Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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Sunday, 31 March 2013

Terrorist Governments.


The Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, Mr Rajapakse, clearly thinks he is on the up-and-up. And why not? He is visiting India soon, I hear, and no doubt, our very polite Prime Minister, Singh, he of the great mind (Isn't that what Manmohan means?) will fete him and  discuss mutual issues with him, including Sri Lanka and the Tamils there.

     I hope Mr Singh remembers all the events just before the civil war ended in the North of Sri Lanka.There were gruesome pictures and videos on Channel 4, but Rajapakse firmly believes that is just Channel Four’s obsession. Not worth engaging with the Press about. After all what did the Press know? They were firmly and cleverly kept at bay from where the action was: the murders, the mass killings in shallow graves, the women and children randomly destroyed in many inventive ways.

     Now I don't need Channel 4 to tell me what happens in Sri Lanka when the Singhalese go amok. I lived there for five years, part of the time in Jaffna, which was a friendly and peaceful place then.

     In early 1958, I was expecting my first child and living in the annexe of a palatial house in Cinnamon gardens. The owners had sectioned off the two ends of the house as two separate flats. A young English couple lived at one end and we at the other. Life was dull and predictable.

     But not for long. One day, without warning, my husband, Balan, rushed home from work early. He was trembling and in shock.
     ‘They beat Muni Aiyah up, no men!’ he stammered. ‘Rocked his car up and down and burnt it too.’
     Muni Aiyah was his long term colleague at Walker Sons, where they worked in the Engineering Department.
     
     Muni Aiyah, he said, had been lucky to escape with his life. Singhalese young men were out in force trawling for Tamils in the bus stand area near the Fort. Balan spoke fluent Singhalese, having been born in Ceylon. But, not being a Buddhist, he couldn’t recite the holy Singhalese jathas. This was the test they used to separate Singhalese from others. And I had no more than a dozen words in Singhalese.
   
   ‘I parked my car behind the building by chance, so I escaped,’ Balan said.
    
     After the weekend the engineers at Walker Sons crawled back to work with some trepidation. Muni Aiyah was at his desk. Apparently he said, ‘After being in Malaya during the Japanese occupation, I thought I had seen all the random cruelty I would see in a life time. Now this.’
     
     Tamils were beaten up and tortured wherever they were found in the way of those mad young men. I stopped wearing a pottu on my forehead as it would mark me as non-Singhalese. Tamil women wore pottus. I also stopped going out to the shopping areas in Pettah, and Balan shopped nearer home in the tiny Victoria store.
   
    Tamil refugees were gathered together in the huge playing fields of the Royal College and stayed there for months.
     
     By the time my son was born the ‘troubles’ had stopped. The government (Are governments terrorists sometimes?) did not take much notice of the events and the Tamils did not retaliate. It would be years before the victims organised themselves and put up a fight. They had a reputation for being ambitious for their children. They shone in the academic field and kept their heads down. Not unlike the Jews of Europe before Hitler. And they were famous for being non-violent.
     
     Now the Commonwealth Heads of State are planning to meet this year in Colombo. Rajapakse will strut with pride and all the atrocities will be nicely subsumed in the excellent Singhalese food and celebrations at the meet. How do the rest of the world swallow this?
     
     Recently I came across several novels written by Roma Tearne, who came to England from Sri Lanka as a ten-year-old.. They are all about the punishment the Tamils took at the hands of the Singhalese army. Young men were kidnapped by Tamil Tigers as well, to disappear forever in the killing-forests of the war zones.
    
     Every Tamil who could afford to, left Sri Lanka never to return. At one shot they lost their families, their country, their culture and their pride. And they lost the sun and the sea, which they had lived with all their lives. A holocaust of a kind.
    
     I know too many personal tragedies amongst my friends not to take this already forgotten war seriously. Roma Tearne brings back to me the sights and the smells, the feel of that lovely island. I remember the food, the beaches, the rain and the extravagant plant and animal life. And I remember the people, both Singhalese and Tamil, who welcomed me into their lives.
   
     When will the Tamils find their deliverance? Or will the war start all over again when the Tamils re-organise and put their considerable resources of intellect and wealth to reek revenge?
     
     The very least we could do is refuse to hold/ attend the Commonwealth Conference in Colombo.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Expatriate Surprises

 On the road in the countries where I worked in Africa, I used to identify safe pee spots. This was of paramount personal importance because there were no public toilets anywhere on those routes. And the bush could be lethal with all the creepy-crawlies slithering about. Friend of a friend in Uganda was killed doing just that.

     In Uganda, I sampled one or two Primary school staff toilets in desperation and came away with olfactory experiences I would never want to repeat. I remember coming out of the toilet one time to the staff welcoming party lined up to meet the visitor, Head Master ready to do the honours. When the first teacher put his hand out to be shaken I took a quick step back. Being Indian was my salvation. I brought my palms together and said a virtuous Namaste. Phew! I knew there was no water within walking distance of those toilets.

     Sierra Leone was no problem. On the routes I travelled there were many empty stretches, where I could get off the land rover and safely use the roadside. I wouldn't go into the bush because Sierra Leone had cobras all over the place. Freetown is still one of three capital cities in the world where cobras are endemic. 

