The mask of smiles
The smile of this woman from the slums says more about her courage than her feelings. Minutes later, this Tamil woman was in tears as she left her ten-month old child at the clinic to be treated for malnutrition. After being sterilised, her breast milk dried up and there was no money to buy milk powder. To help make ends meet, her eldest daughter, 9 years old, goes out to work for 12 hours a day 7 days a week for a monthly wage of $6 plus beatings from her employer.
Sacked in last year's failed general strike, her husband now gets only casual work.
Double your money
In October 1980 - the Sri Lankan government offered an incentive payment of 500 rupees ($25) for individuals agreeing to be sterilised. The village couple pictured here decided to be doubly sure and both were sterilised at the same clinic, picking up 1,000 rupees ($50) on the way out. Acceptors of the Government offer soon totaled 18,000 a month and, by February 1981, the incentive had been reduced to 200 rupees ($10).
Selling individual cigarettes, biro pens, sweets and plastic bags, Nihal Aberatne makes about 25 rupees ($1.25) a day from his 'patch' opposite the Lake House publishing headquarters. Take away bus fares and lunch money and he's left with 15 rupees a day ($0.75) to look after his wife, mother and two small children. It's not enough. And despite not wanting to leave his family - the two daughters are six months and 18 months old - he has applied for a passport in the hope of 'better pastures', which is current jargon for a job in the Middle East.
Playwright of the slums
George Silva, former street-hawker, house-servant and slum-dweller, is now working on his second script about life in Colombo’s shanties. His first play, ‘Seelawathie’, told the story of a young slum girl who was raped by her drunken stepfather and subsequently drifted into prostitution before rebuilding her life with the help of her brother. It ran 295 performances in Sri Lanka and was seen by nearly a quarter of a million people. ‘In the next fifteen years’, says Silva, ‘I see the awakening of the people of the slums’.
Even in its hoarding boards, Sri Lanka shows itself to be the last truly English-speaking country in the world.
Unequal work: unequal pay
The payment board at Hunna’s Falls tea plantation near Kandy. The day’s work starts at 7am. Men finish at about 1.3Opm while the women carry on until after 4pm. The wage rates shown on the board work out at 70 cents a day for a man and 58 cents for a woman.
Colombo has more than 5,000 bucket latrines which have to be emptied daily. Only Indian Tamils like Mr Muniyandi will take on the job. Every day for the last 28 years, he has cleaned out the excrement from 40 household buckets. His reward for this is $25 a month plus tips. And at certain houses he gets a cup of tea from a cup kept exclusively for his use. ‘It’s been a steady job and I’ve no complaints. I’ve never had to go without my two bottles of toddy in the evenings. But I’m glad my children won’t have to do it.’
Sri Lanka’s coast, south from Colombo through Kalutara to Galle, is being eroded by tourism’s Florida Inns and Palm Beach Hotels, their inhabitants bathing topless on the beaches and dropping lighted cigarette-ends on roads where the people walk barefoot. But even in the remote rural areas, cinemas like the one pictured here are becoming the display cabinets of the Western lifestyle.
Left to right: Vinitha, Priyangini, and Vijaya. ‘The worst problem about living in the slums is the lack of privacy. You can never be alone, not to study, not to dress, not to sleep or anything. The other thing is the queuing. It’s usually about 15 minutes queue for the toilet, at least 5 minutes for water and probably 10 minutes for the washroom. Marrying someone better off is about the only chance of escaping the slums. But you have to be careful!
Tea and sympathy
This 80-year old former tea estate employee began work on the plantations in 1928, for US 2 cents a day. After more than half a century of hoeing the terraced hillsides and living in
line-houses, he finally retired in 1977. Rather than getting a monthly pension, he was given a once-and-for-all lump sum of 900 rupees ($45).
All photographs on this page: Peter Adamson