In many respects, Colombo conforms closely to the standard pattern of a Third World metropolis. Unlike the ancient Sinhala capitals of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, or Kandy, the city of Colombo is almost entirely a colonial creation. Its economic locus is the port on which road and railway lines converge, carrying the nation’s tea, rubber and coconut products to the awaiting ships. Today, 90 per cent of Sri Lanka’s exports are handled by the Colombo Port Authority.
Around this economic core — in the ward of the city known as ‘Fort’ — grew the inevitable political, commercial, legal, religious and residential layers of the colonial administration. Constructed by the Portuguese and dismantled by the British, the original ‘Fort’ still lends its name to this central area and its boundaries still house the President’s office and official residence, the State Assembly and the main government ministries, the Central Bank and Inland Revenue buildings, the big commercial houses, and the large department stores like Miller’s and Cargill’s.
Accruing around the edges of this spacious centre came the next ring of the city’s growth — the narrow crowded streets lined with the smaller businesses and humbler dwellings of the indigenous trades and services drawn from the rural hinterland and making up the area now known as ‘Pettah’ — an Anglo-Indian word which, like its Sinhala equivalent ‘Pita Kotuwa’, means ‘the city outside the walls’.
Gradually, as the pulling power of the city’s centre rendered the surrounding ring more congested and less exclusive, the upper and middle classes began to migrate outwards to new suburbs on the city’s periphery. And with this concentric retreat of the rich, began the familiar pattern of urban growth graphically known among the Third World’s town planners as ‘doughnut’ development.
In this way, the inner ring road around Colombo’s centre was gradually abandoned to the poorer classes who soon divided up yesterday’s grand houses into tenements and built today’s slums in the large gardens of their former occupants. It is for this reason, rather than for their horticultural attractions, that the slums of Colombo are known today as ‘The Gardens’.
If the slum gardens were the creation of a long process of urban growth, the shanty towns were the creation of Easter Sunday, 1942. After Japanese war planes had bombed Colombo in a brief ‘blitz’, the civic authorities deemed it advisable to drive wide fire breaks through the overcrowded tenements and slums of the inner city.
The people so removed built their ‘temporary’ homes of tin and cadjan, cheap wood and corrugated iron, bamboo poles and palm fronds, on the only land available to them — the marshy water-logged areas on the eastern fringe of the city which were not valued by the retreating middle classes and therefore had no price.
Illegally occupied and officially unrecognised, the shanties did not qualify for municipal services and had to be located as close as possible to public toilets and standpipes. Since then, the banks of Colombo’s canals have been the path of least resistance for the shanties’ growth, providing if not an ideal source of water and depository of sewage, then at least an available one.
The net result of these processes is that there are in Colombo today an estimated 1,200 slum gardens and shanty towns containing perhaps 40,000 families numbering almost a quarter of a million people and accounting for about half of the city’s population. It is to the lives of these people, shaken by circumstances into the interstices of the city, that the Colombo Project is addressed.
Despite housing almost half the city, Colombo’s slums are not often seen by those who go about their normal business in the capital. Being built in former gardens, most of them have no main entrance of their own and the way in is usually through a narrow stone alleyway leading off between the shops and tenements of Colombo’s main streets.
Inside, the alleyway often leads up a few stone steps before widening out into a lane between two rows of houses, facing each other at a distance of perhaps three metres across an open drain. Most of the houses, in a poor man’s version of the Dutch colonial style, have a little fretted lattice work at the low roof and an open half-walled verandah for sitting out in the evenings. Talking to neighbours, adjacent or opposite, does not require raising the voice.
Behind the single-room frontage two more rooms stretch back, without either windows or electricity, toward the darkness of the garden wall. There at the back is the kitchen, one wall blackened — like the piles of pots and pans in the corner — by the open wood fire. Against the other walls, beds of cloth-covered board are stacked ready for the night. Above are the thin wooden beams, the rough cobwebbed underside of pink tiles, and an occasional glimpse of sky.
Coming forward from the kitchen, through a curtain, is the main bedroom. Here the walls are bare apart from a commercial calendar or a small corner shelf on which stands a coloured statue of the Buddha.
