Personal Relations

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THE GARDENS [image, unknown]

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Personal Relations
Not by bread alone - the people's own priorities

THE Health Wardens were installed in the slum Gardens along with the taps and the toilets. It was these amenities which gave them the initial credibility. Since then, some have used the time to add substance to that originally rather hollow status. Others have simply leant on it until it collapsed.

The question which faced all of them within a few months was ‘what next?’. The amenities can only be installed once. The Community Development Council is only formed once. And when you have only a few films you can’t show them nightly. Similarly, after the basic health and nutrition lessons have been given four or five times, people start to find better things to do with their time.

Originally, it was planned to train 150 Health Wardens to serve the 300 slum Gardens included in the Colombo Project. But after the first hundred, no more trainees were recruited. Each Municipal Ward has one male and one female Health Warden attached to it for about a quarter of his or her time and, given the limited functions of a Health Warden, it was becoming difficult for them to fill that time productively.

It might have been possible to give many of them further training so that they could take over more of the jobs performed by over-stretched Public Health Inspectors, nurses, midwives and even doctors. But such a suggestion is strongly opposed by many of those whose workload it would lighten. Many of the medical and nursing staff members see the Health Wardens not as an extension of their skills but as a threat to their status. Without doubt, the main reason why the Health Wardens are not allowed to carry so much as an aspirin into the slums is that the power to prescribe drugs has an almost symbolic place in medical hierarchies.

Moving sideways to work in other Gardens would seem the obvious answer — especially as the Colombo Project is now reaching only 15 per cent of the city’s slum and shanty populations. But that would mean finding the money to install more common amenities in more Gardens. And for that there is, at present, no money.

In part, the solution came from the people of the Gardens themselves.

There were those who said that the Colombo Project should never have been started at all without first consulting the people for whose benefit it was intended. It was an objection which was waived on the grounds that the people had no organisations to represent them in such consultations and, secondly, that having been without the amenities for forty years they would, if consulted, probably rather have the amenities than the consultations.

But once the Colombo Project was under way, and once the Community Development Councils had been formed, both of these objections fell away. And it was through consultations, both formal and informal, with the people of the slum Gardens that new needs emerged from the people and new work was created for the Health Wardens.

Social needs, religious needs, women’s needs, educational needs, economic needs — all began to be discussed in the more active Community Development Councils. Formal consultations were held in seminars for 600 elected representatives from the slum Gardens and further one-day training sessions were held throughout 1980.

In the face of all this, it was clear that if the Health Wardens were to continue to be of service, they would have to stop thinking of themselves purely as Health Wardens and begin learning to be Community Development Workers. In 1980, a brief week of in-service training in community development was organised to enable them to help meet the new demands being made on them through the impact of the Project itself.

In this way, the Health Wardens were caught between the sectoral approach of the Project as it was seen from the top down and the naturally more integrated view of the problems which came from the people in the slum Gardens.

The Colombo Project had started out saying that taps and toilets were not enough and that health education and community organisation were also essential. Now the communities themselves were extending that to say that many other changes were also essential. And the process of communication and teaching, through the channels which had been opened up, slowly began to flow both ways.

In the Town Hall, the Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr Trevor Pieris, is holding a meeting in the Health Department with his six senior Medical Officers of Health for the city of Colombo. All are qualified medical doctors. They are discussing whether papadam making and sewing classes are really viable as income-earning opportunities for women in the slum Gardens.

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BUT of the formal consultations with the elected leaders of the Community Development Councils, unexpected issues arose. It became clear, for example, that community development as defined by the community itself, also included the attempt to meet social, psychological and spiritual needs.

An example was the need to do something for the men and women in the slum Gardens who were living together but not legally married (Colombo is not one of the places where this arrangement is fashionable).

Whatever the original reason for non-marriage — parental disapproval, elopement, or simply not having enough money for a dowry — it was considered by some of the Community Development Council Presidents to be a social problem for a significant minority of their residents.

Organised by the Community Development Councils themselves, mass marriages were held early in 1981. The people of the slums and shanties collected money; brought the plantains, sweetmeats, and cakes; erected the platforms; brought chairs from their homes; and decorated the Gardens with bunting and white banners — and of course provided the auspicious milk-rice.

The Health Wardens organised music and arranged for the Registrar of Marriages to attend on the appointed day. The witnesses who signed the marriage licences included the Mayor of Colombo and a cabinet minister. Performing the religious side of the Ceremonies were eight distinguished Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian priests.

Many who had daily felt ashamed for not being married, but who would have found it difficult and embarrassing to do anything about it alone, were married with pride and dignity amid a celebration which involved the whole community.

The number of couples so married in the slums and shanties of Wanathamulla, Henemulla and Summ itpura is 300.

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IN Garden 48 there is a raw-looking space waiting for a new house to be built on it. But for the moment, it makes the only possible meeting place in a Garden so tightly crowded with houses that not even a hand-cart can enter. Tonight, most of the 200 residents have brought their chairs out into this space.

