IT is almost dark. Over the low roofs a single jib crane belonging to the Colombo Port Authority is silhouetted against the peacock sky. Inside the Garden, a light source catches mosquitoes in its beam. And on the white limed wall of the new latrine block, the great American sprinter Maxie Parks is hitting the home straight in the last leg of the 4 x 400 metre relay.
As the credits roll up at the end of the official film of the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, there is an excited murmur from below the screen. By the softer light of the kerosene lamps in some of the doorways, it is possible to see that the entire community of perhaps 120 people is packed into the narrow lane between the two rows of houses. Almost half are children, crowded together under the ‘screen’.
Behind the projector, the Health Warden talks to the Vice-President of the Community Development Council who is helping to change the reel. ‘The Olympic Story’, a curtain raiser to the health education films which are the main purpose of the evening, was an obvious success, all energy and colour.
As the latrine wall jumps to life again, a hush falls, even among the toddlers in the front row.
Soon, talking breaks out again and one or two people wander off. The film is called ‘A Clean Family is a Happy Family’. It’s a cartoon by Walt Disney in the series ‘Towards a Healthier America’. Its subject is preventive health in the rural areas of the USA. And it’s in English. Only one person present that night learnt anything about worm infestations.
THE slum Garden at number 6 Galpotha had waited years for decent amenities. After a few visits from the Health Warden, Gamini Senanayake, they elected a Community Development Council. Soon afterwards, four washrooms, eight latrines and three taps arrived, courtesy of the Common Amenities Board.
"I can’t tell you what it was like to live here before," says Mr P.D. Norman Stanley, one of the elected CDC officials. "It was just filthy. The latrines were disgusting and there was garbage all over the Garden. The one tap we had was broken and there was no point in getting it repaired because it would only have been vandalised again and the parts stolen. The women had to queue ages for water and there was just nowhere to get washed in private."
More functional than elegant, the new buildings are divided back-to-back into men’s and women’s latrines and washrooms. Inside the latrines, concrete squatting plates and porcelain pans are wet-swept and clean; there is no smell. In the one metre square washroom, there is space for one person to stand upright and wash all over, using the tap sticking out of the wall, without grazing elbows or knees on the rough walls. For privacy, there is only one ‘window’ — a letter-box sized opening in the bricks at about eye level. The aperture lets in a little air but almost no light. So when the door is closed, it is almost completely dark inside. But it’s private.
Outside, a child is filling a terracotta water urn from one of the new standpipes. Above him on the wall, a cellophane-covered black and white notice urges ‘turn tap off after using. Use only for drinking. Please have your water boiled and cooled before you drink’.
The notice, in Sinhala, was hand-printed at the work place of the CDC Treasurer, as was the similar poster on the washroom wall which says ‘washing of clothes and pots not allowed’.
"The notices were our idea" says the Committee member. "120 people live in these 25 or 30 houses and so we decided to consult everyone and make rules about how best to use the new amenities so we could keep them in good condition and cut down on the queuing. It’s a small thing, but nothing like that was done before we formed a Council. And it’s a lot of small things like that which have made a difference. You can ask anybody. There’s more unity here and less arguing,"
To clean latrines and washrooms, to keep the drains free, and to collect the garbage and carry it to the road ready for the municipal truck, the Community Development Council of this garden has hired a ‘scavenger’ who comes for two hours a day and is paid six dollars a month. Often, the ‘scavenger’ is a municipal coolie who will start work early, clear his quota of bucket latrines by midday, and come to clean Gardens like this one in the afternoon. Very few Sinhalese, however poor, will touch the job.
In the CDC organiser’s house, where joss sticks burn, the members of the CDC Committee are talking over the things which have happened recently.
"Five rupees a month from each household was agreed upon as a levy to pay the scavenger’s wages" says the organiser. "Also Gamini (the Health Warden) went round making sure that every household knew about keeping healthy with the new latrine block."