     On my first day at work, I had to drive past the Ministry of Education; it was a scenic road with the land dipping away into the ocean on my left. At nine n the morning. there was a huge cobra stretched out  across the tarmac, clearly dead. A matatu had run over it and squashed its middle.

     When I was transferred to Freetown in my third year in Sierra Leone, one day, a baby cobra climbed into my neighbour's air conditioner. Kaba, my garden-boy, had to go over to deal with it. He brought it later to show me - a limp rope hanging on a stick.

     'What was the man of the house doing?' I asked. He was a British colleague of mine.
     Kaba grinned. 'Taking photographs,' he said.
In the process Kaba had got some venom spat into his eyes. I treated it with a coconut milk wash. Kaba took it all in his stride.

     Malawi was snake kingdom. One crawled under my 'fridge and freaked out the maid. It was many days before we could persuade her to return to the kitchen. My gardener killed nine snakes the day I moved into my house in Lilongwe - two of them on the trumpet creeper that climbed up the corner wall.

     Most of the countries I worked in were sparsely populated and one did not need three days of  planning to find a place to pee. But Zambia was impossible. This was a crowded country; on either side of the road, people lived and there were no quiet spots. You had to wait till dark and take some other risks.

     Perhaps the most unexpected hazard was the python in Ikot Ekpene. In the evenings we would sit out in front of our house, the only light coming from the moon and the Tilley lamp in the living room. When the leaves moved the shadows shifted in the half-light. Until one day, the dappled shadow moved forward.

     I shouted for the steward, Akpan. He beat it to death. Next morning the skin was hanging on the garage to dry. 
     'Did you bury the rest?' I asked.
     'We ate it,' he answered happily.

        




Friday, 8 March 2013

The Numilis

I came across the numilis two days ago when I was rearranging books on the shelf above my work-desk. They have been book-ends for a long time.They are quite ugly, these two little statuettes crudely made of soap stone. 

The big one, about nine inches high has a face more distorted than the small one. It is a he - the features are all merged into each other as though he has recently been cured of leprosy. The head is most of the statue, with the body a short stump below it.

The smaller one is darker, slightly more personable. Looks like she had crude plastic surgery , though, and the doctor gave up half way. She sneers a bit.

I collected them in a very different life in Sierra Leone. I didn't know what they were meant to be, but then Sierra Leone was a bit like that. You had to take it on trust and most times that worked. (But not the time when we had a shortage of diesel in the country and I stored a fifty- gallon drum of this precious fuel in a Lebanese friend's warehouse. I lost both petrol and friend.) Some you lose.

The numilis have something compulsive about them in their utter misshapenness. You end up looking at them for a long while. Malcolm Thompson, our Assistant Director of the British Council in Freetown, had a collection of these in his office and it was he who told me about them: Sierra Leonean women kept them under their marital bed because they were fertility symbols.

'What happened when they failed to conceive?' I asked. 'Oh, they smashed them up and threw them out of the front door,' my boss, Mike Chadwick offered. And I knew I would like those women immensely.

All this came up in my memory during the International Women's day snippets on the TV. We heard a lot about how badly the women in England got discriminated against, in the workplace. True, very true. But, does it compare even remotely with what happens in Asia, and to a larger degree in Africa?

In some African countries, women deliberately had children before marriage so that their fertility could be proved beyond doubt. Even though they had no means of supporting them. In a country where multiple partners was the norm, where would an infertile spouse stand in the hierarchy?

In the North of Uganda, after the boys were 'initiated', I was told they were advised to have sex as soon as possible after the event. The boys would be anything between four and fourteen years old. My gardener had AIDS by the time he was twenty and he was dead before twenty-five. These boys who were sent out to go forth and perform, I wonder what age the girls were that they practised on.

I once went to a Vodoo shrine near Gbendembu in Sierra Leone. It was hidden well inside the forest and there was no path to it. There was no way you would find it if you didn't know it was there. A Peace Corps friend extracted the information about this voodoo shrine from a local friend of his, who had to remain unnamed. We went there on a motor bike - I remember being hugely disappointed. A low thatch made of mud. What was there to look at?

Returning to Makeni, we saw a group of boys being led on the main road, by two men. The men had bamboo canes in their hand, which they used to keep the lines under control. The youngest looked under five and the oldest no more than ten or eleven. My friend stopped the motor bike and took his camera out. He clicked furiously. When the vodooo leaders noticed him they ran towards us, my companion powered up his bike, accelerated and got away quickly.

The friend who told the American about the shrine was a Catholic. 'Thank God,' I said to my friend. 'So, at least, his daughter is not going to get mutiliated.'

My friend smiled. 'I think he will hedge his bets. There is a lot of pressure on him to conform.' So the ten - year old was at the mercy of the elders in her community. Or the strength of her father's resolve.

I find it quite hard to get incensed about the women who don't reach the board rooms in the United Kingdom. Totally unfair, I agree, but if it's women of the world we are talking about, my sympathies are engaged elsewhere.