Sri Lanka is comprised of nine provinces and 25 districts. Hambantota (province) is about a nine hour drive from Colombo, although it is only 200 kilometers to the southeast. It lies on the edge of the “dry zone”, which means there are very long periods of drought, then extreme floods, once the monsoon starts.
It is difficult to create a ranking of the poorest provinces in Sri Lanka. Hambantota certainly is entitled to one of the most impoverished areas of Sri Lanka. They needed our help.
Next to Hindu and Buddhist temples, there are mosques in Hambantota. The Sinhalese and Tamil population lives peacefully together with a large Malay community (descendants of immigrants from Java).
Humaid introduced us to his friend Roy Marso who runs an export business. His wife, Mefuza was born in Hambantota. Together, they lost seventeen members of their family to the tsunami, of whom they could only find and bury two. How sad!
As a member of the Malay Association, Roy was involved in a lot of charity and social work in the area, prior to the tsunami. There are roughly 50,000 Malay in Sri Lanka, and their Association is broader scoped than this.
He is a much respected person and knew most of the families and their background. His depth of knowledge and understanding of the past and present of this community influenced our choice to help in Hambantota. Along the coast there was a lot of help and the NGO’s were stepping on each others feet, while hardly anyone was in the remote areas. We felt this was the “right” place to bring our aid.
There is no way to drive a vehicle in Sri Lanka, and we knew that we would only add to the mess, without the advice of our friends. Together the six of us set out for Hambantota in their two vehicles: Roy and Mefuza, Humaid and Faye, Michel and myself.
The journey to the south was oppressive. Although much had been cleared away, and the road and railway line had been restored, the destruction continued to be visible everywhere. Incredible were the arbitrariness and contrasts: next to apparently undamaged homes, only debris and bare foundations.
Along the coastal road, many aid agencies had set up camps. Many of these camps serve as a shelter for homeless people -- imagine camping in 35°C. heat and 80% humidity. Whereas other camps are used by locals during rush hour and on weekends, posing as tsunami victims and begging for money and goods from local and foreign tourists only to return to their undamaged houses further inland. Who could blame them?
We were also advised not to travel with too many goods to the south to not attract too much attention. Almost anything would be available in Hambantota - if you had money. That we could travel with, and be less noticed, yet prepared to make the necessary purchases.
While the road from Colombo leads along the coast, at Tangalle, it turned inland about 2-3 km. At Ambalantota we returned back toward the coast. There, the degree of destruction was unbelievable.
As soon as we stopped at the home of Roy's brother-in-law, Ishan, in Hambantota, young lads came running towards us. The people in the rural areas lead a simple life, and learned very fast that all the “white vans” were distributing relief supplies. There was no danger to get robbed, although young lads such as these could get very unpleasant and persistent in wanting their share. It would have been hard for us as tourists to keep them at distance … one of the reasons we knew Humaid and Roy were “necessities” if we were to succeed in our personal mission.
Behind the protective wall of the garden we unloaded the car in safety and from then on, were only moving with small quantities at a time.
Help for all should have been provided equally to one and all, from the government and the big NGOs. There was certainly enough money to do so. It was obvious, they were not only working slowly, but they were hardly working at all.
Roy Marso had a list of 104 widows and 45 orphans. In Sri Lankan society, women do not work outside their home. Thus, widows and orphans must rely on the help of neighbors or their relatives. He was looking for sponsors and donors with a dedication and efficiency that is rarely seen in Sri Lanka.
With the restriction that the help was only for widows and orphans and through clarifying talks, Roy was able to keep jealous neighbors and relatives at a distance, a problem that should not be underestimated. Through his efforts, the widows and orphans got much needed help; and the relatives and neighbors got rid of having to look after them, or at the least, the burden was minimized. In reality, a “win-win” for all!
He made contacts for us, talked to officials and not one rupee went through his hands. Yes, there is still a caste system and without inside knowledge, one can do so much wrong. We did not want to make matters worse, and continue to be thankful for Roy’s respect in the community and our being able to work with and through him to provide assistance.