Hope, Wisdom and Cynicism: Voices From Rural Sri Lanka

The lakes, paddy fields and forests of the ancient village of Dutuwewa are a world away from Colombo’s high-rises and colonial buildings. As elsewhere, decisions taken by ‘old men’ in the corridors of power impact life here, just as these rural voters will impact politics nationally.

Sapan News Times are tough and it’s hard to make ends meet. A refrain heard from just about anyone in my home country Pakistan where the rupee has dropped to around 300 to the dollar. This is now comparable to the rupee in Sri Lanka, recovering from the biggest economic crash in its history.

Stories of hardship echo from the island nation’s largest city Colombo to the farming heartlands around Anuradhapura district, a little over 200 km to the north-east. At the core of Anuradhapura lies the irrigation tank called Dutuwewa which sustains several villages. Sri Lanka’s rural landscape is dotted with as many as 14,000 such large and small irrigation lakes, known as wewas, built by kings thousands of years ago.

A nearly five-hour drive on surprisingly good roads – testament to the rural infrastructure built after the end of the 26-year long civil war 15 years ago – brings us to the serene lakes, lush paddy fields and dense forests of Dutuwewa. A world away from the corridors of power and the glittering, air conditioned, high-rises of Colombo and its historic colonial buildings left behind by 500 years of colonizers – the Dutch, the Portuguese and the British.

A school in village

The headmistress of the Palugollagama government school, who gives only her initials and last name, I. R. Ekanayake, is an ‘old girl’ who taught at schools around the district for 26 years and was posted to her alma mater as principal four years ago. There are two vice principals, 36 teachers and 506 students.

The school runs from kindergarten to grade 13 or ‘A’ levels. The teachers and students all, belong to local farming families. Some have lived in the ‘purana gama’ (ancient village) for centuries.

Others are ‘settlers’ from different castes, each family provided one acre of paddy and three acres of dry land in the 1950s. Their influx did not upset the homogeneity of the area, where a syncretic culture prevails. Statues of King Mahasena (277–304 CE), who built many tanks in the area are deified as much as representations of the Buddha that can share shrine space with the Hindu god Ganesh.

The Palugollagama school has six buildings. Teachers and parents have converted a bicycle shed on the hillside into a shared space for grades 7 and 8. There are no fans, but a soft breeze wafting through the open sides eases the oppressive heat and humidity. Solar panels at the entrance of the school power only light bulbs.

There are also trees everywhere. The resident owl in one of them falls out during the heat of the day. Worried about the crows and dogs, the villagers collaborate to put him back, one man throwing a blanket over him from behind, and another climbing the tree with the bird under his arm. The blanket removed, the confused owl flutters back to the roadside. The villagers good-naturedly repeat the exercise, this time throwing the blanket-wrapped owl up to a boy who has perched himself up higher on the tree. Deftly catching the owl-bundle, he wedges the bird in at a higher level.