"Then we organised a Shramadana (‘gift of labour’ — a traditional Buddhist way of tackling a job by group voluntary labour) one weekend to help put the Garden in order, sweep the compound, get rid of rubbish, re-nail planks in the walls and mend some roofs.
"The main thing the Health Warden has done is to be a point of contact for us. He is always here and he doesn’t have to wait to come into our houses. It’s through Gamini that we’ve learnt about other municipal services which should be available to us. We asked for electricity to be brought within reach of household connection for those who can afford it. And we got it At the same time, we got the access road re-covered in tarmac. And when one of the standpipes did stop working because of a faulty tap, we discussed it at a meeting and found out how to get it repaired."
"If you get organised, people take more notice. You also start to feel you can do more things — we are beginning to think now that we might be able to renovate our houses."
"And because there’s more of a sense of community nowadays, and because everybody knows that the amenities are for everybody’s good, there has been no violence or vandalism and nothing has been stolen so far."
ON a hot September morning, about twenty women from a slum Garden are gathered in a shady corner talking amongst themselves. In their midst is the now familiar green-edged white sari of the Health Warden, in this case Priyanganie Ratnayake. She is much younger than most of the women and there is a lot of good humoured comment as she struggles to light a portable kerosene stove which burns fiercely but briefly in the morning air. The nutrition demonstration is happening out of doors because no-one’s kitchen is big enough for all the women to attend.
Spread out in tiny heaps on a scrubbed wooden plate are green chillies, manioc, a little onion, pieces of lime, shredded green leafy vegetables, dessicated coconut, some powdered fish, and salt and pepper. On a separate plate there are a few pinkish-purple sweet potatoes. Soon these ingredients, kneaded together and shaped into short rolls, are sizzling in coconut oil. Minutes later, one of the women is taking them out of the frying pan with hardened fingers and passing them around. Between mouthfuls, a serious discussion is going on.
The discussion is quite an achievement on the part of Priyanganie, the Health Warden. Depending on their own ages, the women of the Garden treat her like a friend or a daughter. There is not a lot she can teach them about cooking. And they could no doubt teach her about where to buy the manioc for less than two rupees a kilo or the leafy vegetables for only 20 cents a bundle. And they don’t need a Health Warden to tell them about manioc’s boiling times, three day freshness limit, or the use of coconut oil to tame its poisons.
Nor do they really need lessons in how to fry the hot ‘sambols’ which, with a few additional items, now qualify as ‘cutlets’. So it’s a tribute to Priyanganie’s acceptance that she can talk and laugh with them about the importance of the two ingredients which they would most likely have left out — the fish and the leafy green vegetables. Especially as the real issue being debated in the corner of the slum Garden that morning was not food but status.
In many parts of Colombo, people say that the only fish they eat is seer fish and that the only vegetables they bother with are the better quality cabbage, beans, beetroot and carrots known as ‘up country vegetables’. For the rich, living up to this claim poses no difficulty. For the poor, maintaining the image means that only rarely do they eat vegetables at all.
Priyanganie is saying that of course they should have seer fish and up country vegetables but that the locallygrown leafy vegetables and locally-caught sprats have exactly the same nutritional value at a fraction of the cost and that therefore they should be used not really as vegetables or fish but just as a way of making the everyday meal more tasty and nutritious.
The women laugh and ask whether Priyanganie can find a way of teaching them how to bake. For special occasions, weddings, religious festivals, or the arrival of visitors, they have to buy cakes at the baker’s shop. Now they want to save the expense, and maybe even earn some money, by being taught how to do it themselves. Priyanganie knows that cake making is also a fashionable skill among Colombo’s middle-classes. And she promises to see what she can do.
With humour the game is played out. Vegetables are discussed as though price had nothing to do with it Decoy objections are raised in order to be surrendered. Priyanganie is shown how to fold away her stove. A paper bag is produced for her to take home some of the cutlets. Gossip is exchanged, the early rains commented upon, and diets improved.
