Thursday, July 13, 2006

Welcome to Mage Gedera

THALPITIYA VILLAGE: Squeezing my hand, loku nangie (older sister), smiled and pulled me ahead in the night running over the railway tracks with hope of reaching the front of the elephant parade before it was too late. I felt like a true member of my homestay family as I sensed their excitement to show me my first perahera.

The entire family (akka, aiya, podi nangie and malli) ran directly behind us as we maneuvered through the crowd of villagers in the dark, surrounded by palm trees and homes resurrected after the tsunami.

Only the glow of flames from the perahera lit our path down a shortcut where two of my fellow graduate students finally caught up with us.
Sticking together closely we found a place on Galle road, to watch the parade of performers and elephants moving in rhythm to the chorus of singing, music and clapping.

Wiping the sweat off my cheek with a handkerchief from my host mother, my akka, I felt podi
nangie leaning on my shoulder. I sensed her petite hands playing with my hair and her body moving gently to the music passing by.
Then, tugging my salwaar she asked, "Ruah akka? heta oya yanawada?" I swayed my head from side to side, in the way that meant "Yes, tomorrow I will be leaving." Promising that I would return in another couple of weeks I felt a rush of warmth through my heart and reflected upon how I came to form such a close relationship with this Sri Lankan family that I met just months ago.

My life over the past six months has alternated between stays with a family in Thalpitiya village, doing research for my degree in Sustainable Development, and time devoted to my studies in Colombo.

There, together with 20 American and two Sri Lankan graduate students I take classes taught by professors from my American university, School for International Training,, at the Nagarodaya (Sarvodaya) Center in Borella.

As a believer in the law of kamma, which teaches that everything happens for a reason, I trusted that I was meant to come to Sri Lanka to educate myself and to share what knowledge I had with others.

After seeing the devastation wrought by the tsunami, I felt compelled to help in some way, yet wondered what meaningful contribution I could make from New York City, where I was working as the Associate Director of a language school. After much thought, I was moved to change my path to pursue a graduate degree in Sri Lanka.

Although my knowledge of Sri Lanka was limited, I was inspired to learn all that I could through books and the internet to prepare for my participation in the S.I.T. program that worked with Sarvodaya to commit to helping those affected by the tsunami.

After three weeks of orienting myself to Sri Lanka and taking Sinhala classes in Colombo, I left for the first time to a village for two weeks of shramadana (gift of labor) with my 21 classmates. Sarvodaya inspires people with their words, "we build the road, the road builds us."
This phrase has embodied our experience as we formed relationships with each other and the homestay families.

The village, the students and the Sarvodaya leadership all worked together and offered our physical labor to build roads, construct a playground and clean a temple. In the evenings, we all met together for singing and dancing.

The experience touched me deeply, and made it hard to leave at the end of the two weeks. I felt encouraged, knowing that I had the rest of the year to build relationships with people in the new village I would be placed in for the rest of the year.

I arrived to Thalpitiya in February along with four other graduate students, ready to stay in the home of a Sinhalese family while I conducted my research.

We all gathered in the garden of a community leader with cookies, bananas and tea as we were introduced to families that would host us. I introduced myself to the group in my best, if limited, Sinhala I had learned over my previous month in Sri Lanka.

The community leader's wife looked at me and we smiled at one another. She motioned for me to come - using a hand gesture that would just be waving "hi" in my own country, USA.
I stepped towards her and brought my hands together, "ayubowan." Her three children came close and smiled, adjusting their white clothes for Sunday school at the pansala, the Buddhist temple.

My new akka put her arm around my waist and led me into her home for the first time, the place I have now learned to call mage gedera (my home), too.


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