The front room, and always the best, contains any cane-backed easy chairs the family might possess and — almost invariably — a sideboard incorporating a sliding glass display cabinet. Here are set out, depending on the wealth of the household, a ‘two-in-one’ cassette player and radio orjust a small portable transistor; a framed photograph of a family wedding; some coloured glassware or silvered plastic cake trays; paper doyleys and patterned clay plates; ‘cuddly’ toys and plastic model cars; one or two old but unopened bottles of Coke or ’Elephant House’ orange squash for visitors; and some rarely taken out china cups and saucers. In short, the display cabinet is the repository of everything, however small, which might be described as a luxury. For here, as everywhere else in the world, status is judged by the number and value of unnecessary possessions.
The people who live in these gardens are as varied as in any other working class community. They are not even uniformly poor. There is Mrs Ann Pancras, for example, of garden No. 46, who could quite easily afford to move out. On top of her display cabinet, covered in a muslin cloth, is a National Panasonic stereo music centre and a black and white television. Electricity comes in from the main road for a central light-bulb and a floor-standing directional fan. On the wall behind, time is kept by a walnut pendulum clock as well as by the inevitable commercial calendar.
Mrs Pancras’ husband, the President of this slum garden, has a steady job with Harrisons Lister, one of Colombo’s oldest established firms. The reason why they live in the garden is that, despite Ann Pancras’ Christian convent education, they are both Tamils — and this is a Tamil community.
"We were the only Tamils in the place we lived before," she explains. "When the anti-Tamil disturbances broke out three or four years ago, we were threatened. So we came here, where we are among our own. Sometimes I nag my husband to move, but there is really no reason to. Our church is close by. We have improved the house a lot. And we are the most respected people in this community. People come to us if they need help."
Perhaps fifteen metres from Mrs Pancras’ front door is a one-roomed wooden shack in which Mrs Kulasinghe lives and sleeps with her husband and five children. A lean-to blackened kitchen covers a loose-brick firewood stove. The roof of the house is corrugated tin held on by the weight of heavy stones. There is neither chair nor table nor bed. A few clothes weigh down the rope stretched over the mattress on the rough cement floor. Outside, a jagged piece of broken mirror, edged with white paint, is wedged in between the planks. There is no display cabinet.
Mrs Kulasinghe’s husband is a casual labourer. If he gets work at the harbour he earns $25 a month. Much of that is needed for toddy or arrack and for the exciting card game of ’booruwa gahanawa’. To make up the difference between what she receives from her husband and what she needs to feed her family, Mrs Kulasinghe earns what she can by walking from door to door, shop to shop, selling lengths of sari material, plastic bags and bangles and rings from India. The rings she buys from an agent for 19 rupees and sells at 20 rupees. The cost price cannot be more than 4 or 5 rupees, but Mrs Kulasinghe does not have access to the source, only the agent.
Yesterday was a good day. One shop bought two dozen plastic bags and Mrs Pancras herself bought two saris from her at 150 rupees each. On the saris alone, the total commission was 40 rupees. But generally, Mrs Kulasinghe earns between 150 and 200 rupees a month from her well-established ‘beat’ of customers who have known her and bought from her these past ten years. It’s a fairly reliable income. But it’s not enough. Often Mrs Kulasinghe has to forego her one meal a day.
On the other hand, as she herself says, the hours are flexible, allowing her to work and bring up her family at the same time. Then there are the ration cards and stamps, allowing her five measures of rice, a kilo of sugar, and one tin of Lakspray milk powder every month.
But her main hope and help is Vasathi, her fifteen-year old daughter who already looks after the home — cooking and cleaning and helping turn out the three younger children in clean white uniforms every day for school. The eldest son, 19, has left to try to make his own way in the world. But Vasathi will stay. Somehow, they will hold things together. "If things get a little better," said Mrs Kulasinghe, "if the other children begin earning, for example, then we can get the home into better condition. I would like to have proper cement walls."
