Irrespective of the time of our arrival, the Banana Lady is always at her stall selling bananas. The town had built new market stalls close to the bus station and the reception was as always very friendly and very loud.
With enough bananas for a week, we went to the Hambantota Rest House. After the experience at the pool of the Peacock Hotel, we did not want to go back there and there was nothing else in Hambantota.
Sadly, we discovered that the Rest House could not be recommended anymore. The future of the hotel was unclear because of the enlargement of the new harbor and therefore, the government owned hotel was neglected completely. There was not one room with working A/C; the sanitary installation was in terrible shape; and very old mattresses. A so called “shaking” hotel: don’t wear, don’t use and don’t lay down on anything before shaking it!
Michel had hardly been sitting on the bed as a huge cockroach crawled under the collar of his polo shirt. That is by far the meanest variation. According to experience a cockroach holds still for as long as there are spectators to watch the embarrassing moves you make to get rid of it. Experienced travelers reach out for the spot where something is crawling without raising their eyebrows, press thumb and pointer finger together ………….. and hope that the stain will wash out later.
Our first chore was a trip to the supermarket, where we bought a spray with the witty name “Ninja Killer”.
Sifany, the widow with the rice mill, had become a grandmother. The little girl was four weeks old and of course, I got to hold her. Pampers are way too expensive for most parents in Sri Lanka but I did not understand the purpose of the thin piece of cloth the little girl was wearing. To look at the little girl warmed my heart and therefore, it was no problem that she warmed my belly. On top of that, I could not understand why all got so excited. Whoever would have been holding her would have been wet as well.
Good that we not only had bought a baby cot with a mosquito net, but also some baby clothes and fabric diapers.
Sifany had gone to the local authorities to get her scale calibrated and it was the highlight of her shop. Her son-in-law had built the hardly one square meter “big” shop and she was able to earn some extra money with it.
After the tsunami, the number of tuk-tuks had tripled in Hambantota due to donations and it was very hard to make a living with it. At least Sifany`s son-in-law owns the tuk-tuk and therefore, does not have to share his meager income.
Their main income was made with the rice mill and Sifany was very proud that she already had paid off half of her second credit. She had bought a used chili mill but soon after, the engine broke. It would have been easy to give her the money for the repair, and also some money to fix the big hole in a corner of the roof. But she and her family were doing so much better than four years ago; and so many others were doing so much worse. Where should you start? and where should you stop?
We were sure that sooner or later Sifany would be able to take care of it herself and she would definitely get a third credit.
A comparably luxurious shop in the meantime was the one of Sithy Sahila who started with the credit for a Dodol business in her kitchen. Her Dodol was the best in town and sold as far as Colombo for an unbelievable price of 400 rupees per kilo. (In comparison, one kilo of rice cost 80 rupees.) Made out of rice flour, coconut oil and palm sugar, it tastes much better than the ingredients and the dark color might suggest.
Zariya had the files for the credits and the bank booklet ready, as always. I was especially pleased with the file of the widow with the goats: all the payments had been made.
Sadly, two of the credits given last October were an almost complete failure. The payments had been made for five months and after that the files were empty. With the failure from the beginning (the widow that moved abroad), the project was still doing great, but we had a serious talk with Zariya.
She was responsible to manage the applications and she should have a close look at the women in the future, so as not to jeopardize the whole project. We had promised her the money for five more credits and did hand them out. We hoped that we would only get good news when we returned in the Spring.
Because of the size of the project, it was not possible any longer to visit all the widows. But we wanted to see those two that had failed to pay their rates for months, as we wanted to learn what kind of problems they were having.
The first one was supposedly sick and in hospital care. There was no way to control that, so we would try again to meet her, the next Spring.
The other one we met at her house in Siribopura and there was no way to help. The conversation translated by Zariya was very difficult and the answer of the woman to each and every suggestion was always the same: “It will be up to God!” I wanted to know whether she ever heard of the saying: “The Lord helps those, who help themselves”? All I got was a clueless stare. Maybe….if she would have a sewing machine?
This mother of four children made her living from a monthly payment of 40 Swiss francs from a charity organization and together with the oil, rice and lentils from the government, this was enough to survive, but not enough to properly dress her children or to send them to school. To look at the children which followed the conversation with big eyes and as lethargic as their mother, was heartbreaking.
But again … “Where should you start? and where should you stop?”
Zariya asked me on the way back to the car what she was supposed to do.
Forget it, simply forget it! That woman would not get anywhere with five sewing machines. This was not meant as a judgment, only as a statement.
The prices for food and gasoline had exploded and we could not imagine how the people were managing this situation.
Zariya had been complaining about the cost of living also. For example, it was costing her 300 rupees to go by tuk-tuk to Siribopura. Also, the phone costs had risen. We decided to raise her monthly payment from 40 to 60 Swiss francs and as a little thank you we invited the whole family for dinner.
Next to Victor, our driver and Michel, there was only one more man at the table. This is a very common sight in Hambantota as many men work abroad and are not able to visit their families more than once a year. The husband of her sister was on one of these visits.
And what was Chammi, our seamstress doing, who lived also in the remote settlement? Where a tuk-tuk ride from Hambantota costs 300 rupees and a public bus was only running at the far edge of the settlement? A bus that sometimes arrived already full, at non-predictable times, or not at all?
She was using a motorbike! The only woman in Hambantota doing so; most probably the only one in the whole country – at least we never had seen one before. Quite embarrassed she told us that she had fallen down six times but that she was doing fine now. It would be impossible for her to wait twice a day for the bus for an hour and to visit customers by tuk-tuk to take measurements for curtains or other things, would simply be too expensive.
She had made a down payment for half the price and would pay the rest in monthly payments. It had never been so easy to part Michel from his money! He paid off the owner of the motorbike and made Chammi the proud new owner of the whole used bike.
Chammi for President – and the whole country will improve!
She had rented her house and had moved to her father’s, a similar house. The regulations that the tsunami victims had to live in the donated house for ten years to get the ownership had been overruled in the meantime. Or maybe there was simply nobody that cared about it anymore?
The house consisted like all others of a kitchen, one small living area and two bedrooms. As she had already done in her house, she had built an annex for the kitchen and therefore, there was a bedroom for her father, one for her and a working room with her sewing machine and an extra bed. Maybe for guests ……?
Her father worked during the week in Colombo, but her sister, her brother-in-law and her niece kept her company in the evening. The sister had come back from her employment in the UAE as she had hardly earned anything there anyway and took care of the cooking. It went without saying that Chammi paid for the groceries.
At ten p.m. they would go back to their own house. Being alone, she was only scared of the wild elephants sometimes roaming through the settlement. Most of the time, whole herds came which were not very dangerous, but sometimes there would be lone males visiting and their behavior would not be predictable. The settlement was built on old elephant paths.
Sometimes I do worry about Chammi. Sri Lanka is not a country for women that live alone, ride motorbikes and are not afraid to fire a male tailor because he was not willing to take orders from a female boss.
On the way back to our holiday resort on the west coast, we visited the Banana Lady in her settlement. The well was still working perfectly and they all gave us a warm welcome. The good part about a visit in this remote area was the fact that nobody was able to sneak out the backdoor to get some of that terribly sweet lemonade and even sweeter pastry. They served us king coconut milk and ……… of course, bananas and we enjoyed it very much!
The trip back to Bentota was very tiring as there was a lot of road construction going on. At some places, they were building complete new stretches of the road further inland. It took us eight hours to get there.
At the 85 room resort there were about two dozen guests, a quarter of them, we knew by name from previous visits.