It is a routine day. The morning begins with the chanting of gatha at the shrine of the little Budu Medura followed by twos and threes making their way in an orderly manner to the large hall in which they take their breakfast, lunch and dinner. That morning, the breakfast is kekulu buth, paan and [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

A quiet refuge for the old and blind

Kumudini Hettiarachchi visits the Sarana Home in Godawaya

A word of thanks to the alms-bearers, while Dharmalatha guides Agnes out. Pic by Amila Gamage

It is a routine day. The morning begins with the chanting of gatha at the shrine of the little Budu Medura followed by twos and threes making their way in an orderly manner to the large hall in which they take their breakfast, lunch and dinner.

That morning, the breakfast is kekulu buth, paan and string-hoppers with kiri hodi, katta sambol and egg, with banana for dessert, washed down with a cup of tea which helps them to gulp down their medicines. Then they queue up at two taps in the garden, where they target the waste bins with the remnants and wash up their plates and cups, scrubbing them thoroughly.

Next follow their daily chores, cleaning the tables and sweeping, after which, some make their leisurely way to the Walawe Ganga, which flows quietly along the boundary, for a bath within the enclosures erected to keep them safe from crocodiles.

This is the life of more than 28 people, 17 women and 10 men, at the Sarana Blind Elders’ Home in Godawaya, three kilometres from Ambalantota in the deep south off the Kataragama-Colombo Road, set amidst large trees on a two-acre block. It is the one and only home for the blind elderly in the whole of the country, with a recent initiative not being that successful, and has been honoured with the Award for the Best Elders’ Home in the Southern Province over and over again.

Among the elderly are siblings and single people, who have either been born blind or like 67-year-old Ratnalatha Gajaweera had not been blind all her life, only after glaucoma struck her down or lost their sight after surgery resulted in “as narak vuna”.

We have accompanied a benefactor who lives in the area and he is greeted warmly by them, recognizing him by his voice.

It is after they have bid goodbye to the family of three, mother, father and daughter, who have come from Ambalantota in a trishaw bearing alms — their breakfast — that they chat with us.

The Sarana Home is now more than 30 years old, begun in 1986 by the Sri Lanka Federation of the Visually Handicapped.

“This is the one and only home for the blind elderly,” says Project Manager Gamage Gunadasa Senanayake who himself is blind. His wife too is blind and they had been living at Seeduwa making a living by weaving chairs and cloth.

The livewire, of course, behind the smooth-running of the Sarana Home is Project Assistant Dharmalatha Karandana who seems to be everywhere all the time.

Almost all the people in the Sarana Home have been living independently when they were young, earning their livelihood through weaving cloth or singing, basically for their supper. Some women have been confined to their homes because of their impairment, but now they are free, says Dharmalatha, the only sighted person here.

It was a different life that Dharmalatha envisaged when she wed in 1989 and settled down to start a family in her village in Ratnapura. However, life had different plans for her. Her new husband was dead in a motorcycle accident just one year into their marriage, leaving her devastated.

“I was 32 years,” she says, recalling how her life was marred by this personal tragedy. While she was still weeping and moping that she came to the Sarana Home “jeevithe epa wela aapu gamanak” (a journey she came on after being dejected with life).

Introduced to the Sri Lanka Federation of the Visually Handicapped by her sister who had taught at the Ratmalana School for the Blind, Dharmalatha came into an unfamiliar but welcoming world. The blind elderly, she found, were very caring and concerned.

It was a time when the Sarana Home set up on land donated by the government was just a shadow of what it is now. There was neither water nor electricity and there had been only one large vishrama shalawak for the blind people who had been brought from far-off areas such as Bibile, Mahiyanganaya, Ampara, Kandy and Katunayake.

Dharmalatha went around with the begging bowl collecting pin-wee (donations of paddy) and built a wall around the property, as otherwise the Sarana Home was vulnerable to theft and nocturnal visitors. Seeing her untiring efforts and dedication in looking after the blind elderly, the donors rallied round, with immense support being extended from the team at the Department of Social Services of the Southern Provincial Council.

Dharmalatha has not looked back, waking up at the crack of dawn to ensure that the place is spick and span and everything runs like clockwork 24/7. “The blind elderly are disciplined and through practice very adept at handling most of the work,” she says.

Life has not been without its dangers for them though. Dharmalatha recalls how one morning as usual the men went down to the Walawe to wash their clothes and bathe. She suddenly noticed water from the Walawe flowing up to the Budu Medura. The first wave came at around 9.20, then the sea literally ‘withdrew’ about 60’ about 15 minutes later, before unleashing its fury a little later. It was December 26, 2004, the day the tsunami struck.

All this while, the unseeing men were in the waters of the Walawe attending to their ablutions. “Diye indalath beruna,” says Dharmalatha thankfully, explaining that though they were in the water, they escaped injury or death. For, the tsunami wave went up the river, not coming their way to harm them. The geophysical consequences, however, are there for all to see – a moya kata (estuary) has developed where there was only a mound of sand before.

As life goes on at the Sarana Home, with tearful goodbyes when one amongst them departs this world, there are many challenges they are forced to grapple with these days. “Sevaka prashnaya or finding employees to manage it,” is most acute, with a plea going out for a few women to work in the kitchen as well as a driver for the vehicle, to step in during an emergency such as an illness in the night.

While the blind elders murmur that “our Latha is a Bodhisatva who tends to each and everyone with commitment”, one talks of the battle she waged to save a fully burnt blind victim brought here, cleaning the burns every day and another refers to how a “sister” of theirs who had got septicaemia after a tiny “seerimak” which was not noticeable died in hospital, it was Latha who went all alone to claim her body for the funeral.

Their urgent needs

Blessings, Dharmalatha, showers on all those generous donors who bring not only alms in the form of food to the Sarana Home but also soap, toothpaste, towels, bed-sheets, pillow cases and much more.

In 1991, it was the recipient of only 12 danes (alms-givings) per year but now all 365 days of the year are booked and people are begging of those who are listed to hand over their days to them.

Every single item brought by the donors is used for the elderly, says Dharmalatha.

However, the home is in need of mattresses for the beds and tiny cupboards (3½’X2’) to store the stuff of each person and this is the plea which goes out from Dharmalatha.

The Sarana Home may be contacted on Phone: 047-2223625. Its postal address is: Godawaya, Dehigahalanda, Ambalantota.


The first centenarian-member

Toothless the smile is, but the face is serene. Agnes Nandawathi is not just the 1st to have been enrolled at the Sarana Home but she is also more than 100 years old.

She is quick at smiling repartee – “den nam ekasiya gananak, seeya panala evarie.”

Born in Kollupitiya, more than a century ago, Agnes had been enrolled at the Ratmalana School for the Blind as a tiny two-year-old. Both skilled and intelligent, in her prime she had been adept at “nool dala thaniyenma sariyak viyanne” (thread the loom and weave a saree single-handedly).

The early days of the Sarana Home, she recalls with alacrity. It was October 15, 1986, World White Cane Day that she came here, registered as the first member.

In those early days, she would wake up at midnight to open the karamaya (tap) of the tank and patiently bide her time until it filled up to close the tap and go back to bed, for they would get water only for a few hours each night. She was not scared of the dark for her whole life has been spent in darkness.

There are no regrets, for Agnes is thankful that she has led a productive life and now in the twilight years she is content.

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