On the other hand, things could go the other way. For Mrs Kulasinghe has TB and may not be able to carry on with her work for many more years. On the wall, the coloured portrait of the Kataragama God’s enigmatic face, the only embellishment in the whole room, looks down on her family. It is to the Kataragama’s Temple that people go — Hindus, Buddhists, Muslim, even Catholic — if they wish to avoid the worst of evils. Those who have just bought a new car will make it their first journey. Those who have just declared their candidature for parliamentary elections will straightaway go to break a young coconut at his shrine. Not loved but feared, beholds in the balance the events of one’s life which are outside one's own control.
If the different levels of living in the slums are scattered widely on the graph of material well-being, then the axes of that graph are certainly employment and income. Neither food stamps nor charity commissioner, Sarvodaya movement nor UNICEF intervention, is as important to the majority of the slum dwellers as whether or not they have work and how much they are paid.
Some of those who leave the slum gardens early each morning are employed in the formal sector of the economy by the Colombo Port Authority, by the government or municipality, or by larger businesses with officially registered payrolls. But most work in the ‘informal’ sector.
In the eyes of many the ‘informal sector’ is a pejorative term, soaked in the associations of aimless drifting, lack of productivity, street-corner shiftlessness, and, finally, the twilight world of illicit liquor dealing, prostitution, drugs and dubious day-to-day dealings on either side of the border of crime.
Such a stratum exists in Colombo, as in every capital city, but it is an unrepresentatively thin layer in the laminate of informal sector employment.
The bulk of the informal sector is in fact self-employed — or in businesses of no more than three to five people. They are the tyre remoulders, the tinkers, the ‘radio mechanics’, the locksmiths and cycle repairers, the scrap metal merchants and the welders, the scaffolding erectors and the concrete mixers, the masons and carpenters, electricians and bricklayers, plumbers and car repairers. Then there are the tailors, the bakers, the launderers, the hairdressers, the painters and colour washers, the jewellers agents, the dhobi’s, servants, cooks, waiters, washers-up, casual conservancy workers, drain sweepers, cobblers and toy-makers. The largest category of all are the traders in foodstuffs, the producers and transporters of locally-grown leafy vegetables, the fishermen and their vendors going from house to house with ‘pingo’ balance scales, the makers of stringhoppers and the sellers of fruits and meats and coconuts. But there are also traders in textiles and fancy goods, sarongs and saris, soft drinks and tobaccos, sweetmeats and tea, perfumes and ornaments, firewood and kerosene. Some have premises — like those who serve in tea boutiques, ‘hotels’, ‘cool-spots’, ‘smart-stores’, ‘one-stop-by’ shops, or eating houses. Others are pavement shopkeepers or street hawkers selling their toothpastes, soaps, hairslides, torches, batteries, pens, balloons, cutlery, belts, tin bowls, plastic boxes, matches, spanners, scissors, light bulbs, hurricane lamps, towels, cloths, shoe polish, sandals, knives, string, bags, sweets, nails, tools, playing cards, spices, purses, locks and keys, bolts, suitcases, lighters, sunglasses, pens and pencils, wrapping papers, sweeping brushes, wicker baskets, cushions, notepaper, paints and dyes, candles, picture frames, safety pins, cotton and needles, paper clips, rubber stamps and a thousand and one other popular items which need neither significant storage space nor excessive capital outlay.
Part and parcel of all these services are the transporters — from the drivers of lorries, vans, jeepnies and tri-shaws on the main roads, to the operators of bullock carts and hand trolleys in the narrower streets, and finally to the mainly Tamil head-load carriers with their watti baskets who infiltrate smaller items into the narrowest chinks of the city.
Employing perhaps 50,000 people and creating a steady 2,500 to 3,000 jobs a year, this informal sector is neither aimless nor anarchic. Most of its businesses may be small, but almost half of them have been in continuous existence for ten years or more.
In this world, banks and credit institutions are less important than the family or friends who provide three-quarters of the informal sector’s credit. And regular working hours or public holidays or set meal times mean less than mutual helping out, standing in, and remembered obligations and favours. Nor can anyone simply enter this sector by setting himself up as a street hawker anywhere he likes or by suddenly deciding to go into the vegetable carrying trade. Stable business communities have thrown up their own customs which regulate the ‘informal sector’ more effectively than any external authority could hope to do. Entry is usually through kinship networks, caste groups, or by ethnic and religious association, and only sometimes through the ‘kappang,’ ‘sweeteners,’ or protection fee.
