Telling fortunes, but living in misery
visits the poverty-stricken gypsy village of Kudagama
Noon at Kudagama. The little ones and some not-so-little ones who have not gone to school are eating a scrap lunch, mainly a few mouthfuls of rice and one vegetable, no fish, meat or even a piece of karola, not off plates but nebiliyas.
Most of the homes are wattle-and-daub with cadjan-thatched roofs while only a few are made of brick with sheeting as roofs.
The faces of the waifs running around half-naked, some with smut pouring down their noses, are surrounded, strangely not by a halo of flies though there are flies alright, but by tiny koduruwo (insects).
Welcome to the Ahikuntika village of Kudagama, close to Tambuttegama, Anuradhapura and also abject poverty.
Away from the main road, off the beaten and dusty track running alongside a canal, The Sunday Times team, encountered 35-year-old Baby, a common name among the gypsies of Sri Lanka, and husband T. Annawattu, 39, last Wednesday.
Avidinne yanawa, was the reply when they were asked why they were heading out of the village. With their worldly possessions tied up in a bundle on the head of Baby, who also had a mat tucked under her arm, and Annawattu carrying his “tools” of trade, a snake in a basket and a rilawa , they were on the way to Kurunegala to earn their living.
Baby tells the future, saasthara, of anyone who cares to stop by her, for a few rupees while Annawattu makes money showing off the antics of both monkey and snake.
The Nayakaya or leader of the clan of gypsies living in Kudagama had given his edict a few days ago – permission to leave the village and “walkabout” to earn their living but be back by November 27 for the meeting of the elders.
What of the couple’s children who will not see them for nearly a month?
Yes, there are many problems, concedes Baby, a mother of five. She is fortunate to have her mother who will look after her children while the couple earns their paaramparika (traditional) livelihood to feed and clothe their family.
This is one of many issues facing the Ahikuntika community.
The list seems endless…………ostracism; illiteracy; school drop-outs or children not going to school at all; alliances and marriages, where the girls may even be as young as 14; alcoholism; drug abuse; child abuse; violence against women; mothers seeking greener pastures in the Middle East; and landlessness.
You name it and the gypsies have those problems.
A child carrying a child. Surangani is cradling her month-old baby tightly. She is 17, she says but looks much younger. She has not had her lunch. Her 21-year-old husband has gone to sell books to make a living.
A knot of women and children gather round and come out with the life-story of Surangani. She ran off with this boy, says Yangatakka, against the wishes of her parents. “They’ve written her off and now she lives with her kolla’s family. Kasade liyala ne,” she says explaining that the marriage has not been registered yet.
Yangatakka, 50, is already a grandmother with the heavy burden of looking after four grandchildren. “Two of my daughters are in Saudi (Arabia). One is okay, but we’ve not heard from the other for some time. Four months into her job, she is having trouble with the people there.”
The Sunday Times gathers that those who have no land to cultivate or do not engage in their traditional livelihoods, buy different types of books such as children’s story books, small Buddhist books and sell them on buses, at the temples in Anuradhapura or bus-stands in major towns.
These men, however, return to their humble homes in the evening.
Jayalath Michael and Nona are fast asleep on the bare ground in their hut, while their children are pottering around with a few plastic toy cars and trucks which have seen better times.
As Michael steps out rubbing his bloodshot eyes and parting a torn saree which acts as the curtain on the opening which does not have a door, a whiff of kasippu precedes him. “We have five children,” says Nona, patting her bulging stomach to indicate that another is on the way.
Michael has not gone to work, but someone in their home has. That’s their 11-year-old son, whom the neighbours claim, is the breadwinner of the family.
The community’s warmth and cordiality come into play, when Michael, chasing away a mangy dog with a shove and the command, “Po”, insists that The Sunday Times team tarry awhile to see his beautiful snakes, a huge cobra and also a baby cobra he caught just last week and his monkey do their tricks.
As he makes the cobra sway, it escapes and the children chant, “Yaka yanawa, Yaka yanawa”, before he manages to catch it and stuff it into the basket.
Family troubles are discussed openly, with another grandmother in tears all too ready to share her sorrows with The Sunday Times. “Yes, my youngest son is assaulting me, asking for this little one whom I looked after,” weeps Sumanawathie, 60, explaining, mage kiri deela, mage thane deela thama minibiri were heduwe. (I fed her my milk and kept her at my breast, to bring her up.)
Her daughter-in-law had gone abroad when the little girl was an infant and Sumanawathie has been taking care of her. Now her son has brought another woman and wants the little one back. “How can I give her,” asks Sumanawathie, adding that her son registered the second marriage without “katuganne nethuwa” (without divorcing) the first.
“The problems are numerous,” stresses Korala Ramasamy Engatennage Nadarajah, 49, the chief of the clan of more than 400 families in Kudagama.
Nadarajah has returned home for lunch after working all morning in the fields.
Landlessness is the cause, he analyses, seated in his brick home with TV and all, while offering The Sunday Times team deliciously sweet kurumba, plucked right then and put into glasses with a floral design.
Only 27 families have mada idam (paddy fields) while another 60 have a little goda idam (land for vegetable cultivation) and they are stable because they work the land and don’t go walkabout. The others are forced to go out, even though they want to give up their much-stigmatized traditional role, he says citing cases where five or six buses would pass-by his people on the main road without picking them up.
Two or children who went to schools in the towns nearby after passing their OLs were treated badly by the others. “Other children would leave a table when our children go there,” he says, adding that even the few Ahikuntaka children who wanted to do their ALs felt unwanted and dropped out.
When the parents work away from home for a month, going as far as Matara or Hambantota, one does not need much imagination to picture the situation in homes without adults. “Bigger children, some only about 12, have to look after the younger ones,” he says, adding that if there are slightly older ones, other issues such as abuse could crop up, contradicting the popular belief that parents “arrange” marriages when the children are very small. “That does not happen now,” he says.
Even when abuse is reported, the police won’t take any action, he alleges, giving the case of a 14-year-old who was abused by a youth. “The girl is in pariwase (probation) but the youth is free in the village,” he laments.
These children also start begging on the main road, he says, going back once again to his argument that all this stems from the fact that there is no land. “Land has been promised to us in Embilipitiya but nothing has come out of it. We’ve written to the President about this matter,” says Nadarajah.
Explaining that Save the Children has been actively helping the clan to get birth certificates, send children to school, register marriages and also start self-employment projects like brick-making, poultry, cattle and pig-rearing he comes up with some shocking statistics.
Children in about 80 families do not have birth certificates and of about 1,000 children in the village about 80 are not going to school. About 145 young men in the 20-35 age group are on ganja. Not a single employee in the state sector can the village boast of.
No transport and no water (only two wells for the whole village) seem minor when looking at the bigger picture.
Gamata apalayak, is the verdict of the Nayakaya, explaining that it is a bad time for the village.