The usual, red, yellow, blue and white flags of the Buddhist faith line the Garden walls and a table covered with a white cloth has been placed on the front. Behind it sits the priest, the famous saffron robe bunched over the left shoulder, right hand holding a palm-leaf fan across his chest. The black umbrella leans against the Garden wall behind him.

He looks at no-one in particular but stares straight ahead expressionlessly as he ends his sermon on Buddhist philosophy. The only thing on the table cloth in front of him is a rusty alarm clock.

"I am happy that a Community Development Council has been formed. I am happy that it has no particular religion. I am happy that the teachers of different religions come to your meetings. All of us, no matter what religion we belong to, must be bonded in brotherhood."

Illustration: Clive Offley On a rush mat, placed on the floor in front of the table where the priest cannot see, a dozen small children keep boredom at bay by engaging in furtive fights. Their mothers are standing at the back of the clearing,

"The Lord Buddha also formed a society. The Lord Buddha also constructed a road and a well. But the Lord Buddha also had to undergo many difficulties."

The dusk is descending now and flies are gathering. A parent comes forward and takes away the ringleader of one of the factions on the mat.

"Some people will no doubt say that the Community Development Council is only for the benefit of certain individuals. Bear these words with patience. Do not become disheartened. Try to use the Community Development Council to overcome your own difficulties and those of the community. Difficulties like not having toilets and taps or water bathrooms will be overcome. Then there is the mosquito difficulty. Try to identify your difficulties. The Lord Buddha taught that this is the first step to overcoming them. Talk about your difficulties to the Health Wardens."

The Community Development Council in this Garden was formed four months ago and new amenities have been promised. At the moment, two toilets and one tap serve 200 people.

"Many complaints at the Police Station begin as arguments at the water tap," intones the priest. "Soon there will be more taps which have been requested by your Community Development Council. Remember that the Community Development Council officials are your officials. You have chosen them. Everybody cannot be an officer of the Community Development Council. Do not get downhearted. Some people do not like the Community Development Council. Some people want to establish their own grip on it. Some merely want to exert power over the community. Be wary of such people. Recognise such people. Be aware of their reasons."

The President of the CDC, Mr. Chandradasa, a cashier at the Ceylon Transport Board, thinks food habits and hygiene have already improved because of the Health Wardens’ visits, even without the new amenities. Certainly, he says, the people have started drinking the water boiled and cooled and are also eating the cheap leafy vegetables most days, usually mixed with something else.

There have been several of these religious meetings, involving different religious leaders, since the Community Development Council was formed. "In a mixed religious community like this," says the President, "and with communal violence breaking out again in the country, the religious programmes have been important in creating a sense of security instead of fear."

On the white tablecloth, the rusty alarm clock seems to be bringing to an end this particular episode in Buddhism’s 2,500 year history. But no animation comes into the monk’s voice as he brings his sermon to a close.

"If you want to improve your lives, follow the example of Lord Buddha. Do not drink alcohol. Do not commit adultery. Do not gamble. Be careful of friends who are so addicted. Associate only with good and reliable friends."

The number of religious programmes organised by the Community Development Councils and Health Wardens of the Colombo Project is now 350.

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ADOLESCENCE is a difficult time in the best of circumstances. In the slums, it is even more difficult.

Through the increasing contact between UNICEF, the municipality, and the people of the slum Gardens, the anxieties and the needs of teenagers, and especially the girls, came to demand some kind of response from the Colombo Project.

Leading that response has been Stephen Perera, Colombo’s Health Education Officer. Like others at the town hall — and UNICEF’s own office — Perera puts not only his heart and soul into the Colombo Project but also his evenings and weekends.

Today, in this side-room at a clinic in Wanathamulla, he is talking with 30 teenage girls, all from slum Gardens within a one mile radius. Today’s subject is ’inter-personal relations’.

In the previous twelve weeks, these classes have covered mental health, personal hygiene, taking care of elderly parents, how to keep your figure and improve your hairstyle, maternal and child health, community participation, sex and reproduction, environmental health, how to avoid crime and prostitution, the availability of municipal services, and the problem of venereal diseases.

Last Saturday, there was an all day class to which 50 or 60 girls brought their own lunch. It was the Health Wardens who made sure that all the teenage girls in the nearby Gardens knew that the meeting was happening. It began with a sex education film accompanied by a straightforward ‘live’ commentary, devoid of coyness but not of humour. Afterwards, slips of paper were passed out so that questions could be asked anonymously. "Why is it that some women can’t have children?" was the first question, soon to be followed by questions about whether conception follows automatically after sexual intercourse, why menstruation sometimes happens more frequently than once a month, why is there sometimes a vaginal discharge when you are not having a period, what happens if a baby is born feet first, and many more. Tea was served by the Health Wardens.