In short, the ‘informal sector’ is a much undervalued layer of the Third World’s, and Colombo’s, economic life. It distributes daily necessities at the cheapest prices; it provides perishable foods in small quantities at frequent intervals to those who do not yet own fridges; it gets construction materials of all kinds to the right place at approximately the right time; it keeps a large part of Colombo’s workforce fed, clothed and shod; it repairs the city’s appliances, recycles its wastes, keeps its moving parts moving, and it regulates itself as well as most economic entities and considerably better than some. Far from being the province of the shiftless, those who work in the ‘informal sector’ undoubtedly serve the city as least as well as the city serves them.
The ‘informal sector’ and the slum gardens are not quite the economic and domestic sides of the same coin. Some informal sector workers live in Cinnamon Gardens and some public sector employees live in Wanathamulla’s slums. But incomes in the informal sector are generally low and the correlation between informal sector employment and slum garden living is correspondingly high.
Despite the value of the informal sector’s contribution, there are obvious reasons for the smallness of its incomes. Many of its businesses depend on an intimate knowledge of a locality, its people and its needs. Expansion within that locality is limited by the paucity of its purchasing power. Equally, expansion into a new locality is limited by the fact that others know its needs more intimately than you do — and by the fact that the employment of strangers is a risk which not many are willing to take. And limiting all is the fact that when enterprise is motivated by necessity rather than superfluity, few business avenues are left unexplored. Exceptions such as the Dasa or St Anthony’s Group do arise to become big business houses, but in general it remains a world of small firms and self-employed individuals struggling to earn above the 500 rupees a month at which a family’s minimum needs can just about be met For a significant proportion of those who live in the slums and shanties and who are employed only casually, monthly income is very much less.
The low incomes of the slums are of course the stock which its social problems are bred. The most pervasive of those problems is the lack of space. Usually, all rooms are occupied at night by at least two or three people of different ages and sexes going to bed at different times. Their clothes may be hung separately on the coir rope stretched between hooks on opposing walls, but by morning they are bunched together in the middle.
For the schoolchildren, a place to do homework in peace and quiet is out of the question, let alone anywhere inside the house to create childhood’s imaginary worlds. For their parents, there is nowhere private to sit and talk together, to argue, or to make love.
The common notion that the people of the overcrowded slums ‘are used to it’ or that ‘they like the communal life’ is difficult to substantiate by any observation save that the apostles of the extended family commonly live in extended houses.
In fact it is probably impossible to understand what the poverty of space means to the nuances of family life by any other process except by personal experience.
George Silva, former labourer, servant, street hawker, and slum-dweller, is now working on his second play, in Sinhala, about life in the slums. It will tell the story of a young man’s anxiety, as his wedding day approaches, about where he and his bride will make love on their wedding night His new wife will be returning with him to his one-room hut which already sleeps four people.
Although the young man says nothing, his mother senses what his worry is. Immediately after the ceremony, she arranges for her teenage daughter to spend a few days with an aunt. That evening her other son, who is in the habit of studying late, finds his lamp empty and is persuaded to take a chair a little way down the lane and read under a lamppost The mother herself, at about nine o’clock, carries her own board-bed onto the wooden verandah and closes the outside door of the shanty.
George Silva’s first play, ‘Seelawathie’, told the true story of a less sensitive arrangement by which a fourteen year old slum girl was raped in her own home by her drunken stepfather. The play ran to 295 performances across Sri Lanka.
"Of course the over-crowding and lack of privacy are a problem for the slum people, just like they would be for anybody else", George Silva explains. "Many children sleep in the same room as their parents from the time they are babies right through their childhood and well into their teenage years. The husband and wife may wait, perhaps until quite late, for the children to fall fast asleep, before they make love. But often the wife fears that the children may be observing and it destroys the enjoyment which ought to be hers. And sometimes, of course, discretion is forgotten in drink.
So sex cannot be relaxed. To start with it has to be silent. In the successful marriages, people develop ways of silently expressing their feelings and releasing their physical and emotional force. In fact a successful sexual life is one of the few things which keeps men and women happy in the face of all the other hard things in their lives. But for many others, of course, it is the opposite. Lack of privacy, frustrations, suspicions and jealousies, sour even the most intimate aspects of slum life."
The lack of privacy in the slums has a social as well as a personal dimension. For the houses of the Gardens, there are no bathrooms, no toilets, and no taps. Such facilities, where they exist at all, have to be shared. At the end of the lane through the garden, on the highest piece of ground in the shanty, or in the corner furthest away from the houses, stands the block of plain cement latrines, washrooms, and, somewhere nearby, a standpipe.
Few in Colombo do not have a latrine to use, somewhere to get washed, or a place to get clean water. Very few live further than two hundred metres from all of these facilities. The problem is not one of statistical availability on a planner’s chart. It is one of queues and water pressure, of cracked floors and stolen taps, of dribbling standpipes and unventilated dark washrooms, of filthy drains, unbearable smells and interminable flies.
Fifteen minutes for the toilet, five minutes for water, and ten minutes for the washroom are the average queuing times. Consequently the washing of hands, bodies, clothes, plates, utensils, and surfaces with which skin is in contact or on which food is prepared, is less frequent.
Dealing with the wastes of the body — both urine and excrement — is one of the central problems of these or any other slums. Bucket latrines or overflowing soakage pits, apart from being found obnoxious in their proximity, are as attractive to flies as is the food which is stored, prepared and eaten only a few metres away. Squatting plate and pan latrines offer the same hazard if people do not know the importance of keeping them clean and pouring water down them after use — or if the nearby tap is broken or stolen or if the water pressure is inexplicably reduced to a trickle and its users to a queue.
In conjunction with unclean drains — blocked up with paper bags, vegetable peelings and fish bones and consequently full of stagnant slime-surfaced water — latrines and their overflows make many of the slums into breeding grounds for the filaria mosquito, the flies, and the various kinds of parasitic worms which infest the bodies of barefoot children and sap all other attempts to improve nutrition and health.
Perhaps the worst of such places are the public toilets, washrooms and standpipes which are all that is available to some of the shanty towns. In Garden No. 103 Paramananda Vihara Mawatha, there are no facilities at all for the 165 residents of its 18 houses. "If a visitor comes to see any of us," says the president of the Garden’s newly formed Community Development Council, Mr. K.A. Gunapala, "there is no toilet for them to go to. We are forced to take them to the public toilet on the road outside."
Some of the residents of some of the slums, especially the older inhabitants, have resigned themselves long ago to such conditions. Anger and inner turmoil which brings not the satisfaction of results but the repeated pain of frustration, eventually subsides into the fatalism which outsiders who try to ‘teach these people to help themselves’ find so inexplicable. But the group of men who live in the first few houses of Garden No. 103 Paramananda are still young enough to be angry, bitterly angry. Western shirts tucked tight into sarongs, they show off the nearby public toilet, anger turning their shame into something near pride. The facilities are only fifty yards away on a busy street corner. But it is not the distance that is at issue. The different latrines, urinals, washrooms and small tap-yards are found by wandering through a maze of tall and slippery grey walls, a labyrinth of smeared excrement and flies over which is settled a stench which distorts the young men’s faces as they point out the minutiae of their disgust around each new corner. "Can you bring a visitor here?" demands one man, expressing his own feelings through the dramatic device of the visitor.
His anger, gnawing on impotence, is the result not only of this place where he has to wash and defecate every day, but of the fact that he has no job. What keeps his house going is the money he receives from Amman where his wife has emigrated to find work as a house servant. He lights a cigarette and puts the packet back on top of the display cabinet next to two airmail letters and an elaborately framed photograph of a young King Hussein.
However much the parents of the Gardens try to shield their offspring from the sharp edges of slum life, the children remain the most openly exposed to its dangers by virtue of the very vulnerability of childhood itself.
