Saturday, January 18, 2014

The ‘Thambi’ Boy Who Paints the Temple

Twenty-four years ago, Osman Saldin was born in Grandpass, Colombo. His parents and all his relatives were practicing Muslims. Osman’s father’s job was painting temples. Osman grew up watching his father draw intricate patterns of Buddhist imagery and scenes from various Jataka tales on walls and ceilings of Buddhist temples around the island. Later, Osman learnt that like his father, his grandfather and generations of ancestors had earned their livelihood in this way.
When he turned 10, Osman began to travel to temples around the island with his father and help him. Slowly, he too, mastered the art of painting. While studying at Maligakanda Maha Vidyalaya, art was Osman’s favorite subject. Not only did he always have the highest grades in his class for art, but he actually enjoyed learning to draw and paint. While traveling to cities and villages far and wide with his father, Osman learnt various Jataka stories, met many a Buddhist priest and made many friends. He won the village Vesak lantern competition every May and listened to his friends sing Bakthi Geetha every Poson.

Last year, he couldn’t understand the cause and effect of the event, when his village Mosque in Grandpass was desecrated by a racist mob. He thinks that all communities can and must live amongst each other in peace, and that if there are any problems, they should talk them out without resorting to violence.
Today, Osman has gone ‘high-tech’ with his dream of painting and is working as a graphic designer. But he always finds time to help his father with painting Buddhist temples.

Osman’s is a story that clearly personifies the blurred lines that exist between our communities. It’s a story about how closely knit our populace of a little over 20 million is. A story that reminds us about the Muslim vendors opposite the Gangarama who sell pichcha flowers to Buddhist devotees on Full Moon Poya days, the watalappan dishes exchanged from Muslims households on Eid in exchange for sweet- meat plates on Avurudu, and village girls who make Kolam patterns at entrances to their houses on Thai Pongal. It’s one of many examples of how being Sri Lankan transcends narrow, parochial ethno-cultural identities that divide us.

Originally Published on the Nation

Friday, January 10, 2014

From the Jungles of Dambana to the Commonwealth Youth Forum: Youth Delegate Uruwarige Sumanasena

Originally Published on the Nation

During the Commonwealth Youth Forum, I met Uruwarige Sumanasena at a side event on youth empowerment. Sumanasena was one of the 30 official youth delegates who represented Sri Lanka at CYF. Born in Dambana to the Wanniya-laeto (forest-dwellers) community, more commonly known as the Vedda people (a term never used by the Wanniya-laeto themselves) Sumanasena’s passion has always been drumming

This is his story:


Growing up, Sumanasena looked at the stars from mountain tops every night and dreamt of all the possibilities that life has to offer.  As kids, Sumanasena and his friends had daily lessons on survival techniques. ‘Even though no one in my family had gone to school, I was determined to go to the village school every day’ he said. ‘But the other boys in the village school belonged to a different world. They didn’t even know my name and no one made an effort to get to know me’. Sumanasena themisfit stopped going to school from grade 9.

Music has always been a source of happiness for Sumanasena. As a teenager, he always found himself beating drums. One day, several villagers who heard him drum invited Sumanasena for drumming lessons at the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Later he entered a drumming competition organized by the National Youth Services Council and emerged first in the province. Today, drumming, which was once a past time has become his profession. He runs two art centres in Dambana and Henanigala where children and young adults learn the arts and dance traditions of their heritage.

‘In the past I couldn’t think of a world outside my tribe. I had no exposure to the outside world. But things have changed now. I want to share the immense knowledge that our culture possesses with others. But sometimes, I feel really uncomfortable in the city environment’ Sumanasena said. ‘It feels like everything is really artificial.  I wish folk from the cities were more down to earth and lived closer to nature’.

It was his first time at an event such as the Commonwealth Youth Forum but he raised the concerns of indigenous young people several times at various thematic sessions. ‘I will remember this experience for the rest of my life. Communicating with young people from other countries was a bit difficult, but some of my friends helped me out’.

With globalization and the market economy young people from indigenous communities are struggling to stay true to their heritage while managing to survive in today’s world. The
Wanniya-laeto are facing the threat of declining of their distinct culture and losing their identity. The community has become economically backward, socially isolated, and politically marginalised.

‘Many of my have friends have been forced to move to towns and villages to find jobs’ he said. ‘We really want our standards of living to improve. But there is no platform for young people of my community to exhibit their talents. Today only tourists and businessmen who come to our villages see what my friends are capable of.  There should be mechanisms in place for them to pursue entrepreneurship and make use of their immense knowledge and skills. Recently we even formed two cricket teams from Dambana and Henanigala’.

