Like hundreds of others along the eastern coast, Pathima Nithaya of Akkaraipattu had been overwhelmed by the tsunami.
By dint of sheer determination, however, Nithaya continued to give between 25 and 30 rupees a month to the Akkaraipattu Women’s Association (AWA). According to the rules of the association, contributions had to be made for at least a year before a member could qualify for any benefits.
Nithaya’s diligence paid off. She was chosen as a beneficiary in the association’s revolving loan scheme, funded by the United Nations Development Programme’s Strong Places project. The AWA trained her in agriculture technology and gave her seedlings to start an organic home garden. She had to make an extra effort to prepare the soil which she did by mixing manure and fertile soil before planting seedlings in the small plot in her garden.
Tending an organic vegetable garden while looking after three young children was tedious work but Nithaya was grateful for a chance to supplement her family’s meagre income. The wife of a casual labourer, Nithaya had found it difficult to save even a few rupees a month.
Now, not only can she feed her childxzren chemical-free vegetables, but she can also sell the surplus produce once she extends her organic garden with her husband’s help. She plans, too, to expand to poultry farming with credit facilities from the AWA, valuable support that she can count on given her steady resolve.
Nithaya’s tale is one of many success stories told in the UNDP’s new post-tsunami recovery report. Titled ‘Looking Back`85 Looking Forward’, it showcases the lives of tsunami survivors who learned to help themselves with a little help from outside. These are accounts of courage and perseverance in the face of tremendous challenges.
Take B M A Gunapala. He lives in Ukwatte, a farming village at Gintota in the Galle district. The hamlet supplies Galle town with vegetables. Their main crop being snake gourd but they also grow bitter gourd, okra,(bandakka) capsicum and green chillies.
The tsunami waters flowed up the Gin Ganga and inundated the fertile soil, damaging both vegetable and paddy farms. For the subsequent six or seven months, the soil remained infertile. But farmers say that after a few showers, the soil appeared richer than before for growing leafy green vegetables.
Gunapala, whose father and grandfather were both tillers of the soil, now tends to his two-and-a-half acre farm cultivated with a variety of vegetables. He had sustained considerable losses due to the tsunami. Almost everything in their vegetable plots was destroyed.
But Gunapala was a member of a farmers’ association and the UNDP assisted him through this society. "The fertiliser and equipment we received were very useful," he recalls. "In fact, we didn’t get into debt as on previous occasions because of the assistance we received. This time, our income was good."
"We depend on this cultivation for our livelihood," Gunapala reflects. "We are traditional cultivators. The lands are not my own. They are leased out. Most farmers cultivate in lands that have been leased out. We settle our loans and then we borrow again. I generally market my produce through a wholesaler with whom I have a long-standing relationship. We are aware that the intermediary makes a high profit but we are helpless as we have to accept whatever price is offered to us."
An artist at heart, 23-year-old W H Udara Asanga of Devinuwara in Matara has turned his designing skills into a lucrative business. He builds specially fitted dashboards and stereo lockers for three-wheeler scooter taxis. Himself a three-wheeler driver in the past, he had first tried out a new dashboard and locker design for his own vehicle. His friends were soon admiring his handiwork.
When he lost his house in the tsunami, Asanga moved into his parents’ home. He obtained a loan of Rs 25,000 from the Devinuwara Multi-Purpose Cooperative Society – one of the many microfinance institutions funded by UNDP – to buy a new jigsaw and drill so that he could resume his business.
"I now have customers from Trincomalee on one side and Haputale on the other," Asanga, a father-of-two, says. "I generally take about three or four sets of dashboards and lockers by bus to Trincomalee every month. I sell each set for about Rs 7,000 or Rs 7,500."
"When the three-wheeler looks nice, it is good for the driver’s business," Asanga explains. "As a result he is happy. I get a lot of satisfaction from this work. I introduce new designs, change the colours and the material. These products are made with plywood covered with formica and decorated with printed pictures and stickers with appropriate wording I get the stickers done outside according to my requirements. I also get digital stickers printed in Matara."
Asanga has leased a three-wheeler out of the profits he has made. He pays a monthly lease rental of around Rs 7,000. He also takes passengers on hire.
M Naufiya is one of six members of the Agaram Social Service Organisation of Kalmunai. Like Nithaya, she qualified for a loan from a revolving fund financed by the Strong Places project. A widow fending for four children, Naufiya makes stringhoppers which she sells to people in the neighbourhood. She earns a daily profit of about Rs 200.
The loan helped Naufiya replace old equipment as well as buy larger stocks of rice. "I am happy because I was able to buy some new equipment and because I don’t have to buy rice on credit anymore. Now, I am looking forward to buying a rice grinder and have already begun saving for this."
After the tsunami, the Agaram Social Service Organisation (ASSO) helped clear debris and also contributed towards reconstruction. Recognising the potential of this group, Strong Places gave a grant of Rs 175,900 along with training in writing proposals, identifying needs and financial management. With this guidance, the organisation was able to re-establish itself. Volunteers were taken on, more documentation was introduced and accounting procedures put in place.
"We have become an established organisation, recognised by our community and accepted by donors," says T Thusiyanathan, president of ASSO. "We feel that now we have the knowledge, experience and staff capacity to implement any project that will benefit our village."
The UNDP report documents numerous other post-tsunami projects that had helped Sri Lankans recover their livelihoods and their lives.
For instance, Ratnam – a toddy tapper from Kudiyiruppu in Batticaloa – benefited from the UNDP’s Quick Recovery Project under which palymrah trees uprooted by the tsunami or conflict were speedily replaced by the planting of seedlings.
Ratnam considers the palmyrah palm as a gift from nature. It provides the community with food, shelter, and livelihood and protects them from recurrent natural hazards like cyclones and heavy winds.
Ratnam’s wife and children use the leaves and fruits of the palm to supplement their income. She makes edible items like panattu, jam and sauce from the fruits and odial, khool and pittu from the tuber. The family also makes marketable products such as mats, baskets and fences from the dried palm leaves and even pots and vases.
Palm fronds are used as roofing material and as fencing which the unused parts of the tree go into the family hearth as firewood.
Neglect and two decades of fighting had already left scars on the extensive palmyrah plantations of the east coast when the tsunami uprooted whatever was left.
(Extracted from the UNDP’s post-tsunami recovery report)