Agribusiness undoing the legacy of Fr. Michael Rodrigo

On the dirt road from Wellawaya to Buttala, there stood two little shacks in a small expanse of garden. One would often spot an elderly gentleman there dressed in a sarong and simple baniyan. Peering out at the world from his characteristically oversized glasses, Fr. Mike, as he was referred to affectionately, seemed like any other villager from Buttala, an isolated farming village in the eastern district of Moneragala in Sri Lanka. Yet he was something quite out of the ordinary.

A double doctorate in Philosophy and Theology, Fr. Michael Rodrigo had turned down a lectureship at the Institut Catholique de Paris to work with the poor farming community in Buttala. He was an Oblate of Mary Immaculate, an order of priests who dedicate their lives to serving the poorest, most disadvantaged communities. Accompanied by Sisters Milburga and Benedict, Fr. Mike moved from Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka, to Buttala in 1980, where they set up the community centre Suba Seth Gedara, or ‘House of Blessings’. The trio would spend the next seven years transforming the lives of the villagers in the area. For Fr. Mike, this would be the last seven years of his life, his bloody assassination on the 10th of November 1987 forever staining the memories of the villagers who knew and loved him so.

The community in Buttala primarily engaged in sustenance farming but also sold their produce to the general market. However, Fr. Mike and the sisters noticed serious issues with their farming culture and tried to address them. The farmers often used agrochemicals and overfarmed their soil, gradually destroying the natural richness of the terrain. He also realised that the farmers were getting cheated on prices for their goods. To intervene, Fr. Mike began trainings in organic and sustainable farming – which was revolutionary in the 1980s in Sri Lanka, even though it is taken for granted now. He also helped the farmers manage prices and sales to make sure they got a fair deal. Fr. Mike, the sisters, and the team they had amassed also stepped in for the village in many governance capacities. For instance, when the village was struck by a devastating famine, it was Jinadasa, a writer and editor working with Fr. Mike, who gathered details on the farmers’ losses and demanded the local authority compensate them adequately.

For the children in Buttala, Suba Seth Gedara hosted creative activities and tuition classes to improve local education levels. For the first time in the history of the village, two students gained entrance into university thanks to these supplementary classes and their hard work. Padma is currently the principal of a school nearby, while Deepika stayed in Buttala to teach in secondary school and serve the community, just as Fr. Mike did.

“The most valuable lessons I learnt at Suba Seth Gedara had nothing to do with lessons, really,” said Deepika. “It was about myself. I developed self-confidence and I learnt how to be a good person, inspired by the way Fr. Mike and the sisters were. It was from them that I was instilled with the passion to do what I can for my village.”

pinthalaya (2)When I went to Buttala to gather information for a commemorative piece on Fr. Mike, there were only ever inspiring, heart-warming stories such as these. The townsfolk sincerely miss him, and the impact he made in their lives is manifest. However, the adverse conditions that Fr. Mike experienced in the early 1980s seem to prevail in the village under new guises.

Previously, pollution and soil exhaustion occurred through individual farmers who knew no better. Now, in place of what was once a farming village agribusinesses have appeared, taking over much of the rich, fertile soil of the area. Fruits and vegetables are grown in mass for overseas export, none of which are seen in the market for the very workers employed there. The villagers, rather than tilling their own soil, are mostly contracted by these companies as cheap labour with no ownership over the village land nor the (literal) fruits of their labour. Moreover, pollution in the water sources in Buttala has reached poisonous levels. There is little the villagers can do, especially when a good water purifier costs about Rs. 40,000 – an incomprehensible amount where a stable government job would only pay in the range of Rs 20,000 a month.

It is with a heavy heart that I write commemorative articles about Fr. Mike. It is impossible, perhaps irresponsible, to write of his life and work without emphasising the current state of those he served. While Fr. Mike was able to change the habits of individual farmers and a small community, who could address this much more systematic exploitation of nature and community that currently prevails? It will certainly take more than an elderly priest in his humble sarong and baniyan, tottering around working for a community he so loved.

Originally published as ‘Honouring the legacy of a community hero‘ by Your Commonwealth.

Review of Mesh Academy’s ‘Deconstruct the Embody’

(pix courtesy Malaka Premasiri)

On April 1, the crowd at the Lionel Wendt gallery kept buzzing, ‘What do you think it meant?’ They had been captivated by Mesh Academy of  Dance’s Deconstruct the Embody but were struggling to make head or tail of it. Different ideas floated amongst people: some believed the dance had a storyline about escape, others connected emotionally with the frustrated, screaming bodies, others yet remained gobsmacked and chuckled to themselves about the shock of the performance.

Deconstruct the Embody was a multimedia performance combining the choregraphy of Umeshi Rajeendra with photography by Malaka Premasiri. As an abstract, experimental piece, it was a much-needed addition to Sri Lanka’s artistic landscape. It thoroughly disrupted the audience’s expectation of neat storylines or clear messages and demanded instead that you connect with the tensions of lighting and movement. The audience entered the space of the Lionel Wendt gallery in a traditional sense and observed the photos strung up just like any art exhibition. They were told the dance may start at any point and to merely ‘follow the light’.