All of the demonstrations have been held out of doors in the Gardens themselves. No-one has had to coerce the women into coming, not even by offering days out, ‘per diems’, ‘subsistence’, travel allowance, free food, or any of the other little inducements which are usually the hallmark of frustrated development projects.
Even the ingredients for the demonstration, including the cooking oil, were brought to the comer of the Garden by the women themselves. "Every item in the programme which costs money," says Stephen Perera, "makes the service less and less replicable and less likely to be extended to the entire population of the slums and shanties. And nothing less can be our aim."
IN a nearby Garden, the President of the CDC pushes back the partly unhinged door of a new latrine. Inside, the concrete floor is both sloping and cracked right across.
"You know there was a suggestion that instead of just getting contractors to install the new facilities, the Common Amenities Board should also employ two or three of our unemployed men who live in the Garden," he explains. "It would have been a good idea It would have involved us. And we would have been able to make sure that the job was done properly. But no-one took the suggestion seriously.
"The main reason is that those who actually did the job, and some of those who employed them to do it, wouldn’t have been able to take their cut. They make their money on it by using sub-standard materials and taking all sorts of short cuts. This floor is cracked because it’s thinner than it should be and there’s too much sand in the cement.
"The tap outside is broken because it’s not the right tap for communal use. It’s a family house tap. In any case, the pressure on it was so low it took hours. We’ve told the Common Amenities Board about these things, but they don’t want to know."
The Health Warden agrees that the crack across the latrine floor is none too healthy. But after some initial enthusiasm in this Garden, lethargy is settling in again. The residents are refusing to pay a levy to the CDC to have the Garden cleaned up and the pit latrine emptied. Garbage is accumulating and, with it, the flies.
A group of barefoot children younger than school age are playing around the latrine block. Flies crawl around the almost perfect pink circles of the scabies sores on their calves and ankles. The Health Warden doesn’t notice. When asked, he says the children must have fallen and grazed themselves.
"About 40 to 45 per cent of the Health Wardens are not really much good," says one of the Assistant Health Education Officers who helped to train them and now supervises their day-to-day work.
THE Wanathamulla clinic was for some time the only maternity unit in Colombo where no babies were born. The reason was that Wanathamulla was Colombo’s most notorious slum district and prospective mothers would go to another ward to give birth rather than inflict upon their children the stigma of having to give Wanathamulla as their place of birth. To circumvent this habit, Wanathamulla was renamed Borella — after the big road junction nearby. The slums remained. And it is in the Borella clinic that two of the Colombo Project’s most able Health Wardens are now conducting a youth class.
The attendees are all girls between the ages of 14 and 19. All have left school, none is yet married. But their closeness to motherhood can be seen in the attention on their faces as the Health Wardens talk about problems in caring for babies and very young children.
At the moment, the blackboard is being used to list home accidents — fires, falls, cuts from blades or nails, road injuries — how to avoid them and what to do about them. Rather than culling abstract lessons from books about accident prevention in general, this young male Health Warden is talking about accidents which happen in the slum Gardens of Colombo.
"I know that you can get two or three rupees for a good arrack bottle so it seems to make more sense to use broken ones for keeping kerosene and coconut oil in. But it doesn’t really make more sense if there are small children in the house..."
In the next room, the female Health Warden for this area is teaching three other young girls the art of macrame. So far they have earned eight dollars each by making plant pot holders.
The Health Warden, Priyanganie Ratnayake, spent $12.50 (of her own money) on macrame evening classes. She learnt it in order to teach it in her lunch hour to the girls in this class. . . just as she will probably learn the art of baking cakes.
Priyanganie Ratnakaye, 23, was one of the first Health Wardens to be trained and has now been doing the job for exactly two years. Her father is a retired clerk and her own home is not very far from Wanathamulla.
