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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Monday, December 26, 2005

Weaving their way back from disaster

RedCross: 20/12/2005"

When P.K. Chithrani was 10 years old, her mother taught her how to use a traditional lace-making machine to weave thread into intricately detailed strands to adorn hems on pants or dresses or as a border on pillows.

Little did she know at that young age how this traditional craft would later help her recover from the most traumatic experience of her life.

In the early morning of December 26, 2004, as Chithrani was preparing breakfast for five members of her sister’s family, she heard a tremendous thundering noise. She stepped outside and was stopped in her tracks by the sight of a 10 foot wave bearing down on her house.

Chithrani ran back inside and screamed to her family to run to higher ground.

“After about 20 minutes, when the waves subsided, we came back down. The only thing we saw was the foundation of our house,” Chithrani recalled. “This ancestral home has been in our family for generations, but everything was gone, the walls, furniture, clothing, cooking utensils. Later I learned I lost a nephew. It was devastating.”

Like thousands of tsunami survivors across Sri Lanka, Chithrani struggled to put the pieces of her life back together again. Before the tsunami, she made lace and clothing to support herself. She said she had a good life before the wave came.

But the waves took away everything, including her sewing machine and the lace-making machine her mother gave her as a child. She was not married and had no children to help support her. At 55, she felt her life was over.

When she heard about the American Red Cross psychosocial support program (PSP) starting in her community, she was eager to participate. PSP engages people in community- and school-based activities such as games, mural painting, singing and dancing to help individuals rebuild bonds following a disaster. Ultimately, PSP helps survivors by enhancing their resiliency and restoring their communities.

In the village of Welligama, PSP brought women together to talk about their loss and fears in order to help them overcome trauma and find new solutions. During the initial meetings, the women spoke of the importance that lace-making machines played in the lives of the community.

Mitesh Govender, a psychosocial support expert with the American Red Cross, approached a local craftsman about producing 28 machines to replace the ones that were lost.

“When I first met the women they were consumed with grief and anxiety. They explained how the lace-making machines gave them a sense of belonging to their past, since the craft is handed down from generation to generation,” Govender explained. “Once we gave them the machines, we quickly noticed the women talking to each other and sharing their sorrow and grief. They helped each other cope with their loss. Over time, we noticed their stress levels decreasing.”

Using these machines, it takes the women about four to six hours to make a yard of lace, which they sell for about 45 Rupees (US$0.45). More importantly, Chithrani said that the true benefit of the program lies in the process of making the lace.

“A lot of concentration is required to make the lace. Concentrating deeply helps take our minds off our loss and brings back positive memories of our childhood and life before the tsunami,” said Chithrani. “It cheers us up and gives us hope for the future.”

The PSP program in Welligama is just one of many programs being supported by the American Red Cross across Sri Lanka. The American Red Cross is also working with school children and women to help individuals deal with stress and trauma they experienced after the disaster. Specialists for the American Red Cross are training members of the local community so they can pass along their knowledge at the local level. These skills can then be shared with other family or community members, leaving a lasting impact on the many villages ravaged by the tsunami.

“We find that many of the PSP participants are now thinking about what they have to offer, what assets their community can build upon. They have started seeing the glass as half full,” said Govender.

Chithrani sees the benefits of working together as a community and even the possibility of expanding their efforts.

“Making lace is a start. But we hope to be able to sell our lace directly to clothing retailers in Colombo. That way we can make more money and hopefully get the life we once had back,” said Chithrani.

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