It is also important to ensure that Indigenous communities have fair and adequate representation in the democratic decision-making process. The Wanniya-laeto are not represented in the political process locally and also internationally at fora such as the UN’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Cultural assimilation of the Wanniya-laeto with other local populations has been going on for a long time. Some have even adopted a survival strategy that includes taking Sinhala or Tamil names for themselves and their children. ‘Veddas’ are perceived uneducated, ignorant and barbaric. Their cultures have been viewed as being inferior, primitive, irrelevant, something to be eradicated or transformed.

In recent years with increased awareness on the seriousness of climate change and its impacts there has been a growing awareness that scientific knowledge alone is inadequate for solving the climate crisis. The knowledge of local and indigenous peoples is increasingly recognized as an important source of knowledge and adaptation strategies 
The UN predicts that 90 percent of the world’s 6,000-7,000 languages may become extinct within the next 100 years. Indigenous youth around the world face many obstacles to obtain an education, face health problems and are victims of forced assimilation and systemic racism

Talking to Sumanasena, I realized that he spoke with so much pride about who he is and where he came from.  The story of Sumanasena and of the other indigenous young people from around the globe is a continuing story of struggle for identity and a recognition where ‘development’ and ‘civilization’ are defined by money and consumerism.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Don’t Dis Their Ability!

Originally published on the Nation Newspaper

Being politically correct is ardous! We call them ‘disabled’, ‘differently-abled’, ‘special’, ‘handicapped’, ‘physically challenged’ and even ‘handicapable’ ! But what do people with disabilities prefer to be called? This question was thrown at the panellists at ‘Kuppiya’- the 2nd panel discussion hosted by the Rotaract Club of the Faculty of Arts of the University of Colombo.

Kuppiya is a Sinhala slang that exists within the Sri Lankan university vernacular, which, more often than not, is only used (and understood) by university students and the alumni. The word which, in its literal sense translates directly to ‘small bottle’ or a ‘small lamp’, is used to refer to an informal self-help group, where one or several students who are better informed of a certain subject area teach the same to the others in the group free of charge. Earlier this month, on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, another edition of the Kuppiya was hosted surrounding the theme- ‘the disability label.’

Ishan Jalil was born blind. But today he is a Champion of Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Ishan thinks that the term ‘differently –abled’ is just sugar-coating reality. ‘If you really think about it, aren’t we all differently-abled? He asked the audience. Some of us can sing, others can dance or play cricket- we’re all differently abled! We aren’t any different. The term ‘differently-abled, suggests exactly the opposite- it suggests that we’re different, or alien. People with disabilities are not socially disabled. What is important to understand is that disability is simply a part of human diversity and society should learn to accept us for who we are’.
Ishan has almost completed in Bachelor of Arts Degree in International Relations at the Faculty of Arts. He is the President of Young Voices- Sri Lanka an organization advocating for rights of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) supported by Leonard Cheshire Disability. Ishan is also a Senator in the Sri Lanka Youth Parliament a youth activist and a Rotaractor. Many also found out at the Kuppiya- that Ishan is the world’s first born blind oarsman!

The term 'differently abled' was first proposed (in the 1980s) as an alternative to terms such as 'disabled', handicapped, etc. on the grounds that it gave a more positive message and thus avoided discrimination towards people with disabilities. Since then, the term has gained little currency and has been criticized as both euphemistic and condescending. Ishan says that the phrase was introduced due to the influence of faith-based organizations as a good faith label but is actually counterproductive and its implications are misleading.

Samitha Samanmali is a practicing doctor at the National Hospital of Sri Lanka who is a wheelchair user. Unlike Ishan, she wasn’t born with her disability. On the 15th of February 2008- Samitha: then, a 24 year old 4th year undergraduate of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Colombo met with an accident while preparing for the Dayata Kirula Exhibition at the BMICH.  She rushed into a temporary steel tent away from the pouring rain when the structure unexpectedly collapsed above her. Samitha was trapped between the iron rods and one pole hit her head causing severe damage to her spinal cord. Her lower body was paralyzed for life. But three years later she has now successfully completed her MBBS degree and assumed duties as a doctor.

Dr. Samitha thinks that terminology is not important. It’s up to people to decide what they prefer to be called. She thinks that what is actually important is to ensure that people with disabilities are included in all aspects of society. She reiterated that if one is determined to do something they could do anything despite any disability.

Finally, Commissioner of Human Rights Dr. Prathibha Mahanamahewa spoke about the various steps taken by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka to guarantee the rights of persons with disabilities. However, he highlighted that, even though the de jure law exists, there are many loopholes in terms of implementation.  He pointed out that although the rights of persons with disabilities have been guaranteed by law, these rights are often neglected. ‘We should take steps to demolish all buildings that do not follow the necessary steps to make them accessible to persons with disabilities!’ he said.

