Resilience and resourcefulness

Sri Lanka, February 19, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    When I asked Santhinithevi and her husband, Thawaraja (pictured here in front of their pre-tsunami house) what happened to them during the tsunami, she replied, "We hung onto trees and survived." Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Anushika hopes to quadruple the income of her husband, a rickshaw driver, by raising tropical fish for domestic and international sale. Mercy Corps is supporting 50 households with fish, tanks and connections to buyers. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Sagarika is one of 18 employees at a new coconut-oil factory we financed. She's getting her first paycheck in a decade, but also maintaining her side business sewing floor mats. "I have a lot of work to do for myself and my family," she told me. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

Thatcher asked me on our way to the Colombo airport if I had a favorite story from our now-completed travels. I couldn't come up with one; each made its own distinct impression. But in going over all the stories we'd heard, two qualities stood out: resilience and resourcefulness.

We met people who'd survived one of the deadliest natural disasters in history and endured the profound effect it had on Sri Lanka, and who have shown courage and enterprise in their efforts to better their families' lives.

Before coming here, I'd read all about Sri Lanka's tsunami casualty figures. More than 35,000 dead. Nearly 450,000 displaced. Fifty thousand homes gone. An estimated $1.5 billion in damages.

So I wasn't expecting to feel so stunned at hearing my first survivor story, from a 43-year-old gardener named Santhinithevi. She told me how the wave carried her and her husband away from their home in different directions, and that each survived by clinging for hours to the top of a palm tree. Her two children were safe at school, but her mother, father, sister and several nieces and nephews lost their lives.

"I was building this fence around our property at the time, and I heard a cry at the beach," she told me, and started to giggle. "I thought there was a big catch, and I told my husband to go and try to get some fish."

The couple smiled and chuckled as they recounted their harrowing tale to me, and it was hard to determine whether their laughter helped distance themselves emotionally from the trauma, or was their way of acknowledging an event so surreal that its retelling sounded preposterous -- even to those who'd experienced it.

In other conversations, the tsunami's emotional impact was easier to gauge.

Anushika Magamamudai was all smiles as she showed us the thousands of tiny black and red guppies growing in the cement fish tanks we'd helped her build. The 29-year-old talked about how the tsunami swallowed her father's fishing boat and triggered bizarre behavior in her chickens, many of which died. I asked if she'd lost family and friends in the tsunami. "Yes," she answered, tearing up and staring silently at the ground. I changed the subject.

In Hambantota, Thatcher and I stayed in a beachfront hotel that lost 26 guests and 18 staff members on the morning of December 26, 2004. We arrived at night with advice to get a room far from the sleep-depriving hum of the hotel's generator. But even the generator's decibel level was no match for the thunderous waves on the other side. Staring out at the sea the next morning, I felt a shiver of fear as my eye caught a large wave that appeared to continue rising as it crested. I was trying to imagine what it must have been like to watch the sea attack.

Survival was on the minds of many after the tsunami struck. But it's also top of mind for many in Sri Lanka on any given day. Resourcefulness is a must. The people I met seized on every opportunity to diversify their income streams.

Rathnawathi, for example, tried raising chickens before she enrolled in a Mercy Corps program that helped her start raising aquarium fish. She continues to run a roadside stall selling rice, coconuts, detergent and other sundries. And when we saw shreds of coconut laid out on a platter outside her house, she explained she was drying the fruits of her backyard trees to sell it to coconut-oil processors.

Sagarika is a 35-year-old mother of two who is employed full-time at a coconut-oil facility that Mercy Corps financed. Yet in addition to this job, she runs a side business weaving mats from pieces of cloth, and was more interested in telling me about plans to expand her mat-weaving business to erase past debts and pay her children's educational expenses.

Most of the people we met never receive a paycheck, but they have multiple means of making money: driving rickshaw taxis, leasing tractors, raising vegetables or chickens, baking bricks -- and almost always cultivating an acre or two of rice paddy. In a sense, they're all microentrepreneurs. They have the ideas and drive, and need only access to financial services and some technical training to run thriving enterprises.

So although I left Sri Lanka without a single story that stood out from the rest, I did take with me a renewed sense of humility and admiration for those who persevere in far more daunting circumstances than my own. Their potential, however, is still restrained by continuing conflict. The Tamil Tigers may soon be finished as a conventional fighting force, but many of the underlying grievances remain. Observers are quick to point out that a lasting political solution must complement a military victory.

Still, I spoke to Sri Lankans of all ethnicities who expressed a sense of optimism. And Mercy Corps is certainly providing reason for hope. I saw plenty of examples of what it can mean to someone to get a hand up, even one extended halfway around the world.