. If possible, I’d like to live my whole life avoiding the damage that this type of entrapment can cause to one’s state of mind, being and health. Not to speak of the financial repercussions on a country, continent, global population, shackling of people into a borrowing culture from which they eventually cannot escape.

Stubbornly refusing to ever succumb to a mortgage however, does not mean that I do not want to be a homeowner; that I do not desire a stable place to call our own, where a family can grow together and nurture one another. I simply do not want to accomplish it with money that I do not have, that I will consequently spend the majority if not all of my life paying back. And so, I am met with quizzical looks and defeatist remarks “but that’s impossible.”

Is it?

Have we forgotten that nothing is impossible? Have we lost faith in ourselves? In our own ability to achieve our ambitions and dreams in our own way? People tell me a mortgage is basically an unavoidable symptom of our generation and era in which we live, one that I must accept in order to be a homeowner. I attempt to share with them what I think is valuable information on affordable methods of building your own home – but am usually met with the same strange looks and questions like “…so you want to live in a mud hut..?”

Hm.

I try to clarify, to explain this is just one eco-friendly technique that has been used for centuries and is just an example of many options that could enable a mortgage-free home ownership. The possibilities are vast – methods which have been adapted and perfected to suit the environment, using materials which can be locally sourced. I see from the looks on people’s faces that not everyone will understand me, but that’s ok.

We are building ourselves a humble home on a small island, a two-minute boat ride from Lagos. The roads are sandy throughout, soft white beach sand, which means a constant workout for your calves and thighs (but I enjoy it!) There are no motorized vehicles on the island, which means no fumes, no smog. Even though there is currently no electricity on the island since a ship destroyed the power line, very few people use generators – improving the air a thousand fold compared with mainland Lagos. Mango and cashew trees grow wild and coconut palms decorate the otherwise clear blue skyline. There is an abundance of wildlife – from the usual lizards, goats and chickens, to dragonflies, tropical birds and the best sighting so far – monkeys.

The land was bought for a fair price from the indigenous people of the island. Ideally, we would have to liked to have used mud and straw – a durable and long lasting method of building –  but those are not locally available materials and would have had to be sourced from another state, adding unnecessary cost and carbon footprints. So far, the place is as close to perfect as possible bar the unavoidable exceptions such as the local “area boys” collecting money for each vital stage of your building process such as the foundation or roofing. I put up as best a fight as possible but you have very little choice in paying up unless you want your materials scattered in the night – a small reminder that we are still in Lagos, and still very much in Nigeria where this financial burden has become the norm for anyone wanting to build a home.

Still, we are building our house within our means and with the help of close friends lending their expertise and knowledge where possible. By visiting the site daily to help out in anyway with the construction I have already learnt a lot about the place that will soon bare the name “home” for me. Although we may not live there permanently (because who knows what the future holds) it still fuels and excites us to be part of such an organic project, and to be there for every stage of the building process.

My eight year old neighbour-to-be, and so far my favourite person on the island, Dare, teaches me new things daily. He explains to me with a shine in his eyes the best way to grow pawpaw and mangoes. He also sweetly confessed that it was he who set our land on fire, to chase away a snake and make sure it wouldn’t build a nest in our roofing materials. I love to watch him running around, bare foot, carefree, chasing insects and various wildlife, climbing a cashew tree to pick fruit for all those shouting his name from the ground below, helping to fetch water from the well, tending to the chickens or preparing his family’s dinner on an open wood fire outside. He is a breath of fresh air and gives credit to why I’ve always thought a place like this would be a dream for children to grow up in. Immersed in nature, they not only understand the importance of living in harmony with the treats that mother earth has blessed us with but they also appreciate their environment and make the most of its natural benefits.

It may take some time, but one day we will be able to call it “home.” A home away from home in London. A home in the sunshine surrounded by a still lagoon. Best of all, a home which was built without having given a penny or cobalt of our money to a bank or mortgage company – which in my opinion (and it is truly my own), enslave people who simply want a place to call their own.

Drumming dreams come true

When you close your eyes and listen to the samba being played perfectly in time with rhythm, soul, and an undeniable vibrancy, you would imagine yourself to be in the streets of Rio. But this is not Brazil, we’re still in Lagos after all. Up wind of a makeshift rubbish dump, kids cover every inch of ground, step, wall and rooftop available. They don’t notice the smell wafting over the compound wall, they’re too busy watching the spectacle before them, something they’re not used to seeing in their modest part of town.

Seyi Ajeigbe, Nigerian/British musician (soundbites from his band AGEMO can be enjoyed here) has returned home (and brought me with him!) to give his local community something he had longed for as a child – a place that would enable him to escape his daily struggles as his mother worked hard to raise him and his four siblings in a sprawling African ghetto by herself. A space in which he could bring to life the music from his imagination. A place where he could simply, play a drum and get lost in the music.