People with disabilities include senior citizens, (soon a fifth of our population), pregnant mothers, those recovering after surgery or illnesses and injured war heroes. Groups such as women with disabilities, or a PWD belonging to an ethnic minority maybe doubly discriminated. However, even though Sri Lanka has signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities but hasn’t ratified it because of the absence of the local law to give effect to it.

In India, following historic court ruling, PWDs were guaranteed the right to vote- which is perhaps the most fundamental of all political rights. This meant that ramps were installed in polling stations, braille numbers were in place at polling booths, and members of the electoral staff were trained. Sri Lanka, however, is far behind. All important publications- including the Constitution the country should be available in braille and sign language interpretation should be made available at all national events.

People with disabilities are not passive recipients of services – they are an integral component of the workforce. 
Our panel at Kuppiya which featured some amazing speakers bore witness to this very fact.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Becoming Me.

Originally published on the Nation Newspaper:

Bhoomi (then Kumudu) and I studied together at our all-boys college in Colombo.  We weren’t friends, really- he was one year senior to me: but I knew of him (everyone did). While we practiced for the Shakespeare Drama Competition at the college main hall, Kumudu and his friends practiced for their Sinhala dramas for the national level competitions. Kumudu would almost always play the female lead. For us- teenage school boys, this was quite a spectacle and Kumudu and his friends would often be made fun of. They called him the ‘p-word’ (a Sinhala expletive) and all other kinds of names.  While in my first encounters of Kumudu, he seemed taken aback and clearly distressed by the unending bullying; as time passed by it seemed like Kumudu was unaffected by the endless name-calling and bullying: he even fought back a couple of times: almost as if the bullying made him stronger and more resilient. 

Since Kumudu completed his A Levels I never heard from him. 

A couple of months back, an email invitation I received from the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) through the Family Planning Association of Sri Lanka said that I’ve been selected for the South Asia Youth Consultation on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights. The two other young people who were selected from Sri Lanka were Chamathya from the Girl Guides movement and someone by the name of Ms. Bhoomi Harendran. 

At our first preparatory meeting at the FPA I met Chamathya first and then Bhoomi walked into the room: this tall girl dressed in saree. There was something really familiar about Bhoomi and it didn’t take me long to realize that this was, in fact, Kumudu. 6 feet tall, with long straight hair, Bhoomi looked like any other girl you’d meet at the movies or at the crosswalks.

The training in Bangkok made me understand the importance of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights and the need to ensure that all people are aware of and exercise these rights, they are entitled to, by virtue of birth. That one week we spent in Bangkok together also allowed Chamathya and I to actually get to know Bhoomi and listen to her story. This also allowed us to witness, first-hand, the stigma and prejudice that she experiences on a daily basis. 

Chaz Bono once said that gender is between the ears and not between the legs. Kumudu always felt like a girl trapped in a boy’s body. She grew up watching Madhuri Dixit, she wanted to be like her, to dance like her. She was her idol. As she grew up, she started nosing around her mom's closet.  She had no examples of people experiencing what she was: this only reinforced the shame she felt. Playing female roles in college productions allowed Kumudu to be herself. It was probably her inability to blend in that made her audition for drama. That opportunity to feel like being true to yourself, even for just a moment, was worth all the bullying, the hate crimes and the name calling.   Ironically, even though stages are actually built to act, for Kumudu, it was as if she was acting everywhere else, trying to please the world, and she really felt like herself only onstage.

But drama couldn’t drown the loneliness and the confusion. She was scared and felt like there was something wrong with her. 

After she left school, Bhoomi started to grow her hair and nails and wear makeup. The changes "made me feel more like myself" she said. She decided to undergo treatments and take hormones.  Soon her parents and relatives excluded her from family gatherings and finally she was asked to move out of the house. But no one offered her a place to live.

The look on the immigration officer’s face when he saw Bhoomi’s passport, the judgemental stares and flirtatious whistles of passers-by in the streets of Colombo (and Bangkok) were a far cry from the accepting and non-judgmental atmosphere we encountered at FPASL and during the IPPF training. 
People are just used to a binary of black-and-white. Looking back, I am ashamed I made jokes about Kumudu in school behind his back and I’m ashamed I couldn’t stand up for him when other kids bullied him and called names and for not making an effort to get to know this brave young person. But you can’t blame it all on them. We were all products of an education system that doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of, let alone the rights of people with non-binary gender identities

Today Bhoomi has come a long way. She is a sexual and reproductive health and rights advocate and activist trying to change societal attitudes about SRHR issues. But more than anything she is being true to herself and doesn’t have to feel like she is living a lie. Her passion, though, is to be a model and an actress (this is on the verge of coming true!) One day she will have a sex reassignment surgery- she wants to fall in love, get married and be a mother and she wants to be happy (if that’s not too much to ask for).