"People ask me how I dare go into the slums and the shanties. Aren’t I afraid of being raped? That’s silly. The people are really co-operative. You know you’re part of something, And I like being part of CDC meetings, helping to organise religious programmes, film shows, immunisation programmes for all the children, taking part in collections for a wedding or a funeral, doing youth education classes like this one, the nutrition demonstrations, and discussing things with the people in the Gardens.
"You can get quite excited about the small changes which have begun to happen. Even in the poorest families you see changes. . . a pair of rubber slippers kept by the door for all members of the family to wear when going to the toilet...they can’t afford a pair of shoes each but they know about worm infestations now.
"There are other important little things that an outsider would never see. Some of the women used to have to wear filthy underwear and now that’s changed. Experts can’t change that but we can. You have to know them a long time.
"Nowadays, the women in the Gardens I’m assigned to talk to me about all sorts of problems. Sometimes it’s because I’m from the Town Hall and they think I can maybe do something. Other times it’s just because I’m a friend. But because I’m a friend who doesn’t live there, they can probably talk about things they wouldn’t even talk about to their neighbours. If they have serious problems with a husband who drinks, they come and talk to me about it.
"The younger ones want to talk to me about their boyfriends, their clothes, or their hair. Some of the women want to talk to me about intimate things that I can’t possibly advise them on — their husband maybe hasn’t made love to them for many months and so they are thinking of going with another man because they are so frustrated and what do I think about it? Sometimes they will ask me whether I think they should give permission for their daughters to elope, as many do. It may seem strange because elopement is supposed to be without the parent’s permission! But here it can mean that the parents of the girl can’t afford the dowry and acknowledging that is a greater shame than the daughter’s elopement.
"Sometimes, they will tell me that they haven’t eaten for a day. It may not be literally true, but that’s not the important point. Symbolically, it’s a very important thing to say. In the Gardens, that’s almost a ritual way of confessing that you are really down and out in life.
"Sometimes also they will come to me with their anxieties about kodivina. In this community, the worst thing you can do to someone, almost as bad as killing them, is to do a kodivina or a hooniam on them. It’s a kind of magic, I suppose you’d say, and it costs a lot of money to do. The trouble is, if things start to go wrong you start to worry that someone has performed kodivina on you. And then what happens is that any little thing that does go wrong — say you even lost a 10 rupee note — you take it as evidence of the kodivina. Because kodivina means that everything is going to go wrong in your life and you are going to be ruined, it’s one of the greatest fears of all. If you suspect it, you go to seek Anjamam Eliya — the light of the goddess. You pay someone else who has the power to see and they look into the betel leaf spread with anduna oil and then tell you whether you are under a hooniam.
"If it’s confirmed, people will spend anything, pawn anything — their jewels, their house — to pay for a thovil ceremony to lift the spell. It can cost $75 to $250 depending on how rich you are.
"But the commonest problem is still the drinking and the gambling. These two things affect about half of the families in the Gardens where I work.
"It’s not uncommon for a man to earn 50, 60, or even 100 rupees a day and take only 10 rupees home to his wife and family. There are a lot of quarrels about it If a wife asks for more money she may even get beaten. Some have to steal money from their husband’s shirt pocket. That’s a big risk. In the Gardens where I work, I would say many wives get beaten.
In Priyanganie’s view, the Community Development Councils, where they exist, are doing something to combat the demoralisation, the lack of hope and the low self-esteem. "But the basic cause," she says, "is their poverty. If only the price of very basic things was kept within reach, they would be alright.
"When you are too poor to buy basics, then there is resentment about all the new buildings, roads and bridges, and about the money spent on VIPs and foreign visitors. They feel that beautifying the city is not important. They tell me that all that money should be spent on the welfare of the common man.
"Some people believe that all the new roads and buildings are the forerunners of new houses for them. They think that some day the shanties and the slums will be torn down. But now the newspapers are hinting that people will have to be content with basic services.
"Worse than that, a lot of people have a fear of the future. There’s a general feeling in the slum Gardens that there are bad, hungry times ahead. Those who can, are saving for it."