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.

No comments: