Raisa Wickrematunga, in the Sunday Leader, 27 March 2011
One of the landmarks of Seenigama is the devale that seems to rise straight out of the sea. Dedicated to the Devol Deviyo, it is popular amongst people who wish to curse those who have done an injustice to them. Apart from this, the structure is remarkable because it was left standing during the 2004 tsunami. Being one of the biggest natural disasters to hit the country, it left around 40,000 dead.Seven years have passed since then. How have the people picked up the pieces? The Sunday Leader traveled to Seenigama to visit those who lost family and their homes.
The Foundation of Goodness (FOG) is dedicated to creating sustainable communities and helping to reduce poverty. Founded in 1999 by Kushil Gunasekara to uplift his hometown, the organisation has done much to uplift people’s lives.
The coastal town of Seenigama was badly hit by the 2004 tsunami. Operations Manager at FOG, Podi Sampath relates how four bodies were found floating in the swimming pool at the Foundation’s Centre of Excellence. The Centre, once Kushil’s home, has been converted into a command centre of sorts. A medical clinic is on site, and there are livelihood development classes training women in lacework, cookery, sewing and pastry making. There are initiatives to help people start their own businesses, and even diving courses.
The atmosphere at the Centre is bright and buzzing with activity. Yet high above the arched doorway is a muddy line. It is the watermark left behind by the tsunami, a reminder of the disaster wreaked on the land.A short drive away from the Centre is the Victoria Housing Scheme. There are 84 houses here, each accommodating two families. Those who live here lost their homes to the deadly wave that hit coastal areas seven years ago.
Gayali Prasangika was on the road when the tsunami hit. She took her two children and ran for safety. Her house and shop was completely flattened, she told us. She estimates the loss she sustained at about Rs. 1 million. What is Gayali’s existence like now? Her 18 year old daughter and 16 year old son are at school, and she is settled in her new home. She also rebuilt her shop, which sells kottu roti, using driftwood. “We’re surviving,” she says when asked. There are other shops selling food on her stretch of the road too, but at least she has a home and her basic needs are cared for.
In the other direction, Sujeewa Nilanthi lost relatives in the tsunami: her husband’s brother and her grandfather. “We lost everything. The house was shattered. We didn’t even have a table,” she tells us. Her husband, a fisherman, is back at work now. At the time, he had narrowly escaped injury.
Chandrani Watthuhewa was near the devale when she heard shouting. Seeing water flood the road, she took to her heels. Her father in law died, and the sewing machines her sister in law used to make a living were swept away. Luckily for Chandrani, her husband’s lorry was in Ampara and was not lost. “Everything is OK now,” she says with a smile. “Things were difficult back then, but we have no dire needs now.”
The Victoria scheme looks like any other residential community, sleepy in the hot afternoon sunlight. There is a playground and school, even a water treatment plant. The people recite the losses they sustained in the manner of those who are accustomed to hard times. Luckily for them, things are now looking up.
Many people lost property and livelihood following the tsunami. The Udumulla learning and empowerment centre provides courses to equip people with new life skills. Niluka Dhamayanthi is the young coordinator in charge. 325 people from five villages use the centre, taking courses in IT, English and Mathematics. The most popular course is IT. However, many of those attending struggle with the English and Mathematics courses, and need extra help, Niluka says. Using these newfound skills, graduates can go on to get higher level jobs. The classrooms are empty today, but people will be coming in tomorrow for extra Math classes.
The centre itself looks out over the Hikkaduwa river, and sometimes students go boating on the calm green waters. Outside the Wimala Buddhi Maha Vidyalaya, children play on a wide expanse of field. A lone swimmer splashes in the pool. This is the sports complex, yet another project sponsored by the FOG. The grounds were just an expanse of mud and water, Director of Sports Management Anura de Silva said. Yet with generous donations, a transformation has been made. Next to the ground is a swimming pool, built courtesy the popular singer Bryan Adams, who auctioned one of his guitars to fund the project. There is also a gym, built in August of last year. “There is no gym in most of the nearby villages. So the athletes in this area really benefit,” said an enthused de Silva.
Sports and tsunami recovery might not be an obvious connection to make, and yet the sports centre has turned many lives around. Take Manuja. She lost three of her sisters and a nephew, and was struggling to come to terms with the extent of her loss. That is, until she joined the women’s cricket team. Sport gave her something positive to focus on. Recently, she traveled with another outstanding sportsman, Lakruwan to South Africa, where she met (and went pro karting with) Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton.
Young K.G Dilani, who trains at the centre, has won the six mile Kinross sea swim twice in a row. The Under 15 cricket team there recently traveled to Malaysia, where they won the tournament. For many of the youths, it was their first time abroad, their first time boarding a plane. These are just a few of the success stories. The sports centre and swimming pool is covered with photos and articles of those who have won accolades for their perseverance.
Almost everyone in this village lost someone or was otherwise badly affected by the tsunami. Yet seven years on, people have found new opportunities, thanks to organisations like the Foundation Of Goodness. In the backdrop of the devastating tsunami in Japan, the work done in Seenigama alone stands testament to what a little public spirit can do.