The performance itself was in several parts with each part’s choreography quite distinct from the other. One central motif ran through the whole show, namely a restrictive membrane of elastic fabric in which dancers were cocooned, sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs or groups, but always moving and miming screaming from within. Dancers trapped in the membrane used variations of staccato, fluid and rigid movements, inciting thorough discomfort in the observer.

The light led the audience from one part of the gallery to another, forcing them to snap out of each act physically and emotionally and reconnect with a new choreography in a new place. The music chosen worked magnificently with the movements, except perhaps the final piece whose lyrics disrupted the steady abstraction that had held together the rest of the performance. Although the dancers themselves performed quite well, it was impossible to ignore the distinction of the principal dancer compared to the rest – but that is merely a credit to the principal, not a distraction from the performance as a whole.

Rajeendra and Premasiri’s creative process had involved some mere suggestions – an interest in the use of fabric, conscious gender ambiguity – and through some iterative feedback loops with each other, their final product became a consistent whole. Premasiri’s photography manages to capture both movement and stillness in its shots of dancers trapped in membranes. He plays with light and shadow, at times hiding the bodies trapped inside, foregrounding instead the amorphous whole, and at times highlighting segments of the bodies within. Rajeendra’s choreography produces this same dynamism in real time– bodies are in conversation with each other and aspects of the individual oscillate in tension and resonance with the whole.

One particularly striking dance involved three figures (outside of the membrane) whose movements began individually but then progressed to form one whole creature that moved as a unit. The three then detached yet again but continued to move slightly out of sync with each other, as though individual tides on an oceanic whole.

The audience was quite evidently captivated but the chatter of meaning and interpretation signals the need for more performances like Deconstruct the Embody that challenge our outdated expectations of messages, storylines and clear meaning. It is exciting to note that the Mesh Academy is training selected dancers to eventually form a company and is continuing to invite new students. I certainly look forward to upcoming productions and similar additions to the contemporary dance scene in Sri Lanka.

Published in Mirror Magazine of the Sunday Times

Dynasty and Double Standards: Women Leaders in South Asia

This article was published by Roar.lk. Full article here: http://roar.lk/features/of-dynasty-and-double-standards-women-leaders-in-south-asia/

While the U.S. has arguably shown the world that it would rather have a leader that grabs pussies than has one, in South Asia only the Maldives and Bhutan (which is a patrilineal monarchy in any case) have not had a female head of state. Political scientists have been fascinated by this exceptionalism of female leadership in Asia but much of the research says the same thing.

“… the easiest way for a woman to enter politics is to marry a politician”[i]

Continue reading

Education pipedreams 2017

I used to have a nuanced view about the problems around employing foreign-educated graduates in Sri Lanka vs. encouraging locally-educated graduates. The protests by university student unions, medical students, and a host of other youth who had bought into the free education rainbow only to find no pot of golden jobs at the end – I sympathized with them and would advocate their position amongst acquaintances who complained about these ‘ever-protesting, ever-complaining, ungrateful students’. I advocated for the matching of local graduates with jobs straight out of university, even if it came at the cost of more difficult procedures for foreign graduates. Not anymore. Continue reading

Sri Lanka – a Bibliography on arts, culture and politics

I compiled this bibliography for The School of Oriental and African Studies where I was a Chevening Scholar completing my Masters in 2015-2016. My major was in the Politics of Culture and my research focused primarily on the nexus between arts, culture, and politics in 20th and 21st century Sri Lanka.

Contents are as follows:

  • Politics and History: Civil War, Ethnicity, Insurgency
  • Politics and Theatre
  • Language, Politics, and Linguistic Nationalism
  • Literary histories, overviews, and the politics of literature
  • Cinema
  • Culture, Arts and Violence
  • Miscellaneous anthologies

Document here: sri-lanka-a-bibliography-compiled-by-annemari-de-silva

On Mother’s Day 2016

Here’s to those who choose to and do not choose to become mothers
to those who are trying to or trying not to
to those who can and those who can’t
or who still wonder whether to
to those who know they don’t want to
to those who are but didn’t choose to be
to those who are but didn’t expect to be
to those who are and wanted to be
to those who are.
Here’s to the women who are people too
who don’t want to be defined by being a mother
or not being one
Here’s to the people and institutions and legislations and communities supporting whatever choice is made.
Here’s to the people who have to make that choice.

This poem was later submitted to and published by the Kavithé Collective here. Kavithé Collective ie ‘a collective of writers from Sri Lanka scattered across the world who want to see more creative writing engaged with social and political realities.  Kavithé is also a space for work that is identifiably of Sri Lanka: its sounds, smells, situations…’. See more about them