by Shenali Waduge
- Sri Lanka -
At only a year old, would a child know that she was in front of a cake attempting to blow out something called a candle? When my daughter turned one she was pretty clueless - about the little Barbie that stood in front of her as much as the beaming faces egging her on. Her toothless grin in photos from that day show a little girl, full of glee and quite oblivious to all the challenges that we adults endure on a daily basis in Sri Lanka.
The Yashorapura temple is a very small and poor orphanage run by just three Bhikkunis (lady Buddhist priests) and a few volunteers from the neighborhood who prepare meals for the children. The orphanage houses 68 girls between the age groups of 3 years to 15 years whose parents have been killed as a result of the ongoing terrorist situation in Sri Lanka. A few charitable hearts ensure the girls have at least one meal a day and a van to take them to a school nearby. The Bhikkunis instruct the girls in the Buddhist teachings, accepted as a philosophy because unlike most religions, Buddha does not demand that followers obey rules. He asks us at most to “refrain” from killing, from telling untruths, from taking what is not yours. The Bhikkunis appeal to the community to help the children but there have been times they have gone without electricity for want of a donor to make the monthly payment.Sri Lanka’s conflict is now almost 30 years old. A very small island nation in the Indian Ocean, the country’s population of 18 million is divided into Sinhalese (74%), Tamil (18%) Muslim (8%) Indian origin Tamils (5%) and others. Ruled from 1505 to 1948 by colonial powers – the Dutch, the Portuguese and the British, all succeeded in dividing Sri Lanka’s people through a “divide & rule” system. By providing better schools, employment and preferential treatment towards the minorities that converted to Christian faith, a feeling of hatred was created and carried on even after independence. A reversal in privileges took place in the 1950s, creating strife. Despite political changes and making both Sinhala and Tamil official languages, the hatred continued, more so amongst the politicians who used the differences as political tools. By the 1970s a Tamil rebel movement prevailed, resulting in their first strike against the country’s military in the early 1980s, sparking mob riots. Many Tamils were displaced and sought refuge on foreign shores.
The rebel movement took the form of a covert operation funded by foreign forces and soon the country was condemned as being divided “ethnically.” This year, the rebels known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were declared the world’s most deadly terrorist organization by the FBI, indulging in illegal arms smuggling, human trafficking, narcotics and drugs, credit card scams, embezzlement, extortion, kidnapping and more. They have also perfected the trend of women suicide bombers, now being replicated by Al Qaeda and the other militant groups that demand 1/3 of the country’s land and surrounding sea as a separate Tamil homeland for a population of less than 5% in Sri Lanka’s north and east. Over 50% of the total Tamil population still lives amongst the Sinhalese even though over 70,000 have perished during the conflict. There have been many peace talks and ceasefires, but the LTTE do not want to put down its arms. They have also wiped out almost all of the moderate thinking Tamil leaders and academics, including a Sri Lankan President, a former Indian Prime Minister on Indian soil, many political leaders and ordinary civilians, businessmen, mothers, fathers and even children.
Located in the very secluded town Ratmalana, on the outskirts of Colombo, it was by chance that I came across the orphanage. Entering the small temple, an immediate serenity prevailed as the sacred Bo Tree leaves whispered with the breeze that was flowing through. But with Sri Lanka’s Air Force base almost adjoining the temple, it was hard not to hear the planes roaring into the sky. Inside the temple, a few peeping faces inspired me to further inquire about the children. By the time I had come out it was finalized that my daughter’s birthday would be celebrated with these kids.I didn’t expect my daughter to object to the program I had already planned for her – as more experienced mothers have told me, there will be plenty of time for that as she gets older. When the day drew near, my mother, my sister and a few of my friends were busy collecting gifts for the little girls, before sitting down to decide on the menu. One of the Bhikkuni insisted that the children not be given anything extravagant, arguing that many donors like me come and excite their tastebuds when for the rest of the month she has only the bland food that is part and parcel of their daily lives to give them. I did wish at the time that I was rich enough to provide these children with all the comforts that I pile upon my daughter. But I did agree with the Bhikkuni’s argument, so after much persuasion, it was settled that instead of a rich cake, we would serve butter cake, some sandwiches, biscuits, a soft drink and a few toffees.
On the day of my daughter’s birthday she was not wanting for anything – showered with gifts. She was a very happy child. But her day was complete after our journey to share her birthday with the 68 girls at the orphanage.
The little girls had kept a special seat for her and greeted her chanting “Happy Birthday!” She returned their smiles, happier to be amongst children closer to her own age than adults. My family members quickly laid the table and before we started to get the food ready, the little girls all stood up and sang a beautiful song in our language, Sinhalese. It described their plight, the hope that they carried, the love they have for all those who care for them and most of all the gratitude for their meal. It was an extremely sad song - the thankfulness they expressed in verse is something we often take for granted, guilty of throwing out food, excessive eating, excessive serving. Tears welled up in our eyes but we fought them back not wanting to upset the little girls who were now anxiously waiting for the magician that had just arrived. Some of the kids were thrilled to be asked to come forward and be part of the act.The time came to cut the cake and for the little girls to tuck into their feast. The birthday girl was full of laughter, being carried from one hand to the next, smiling and uttering the few words she had learnt – she didn’t have any excuse not to be a happy child. It was one of the most special days I have personally experienced and one that will always remain special in my heart. This was five years ago…from that day on, my birthday and my daughter’s birthday continue to be celebrated with these children, some of whom are now grown up. Through the years, my daughter has seen what many adults can only dream of. Now just seven, she is a lovely child full of love – she has bridged many gaps and has brought happiness to many of us. She has learned what is right, what is good and what it is like to love, to share and be loved.
Many of us today crave things that we will not carry with us to our graves. Children today need much more than just being told what is right or what is wrong – we need them to experience it. In my country where we are plagued with terrorism and racism – I have taught my daughter to learn all of our languages and to sing all of our songs, even if she is clueless of their meanings. It’s that effort that shows us how to follow our hearts.
Listen to your heart - "Life is a gift you are only given once. Strive to make the best use of it."
About the Author
Shenali Waduge is a working mother of two from Sri Lanka. She received her Bachelors and Masters degrees from the University of Delhi in India. She has lived abroad in both the UK and India and derives great joy from learning about other cultures. Shenali’s journalism is an outlet to express her desire to see a more fair and just society. A voice for truth, she covers politics, social change, culture, women’s issues and education. Shenali regularly contributes to the Asian Tribune and Lankaweb.
Shenali is also an artist and volunteers her time to programs that help the needy in Sri Lanka. Her dream is to see a world without armaments, without strife and with the freedom for all to experience world cultures.