Vale: Joe Weeramunda, Versatile Anthropologist, Warm Friend

Dr. Sarath Rajapatirana, in The Island, 28 August 2021, with this title  “Appreciation Professor Anton Joseph Weeramunda”

I write this appreciation as one who has been Joe’s classmate at St. Joseph’s, roommate at Marcus Fernando Hall at the University of Peradeniya, and a life-long friend. Joe was an exceptional human being who was quiet, modest, smart, and kind to all and sundry to a fault. His family and friends will miss him terribly. All the friends that I contacted to let them know about Joe’s passing away have written back expressing their profound sorrow to learn about his passing. He was a genuine person that all of us came to admire, like, and be devoted to.

The Academic: Joe was a model academic, devoted to his field of study, which was anthropology. Like the doyen of anthropologists in Sri Lanka, Professor Gananath Obeysekera. Joe came to study anthropology having read for a special degree in English. And, mid-way in his study of English, he offered Sinhala as his subsidiary. Professor Hettiarachchi, who was the head of the Sinhala Department, encouraged Joe and welcomed him to the field, as Professor Obeysekera encouraged him to study anthropology. Joe passed on his enthusiasm for the field to his students and trained a considerable number of professionals who learned the craft of social analysis to many problems facing the country.

Joe wrote his Ph.D dissertation on “Culture and Continuity: A Study of Kinship and Land Tenure in a Sinhala Village” at the University of Washington, Seattle. He also undertook additional academic work on the preparation of research design and supervision of Field Training at the University of Leiden, in the Netherlands. He taught Sociology for undergraduates and postgraduate students at the University of Colombo for 30 years and was the Chairman of the Department of Sociology. He updated The “Leach-Pul Eliya” study. With a new paper “Pul Eliya – Revisited”

The Professional: He undertook around 40 research projects for the Sri Lankan Government and international organisations, the United Nations and the World Bank. This work included the conduct of social surveys, social impact assessments, and project evaluations. He coordinated special programmes for High-Risk Targeting of Sex workers in the Southern Province of Sri Lanka for the Community Front for Preventing AIDS, funded by USAID;  Language cum cross-cultural coordination of Peace Corps Training Programme for the Center for Developmental Change, University of Kentucky. Joe has done professional work in a host of countries; the USA, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, India, Thailand, Malaysia, and Afghanistan.

The Undergraduate: Joe entered the University of Peradeniya, in 1960, and graduated in 1964. His time there was very eventful from the academic side as well as from extracurricular activities. He was heavily invested in drama, first as an actor and then as the President of the Drama Society. He was a natural actor, with a fine voice and stage presence. He had developed his acting skills at Maris Stella College, Negombo, where he studied up to the SSC (Equivalent of GCE Ordinary Level). At the Peradeniya University, he acted in three plays during his time there. These were Sunday Cost Five Pesos, “Six Characters in Search of a Play” and Waiting for Godot A few years later he adapted the play to Sinhala with Kelaniya University students and was feted for it).

He loved to sing and many of us joined him. His repertoire was varied, from Just a closer walk with thee to The Donkey Serenade and Peter Sellers’ From New Delhi to Darjeeling, I had done my share of healing” and its raucous variants.

The Person: Joe was very religious, attending Sunday mass at the Peradeniya Catholic Church regularly. He was elected as President of the Newman Society’, the Catholic University Student’s Society. The holder of that post is called “the Pope” by students at Peradeniya. Joe was a Christian of complete commitment in his ways.

He leaves behind his wife Paddy, three grown-up children, and the six Grandchildren. He doted May his soul rest in peace.

Dr. Sarath Rajapatirana

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