The low income of most parents, often in alliance with a lack of nutritional knowledge, mean that approximately one in every twenty of Colombo’s children is acutely malnourished and one in every five is chronically undernourished. Given that middle-class Colombo children compare favourably — height for age and weight for height — with American or European children, and that approximately half of the city’s children live in the slums, it is reasonable to double the all-Colombo percentages when talking about malnutrition in its Gardens or its shanties.
One inadequate meal a day, in combination with inadequate water supply and sanitation, means that child death rates are also significantly up on the all-Sri Lanka average. In the ten wards of the city with a high concentration of shanties, for example, the infant mortality rate has been found to be 7 points higher than for the ten wards of Colombo where shanty populations are more dilute.
With bodies more receptive to disease and minds less receptive to education, the malnourished young are also in danger of growing up to perpetuate the circumstances of which they are victims. For even in a nation whose achievements in the field of mass education are internationally acknowledged, there remains a seemingly unbreakable link between the child’s economic foundations and his or her educational attainments. In the schools which primarily serve Colombo’s low-income population, for example, approximately half of those who enrol at the age of five have left before the age of eleven.
"At home there is no light, no room, not even a chair for some," says the Principal of one such school. "Usually the parents don’t take any interest. They haven’t got the time and maybe they’re ashamed at their own lack of education. After all, it’s easier for middle-class parents to take pleasure and pride in what their children do at school."
At this school at Mihindu Mawatha Vidyalaya, as in the other schools of the city, it is clear that the children come first. The teachers are amongst the lowest-paid in the Third World, the buildings are open half-walled classroooms built round a beaten earth compound. In the Principal’s office, which is the vestry of a disused church next to the school quadrangle, the only furnishings are a wooden desk inlaid with brown paper, a rusty alarm clock to divide the school day into periods, a teaching timetable in red and black biro, and an empty glass-fronted first aid cabinet. Cardboard boxes of CARE biscuits, labelled ’Gift of the People of the United States of America’ and over-stamped by the Ministry of Education, are stacked six-deep against the wall
But making schools available to all, as the Principal explains, cannot alone ensure that the life to which a child is going will be an improvement on the one from which he comes:— "Part of the problem is psychological. Some of these children feel that they’re looked down upon by the others. Many have to work in the market after school. Some are ashamed of where they live and what their fathers do. Others have a pretty rough time at home. When they come here, they can be frightened and insecure — that’s not a good base for going out and learning new things.
"Sometimes it’s the cost of sending them to school which means that one day the desk is empty. There are no fees. And since last year, the text books have been free. But the parents still have to buy exercise books, pencils and pens, a school bag, and at some point a compass and a small set square and protractor. School uniform is more of an expectation rather than a rule. Girls should wear a white frock and the boys should wear at least a white shirt Some have to come barefoot on occasions, but most have at least a pair of rubber slippers.
"Sometimes the parents just can’t maintain all this, especially if the father is unemployed for a time or can only get casual work. So the children stay away, perhaps because they’ve got no shoes that day or because they’re needed to help tide things over for a couple of weeks. And they don’t come back.
"Another thing to worry about is the cultural conflict they feel between home and school. We tell them not to throw litter about the school. But at home that’s what they see the adults do— and they are told it doesn’t matter. It’s the same with personal hygiene. We show them to wash their hands after using the toilet. Then they wonder what to do at home. Should they wash their hands when there’s not much water? Will they be laughed at? Better forget it. The next day they forget at school as well — and we pull them up for it. They’re at school for only about four hours a day. And they’re at home for about twenty hours."
Fifty thousand of Colombo’s school age children live in its slums and shanties. In the early morning, around 7 o’clock, they emerge from the Gardens in their hundreds. The girls gather on the pavements in their clean white uniforms, hair held by coloured plastic slides and brushed until it shines. The boys walk along in that uneconomical way in which boys everywhere walk to school.