But today in the clinic the class is returning to the one subject which the girls themselves keep on asking to discuss. It is the subject variously known as ‘sociology’, ‘group psychology’, or ‘personal relations’ and, at first, it is difficult to understand why it is such a priority issue.

Stephen Perera drapes a piece of green felt over the blackboard. Reaching inside his briefcase he finds a packet of cut-out felt animals and begins to stick them, one by one, onto the green felt As each animal is put up — a fox, a bat, a butterfly, — there is a discussion about its traditional characteristics as portrayed in Sinhala folk tales. Finally, the felt figures of a man and woman go up on the board. The discussion then turns to a discussion of human beings, their different types, characteristics and motives.

On the wall, posters about the nutritional properties of fruit and vegetables, notices about ‘seven ways to prevent worm infestation’, and calendars promoting family planning are all competing for the attention. But the girls are absorbed in this discussion, given their own examples and asking questions about what kind of behaviour you can expect from what kinds of people.

"The girls want to know how to cope with people," says Stephen Perera. "They look at the rest of their life and what it is likely to hold for them and they are not happy. They feel looked down upon by others for the way they speak, how they do their hair, the things they are able to talk about, everything. As much as anything in the world, these girls want to know how to make a better impression than they do. They feel that without this they will have no chance of making their way any better in this world."

A projector starts up at the back of the room and the film flickers into life on the opposite wall. The title is "All I need is a Conference" and it was made by the General Electric Company in the early 60s as part of an American Business Studies course.

The film begins with a business executive strolling up close to the camera and straightening his bootlace tie, "Hi! mighty glad to see you all out there," he says to the 30 girls from Colombo’s slums.

"I have a problem," he confides. "We’ve just lost a major order because of delays in manufacturing and despatch. This morning, we have a conference of all the heads of departments to look into it. I have to get them all to share in finding a solution so that they’ll all play their part in implementing it".

Illustration: Clive Offley A blonde secretary walks in with a notepad and smooths her skirt down almost to her knees. "They’re waiting for you sir," she says sweetly. She is chewing gum.

The executive takes his place at the head of the conference table with a brief "good morning gentlemen" to a crusty looking assortment of departmental heads.

"I happen to be sitting here as a matter of convenience, but this is a problem for all of us to solve," he says briskly.

The meeting then begins somewhat rancorously and, after a moment, the executive leans towards the camera, lights a cigarette, and, in a very confidential voice, tells the 30 Sri Lankan teenagers from Wanathamulla that the trick is to rearrange these discordant characters "just like you’d arrange oboes and violins in an orchestra".

He leans away again and interrupts the meeting with "gentlemen, gentlemen, if we’re ever going to solve this problem..."

At this point the sound is turned right down and Stephen Perera takes over the commentary in Sinhala. As the business executive ‘orchestrates’ the heads of departments, dealing in turn with the stubborn, the reticent, the domineering, the impatient and the aggressive, Perera translates the film not just into the language but into the lives of the audience. The characters in the company boardroom becomes characters in the neighbourhood slums. The problems of despatch delays become the problems of keeping oneself clean and attractive whilst living in difficult conditions. Over the faintly audible English commentary, Perera forges the unlikely link between a group of middle aged men doing business in boardroom in New York and a group of teenage girls worried about their lives in the slums of Colombo.

"There is absolutely nothing sophisticated about this," says Perera afterwards. "You need a film to enliven the morning’s lessons. We only have a few and this is one they haven’t seen before. And, anyway, it’s not by any means as irrelevant as it looks. In fact it’s very useful. When we watch and translate and discuss it we are talking about something very important — we are talking about the very idea that problems can be solved, obstructions removed, things changed. We are talking about the very idea that you can do something to improve your life. To a lot of people that’s obvious, too obvious to be worth saying. But that’s only because their whole lives have taught them that lesson, because their experiences have shown them that they can influence their own circumstances. Well, they are very lucky. Many of the poor people here don’t have that confidence. For many of them, the very idea that you can do something about your circumstances needs to be reawakened. Without that, nothing else is really going to work.

"The film has other useful things to say— it says that the way to start doing something about your problems is to externalise them, to get them out on the table, to transform them from a permanent vague unease in your mind to a precise formulation of exactly what the problem is. That’s what our training seminars for the elected leaders of the Community Development Councils were all about as well. We ask them to make lists of their problems, to write out their needs, and from that we made our agenda. It was all part of the same process of externalising the problem in order to do something about it.

"And the third relevant point about the film," continues Perera, "is that it shows how all of this can be made easier if you are organised in a group to identify and try to solve your problems, especially if the group can conduct itself in a way which brings out the best in all the different personalities."

The New York executive leaned back in his leather chair as the departmental heads filed out happily, all problems solved. The blonde secretary looks admiringly at her boss who turns to the camera to give a final word of confidential advice to the girls from the slums:

"It’s easy when you know how."

The number of classes so far organised for teenage girls under the Colombo Project is 20.

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New Internationalist issue 109 magazine cover This article is from the March 1982 issue of New Internationalist.
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