After discovering Brazilian samba eight years ago whilst living in London, Seyi found something that matched the rhythmic beat inside him that he just couldn’t say no to. He excelled at playing samba in various forms and went on to perform all over the UK and throughout Europe. Life was pretty darn good on the drumming front, it would seem, but Seyi couldn’t shake an idea that he had had very early on in his samba career. He imagined playing this same samba, not in Brazil, but back home in Lagos, returning it to the continent where the very roots of this music had originated.

Seyi has established the first samba school in Nigeria – Eko Samba School – a non-profit organisation, which enables children from his local community to learn to play Brazilian drums. Bridging gaps between children from a mix of social, tribal and religious backgrounds, giving them team working and leadership skills as well as improving their social responsibility, and above all, learning, enjoying and performing together, it is clear this is something well deserved in this community.

Despite encountering many a bureaucratic hurdle with regards to getting support for the project here in Lagos, Seyi sums up the positives in an interview with Arise magazine:

“The best part so far has been the music itself. It brings a lot of satisfaction to hear the samba swing in the middle of a slum in Lagos, it’s as if the souls of those slaves taken via Lagos to Brazil are returning.”

For me, the best part so far is the ear to ear grins on these kids’ faces, the freedom in their enjoyment, as they sing and dance, sweat pouring from their bodies, and they play (and I mean they really play) those drums.

State hopping

Amidst a whirlwind fire cracker filled festive period we managed to escape to Ondo State for a very brief visit to see family and soak up some non-city vibes. The 5 hour drive from Lagos through Ogun, Oyo and Osun makes clear the reasons the Nigerian flag is framed in green to reflect their rich and varied trees and plant life. Most of the journey felt like a road had been carved through untouched forest and jungle with a different equally pleasurable view at each bend in the road. As a lover of drastic landscape, I was thrilled when we passed our first mountain and even more excited when we learned that a place called “Oke Idanre” (Idanre hill) which has just been classified a UNESCO World Heritage site was located just outside Akure, where we were heading. While I have mixed feelings on the political action of the UN with regards to their role in maintaining peace and helping to positively shape the world we live in, I also know that UNESCO rarely gets these sites wrong.

True to the way of the season, we crammed in an abundance of good food and made great memories with family, best of all young children. Ondo State is a world apart from Lagos while maintaining a consistent Nigerian thread. Reasons to move to Ondo with your family are clear (cheaper cost of living, calmer pace of life, milder climate, mosquito free) though unemployment is still as much of an issue as in any other Nigerian state.

We spent an afternoon in a village in Akure where we enjoyed freshly tapped palm wine, a national favourite, and a bowl of catfish pepper soup which was literally swimming-to-the-cooking-pot-fresh. A hidden gem not far from the state’s capital, the meal came at a bargain price given the freshness and quality of all we consumed.

 

On our second and final day we got blissfully lost in the hills of Idanre. We climbed to great heights up 640 steps and rock faces to take in views of magnificent hills, village filled valleys and luscious foliage. A range of charcoal coloured curvaceous rocks surrounded us like giant scoops of ice-cream, sleeping hippos and elephants. Here, an ancient village atop the hill has been preserved so that we could have a peek into what life may have been like for the Yoruba clan living 3000 feet above sea level for almost a millennium. According to UNESCO, “Since emigration down hill in 1923, the topography, vegetation as well as the fauna and floral life have remained undisturbed.”

In addition there are rare species of wildlife, a giant “Agbooogun” foot print, thunder water (Omi Aopara) and burial mounds and grounds caves, as well as Amen Olofin (a rock with unreadable lettering), and Odan, the ‘tree of life and beauty.’ The village mud walled school, prison, old court, market and my personal favourite, the ancient palace, collectively revealing a very comprehensive way of life in idyllic settings. Various statues (unfortunately largely defaced) form the pillars of the palace, each representing a type of local person in town such as security men, women, slaves and nobles. Beside the throne sits a stack of cow skull carcasses – each representing a successful year for the Owa on the throne. Modern day Yoruba festivals are still celebrated in the hills such as Ogun festival in October and the week long Ije festival in December breathing life into age old traditions at this ancient site.

The combined effect of being lost in nature and connecting with an ancient way of life was truly calming after a very busy couple of months in Lagos.  Neither of us wanting to leave the hills, we were coaxed home by promise of Ondo state’s “best food”, pounded yam. This was my first taste of homemade pounded yam done properly – and I was not disappointed. Using a large pestle and mortar with great precision, timing and strength, Brother D (head chef of the family) pounded boiled yam with nothing other than water. The result was creamy, delicious goodness and with one mouthful I could see why this is one of the nation’s favourite foods. With noticeably tighter fitting clothes and refreshed souls, we left Ondo the best way to leave anywhere… wanting more of everything we had experienced – not least our company.

Welcome (back) to Lagos!

After much deliberation, anticipation and a big dose of adventure I have left life in London to set up camp in Lagos for a while. After deciding to leave a job at an NGO I respect and value (Save the Children), my safety net of incredible friends, colleagues and most importantly, a family woven like Egyptian cotton (strong, close and beautiful), I’m hoping to address some deeper questions on what really defines quality of life – for me.