In the homes they have left, their mothers begin the day’s work of queuing for water, washing up the cooking pots, smoothing and re-arranging the beds, carrying clothes and school uniforms to the stone surround of the nearest standpipe, shopping at the nearby boutique for small quantities of rice, flour, tea, coconut oil, chillies, and occasionally a few eggs, and, maybe, a piece of smoked fish. Then there will be the firewood to buy from the yard, the ashes to be swept in the kitchen, the fire to be rekindled and the boiling and cooking to begin all over again. Looking after the younger children, seeing to the elderly or the sick, and somehow supplementing the family income by sewing or selling or fetching and carrying — all have somehow to be fitted into the day. Disciplined by responsibility from their earliest years, and discouraged from entertaining any illusions of a different life, these women hold the slum Gardens together.
Among the men, whose childhood and adolescence has been less restrained, demoralisation is more common. The pride and ambition to which their youth gave rein is more easily turned to humiliation and bitterness as the gap between the pretence and the reality of what they can actually achieve for themselves and their families seems to become more permanent with each passing day. Often, the enforced idleness of unemployment engenders a settled sense of failure which steadily erodes self-respect In many cases, the solution is the sweet white toddy or the bottles of arrack, glinting amber in the candle-light of the dark shops in which it is sold. No-one who works intimately with the people of the slums would put at less than 25 per cent the proportion of families severely affected by drink.
The result of hopelessness is thereby reborn as a cause, and the seeping of demoralisation through the slums begins to explain many of the commonest complaints about those who live there — the lack of motivation, the absence of self-help and effort, the abuse of facilities provided, the lack of willpower, and all the other accusations which the better-off level against the lower orders of Colombo or Calcutta, Paris or New York.
For most of the women of the slums, there is no relief from responsibility. To cope, they have to be tough under that deep gentleness. And it is not common for them to break down, even temporarily, under their difficulties. More often their sadnesses are seen in smiles which never quite reach the eyes. But on the steps of a clinic in Wanathamulla, Mrs Chandrasilie does break down, just for a moment.
Her baby of ten months is malnourished, his eyes made to seem abnormally large by the smallness with which his face is drawn, his sparse hair greying, his legs widest at the knee. A month ago, soon after being sterilised, this young mother’s milk dried up. To her the two events were cause and effect. Whatever the reason, there was no money for commercial baby milk. And so, eventually, she has carried her light son the two miles to this clinic. Here he will stay under the care of one of Colombo’s public health nurses until he has put on weight again.
The nurse, experienced but still kindly, waits as Mrs Chandrasilie rubs her cheek against her son’s face until he smiles. Weak though he is, his two-handed grip on his mother’s hair is not easily loosened.
Perhaps it is only the emotion of leaving her son, and the scarce-hidden sense of failure, which prises loose the rest of Mrs Chandrasilie’s story. Her home is a shanty, built on a marsh. This year the rains came early, and the two-roomed hut is ankle deep in muddy water. Leeches now, as well as cockroaches, share her bedroom. She cannot cook at home, and has to buy hot rice — when she can — from a nearby stall. To bring her son to the clinic, she has borrowed a blouse and skirt from her sister. Her husband, sacked from his job in last year’s failed general strike, now gets only casual work, occasionally driving somebody else’s bullock cart. Mrs Chandrasilie herself also works, from six in the morning until six at night on a building site, carrying cement on her head. She is paid $1 a day of which 23 cents goes on bus fares. The remainder is not enough for regular and nutritious food, let alone for the pencils and exercise books and decent clothes which would be needed to send her other children to school. The oldest child, a girl of nine, is working full-time.
It is what is happening to the nine year old girl, on top of leaving her baby at the clinic, which finally makes Mrs Chandrasilie close her eyes tight. The girl is working thirteen hours a day, seven days a week as a servant in a middle-class household. For this she is paid 25 U.S. cents a day. Yesterday, two plates were dropped as she took them from the table. Last night, she came home with new bruises rising on her face.
Mrs Chandrasilie’s shoulders come forward in her sister’s blue blouse and her head sinks. Her teeth bite into the lip but nothing now can stop the tears as she sits, defeated for a few moments, on the floor outside the clinic.
This special report appeared in the the gardens - an unusual account of life in the slums of a third world city issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.