Leaving behind the 9-5 lifestyle where we work to live, I’d like to see if I can achieve an envisioned way of life where my personal priorities, ambitions and aspirations take centre stage. I’ve chosen to dedicate myself to positive change in a way which will enable me to truly be the difference I wish to see in my time on this planet. I also crave a life surrounded by natural goodness, self sustainability, peace and tranquility. Naturally, people here ask me why then I’ve come to Lagos – Africa’s largest metroplolis. Somewhere which can only be described as “like no other place in the world” – I can only reply that in my quest for a new way of being, I never said I wanted it to be boring…

The transition so far has been undeniably “interesting” but would I expect anything less in a move from London to Lagos, England to Nigeria, Europe to Africa? My body decided to adjust first, in a variety of ways. I’m not going to sugar coat it, most of them deprived me of comfort. But I’m pleased to report that both body and I have made it through in one piece and are still on talking terms… just.

I’m currently staying in Ijegun Egba, Satellite Town, a far cry from the Westernised “luxurious” (everything in this world is relative) Victoria Island, which is a short drive away. Here, I’m fully immersed in what it means to be surviving day-to-day in the most populous country in Africa. Despite a relatively high income per capita, and an abundance of natural resources, inequity is widespread. 45% of the population earns less than $1.25 per day, and in this part of Lagos I am surrounded by people in that bracket. However, to reference Christian Purefoy:

Living in Lagos taught me the true meaning of eternal optimism.

Indeed, optimism penetrates your senses here – despite huge inequality and struggle for basic human needs, Lagosians will always remind you that tomorrow is another day, and things will be better. Their resilience is inspiring.

One of my favourite aspects of where I’m living is the abundance of children… everywhere! Unable to hide their innocence they stare, point and gleefully shout out “Oyinbo” to one of very few people they’ve seen in their village who looks so different from them (this is clearly not a part of the world frequented by Westerners). They want to touch my skin, my hair, and check with their friends or parents if they’re really seeing me, my favourite comment so far being “is she TV??” … ahhh… children! My most treasured people on the planet for good reason.

That’s not to say a lot of the grown folk around here aren’t thinking the same when they see me, they’re just not as fortunate as the children to be able to declare it so openly, though many find a way to welcome me which I appreciate. And so, as a mixed Mauritian/Sri Lankan I’ve gone from being categorised as an ethnic minority in the UK to an even greater minority here – definitely a new dynamic to adjust to.

Adults and children alike, people here greet you. Greet each other – all the time. More than just a polite pleasantry, I’m often caught unaware, missing the opportunity to return the appropriate greeting for that time of day as they fly at me from every direction. Here, greeting one another is an ingrained aspect of people’s culture. I kick myself for not being quicker with my counter “good morning/ good afternoon/ good evening,” but I feel my awareness shifting as I open myself up to my surroundings more and more each day. Barriers down, I embrace these warm cultural differences and thank the sun for making it easy for people to smile and talk to each other, stranger or friend regardless.

I’d like to put a quick apology out to anyone back in the UK as the temperature starts to dip and the sky takes on an even darker shade of grey than you thought possible. Right now in Lagos, it is hot. Hot, hot, hot. Take a cold shower before you step outside, hot. Take another cold shower before you go to bed just to get through the night, hot. Don’t venture outside in the midday sun unless absolutely necessary, hot. Thank NEPA (National Electric Power Authority – more aptly known as – Never Expect Power Always) if and when they decide to bring electricity in the middle of the night and you get an hour or two of deep sleep… Hot. Delicious, I might add, to a self-confessed sun worshiper.

As “Harmattan” season begins, the air is getting noticeably fresher, but the tail end of the rainy season still plays games with us. Just a couple of days ago when I was outside washing my clothes the skies opened, refreshingly drizzled on me and soon after, poured. With Alanis Morissette singing in my head I watched the mammoth raindrops fall into my bucket of soapy clothes and couldn’t help but laugh to myself at the irony of the timing. Fortunately, as people here remind me, “this is Africa” and after it rains, the sun always comes back out. And it did, full beam, and dried up all my clothes before the day was done.

Transition indeed. When you move to a place where clean water and electricity are a daily challenge, you truly appreciate the moments of bliss. After three weeks of longing for a trip to the very ocean which encouraged me to return to Lagos, I finally made it to the beach. A short boat ride from the jetty and my surroundings changed drastically from the frantic pace of daily hustle and bustle, to views of the serene lagoon. With a fiercely blue sky juxtaposing the luscious greenery all around, I lapped up every moment. Laying under a coconut tree, I took solace in the type of natural beauty I had often day dreamed of from my desk at the office, or stuck on the London underground, again. Letting the sea breeze wash over me, I allowed myself to become fully revitalised, looking forward to what this unique, magnetic place has in store for me.