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Samantha's story is shocking and inhuman. Eleven years ago his parents confined him to a dingy 5x3 shed.
Astrology has always had the power to influence and dominate our lives. But sometimes, it seems, it can exact a terrible price. Many would sacrifice even their loved ones to overcome the 'Apale Kalaya' (bad period). For 17-year-old Samantha Kumara an astrological prediction brought suffering and deprivation that few of us can imagine.
Samantha's story is shocking and inhuman, and indeed hard to believe in a society as conservative as ours.
Eleven years ago, Samantha's parents having consulted an astrologer were asked to separate the boy from the family since he was having a bad period which would affect the whole family. The tragedy started when the family decided to confine him to a dingy 5x3 shed. Totally cut off from normal life the boy spent his childhood locked up, and deprived of human contact, adopted animal habits. Most important his once strong mental capacity dwindled.
Life was not always so cruel to this innocent boy. Seventeen years ago when M. Karunarathne and his wife received their first born, the couple who live in Kandeketiya, a remote village in the Badulla District rejoiced. Everything seemed fine until, Samantha turned six.
Returning from school one day Samantha had an epileptic fit. The parents rushed him to a doctor who had given him an injection. A few days passed and the boy became epileptic again. This time, his parents sought astrological help.
Studying Samantha's horoscope, the astrologer strongly advised the parents to separate the boy from the family. Thus Samantha with his lively chatter and mischievous ways was put into a dingy shack, in the garden built with asbestos, hardboard and rigifoam. As the days and months passed Samantha's existence became more pitiful. As he had no proper toilet routine, his parents kept him naked and even limited his meals. Thus deprived of proper nutrition his puny six-year-old body remained stunted.
Samantha who had had no contact with the outside world, spent the next eleven years, seated on the ground hugging his knees. Gradually he lost the strength to walk, or even to stand up, and his speech along with his mental condition was lost. Samantha's family who took it for granted that they were doing the right thing continued with their lives ignoring him, but giving all their love to their five children.
How long this would have continued, one cannot imagine. But two months ago, his imprisonment was ended. Samantha's saviours were the Kandeketiya Divisional Secretary and his officials.
News of Samantha's existence came to be known to an officer while he was visiting the villagers trying to gather handicapped children for their rehabilitation programme. The officer Mr. M.T. Manathunge while visiting a house a few miles away from Samantha's, had been told the news by a small child who had given him a vivid description of Samantha. Horrified on hearing the story he visited the home and went directly to the shed.
"What caught my eye at that moment was horrifying. I saw the boy huddled in a corner with his head down clutching a stone. He looked like a statue. When I was inspecting the shed, the parents arrived and without any explanation I asked them to open the door. Samantha's mother quickly told me not to go inside as he would hit me with the stone. She claimed he did this to any one who came in. I knew he would not do so as it was obvious he had no strength even to raise his head. I went up to him and lifted him up by the hands. But he could not stand and his hands were bent from his elbow", explained Mr. Manathunge.
The explanation Mr. Manathunge had got from Samantha's parents was what the astrologer had given them. The parents said that even as a child he had no control of his bowel movements and would become boisterous and dirty the house. "I knew there was much more to this. Looking at the fragile boy I knew he could not even harm a fly", Mr. Manathunge said.
Once Mr. Manathunge informed the DS Mr. Napawala they decided to visit the boy with Dr. Gunapala, the doctor at the Kandeketiya hospital. "As we did not know how the boy would react to outsiders, we took some toffees with us and planned to tackle him very carefully. The shocking thing is that the parents had not done anything for the boy even after Mr. Manathunge visited them. When they saw us coming they had thrown a bucket of water at him and wrapped a wet cloth around his waist. He had water dripping partly down his body while the other side of his body was covered with dust. There were even signs of a dog having been kept in the same shed", said Mr. Napawala.
Although the parents had claimed that the boy was well fed, once the officers had given him the sweets Samantha had grabbed them and swallowed about ten sweets with the wrappers. The officers with the greatest difficulty had managed to prevent him being choked.
The same day, the boy was removed from his hell hole and brought to the Kandeketiya hospital. He was immediately sent for a medical check up, which revealed that he was malnourished and his mental status was very low for a child of that age.
Dr. K.M. Gunapala explained that though he had undergone such trauma the child was not mentally retarded. "Once he was brought to the hospital we treated him for epilepsy and he did not get a fit during his three weeks stay at the hospital. Although at first he was craving for food we trained him and he even went to the toilet systematically. I think it was the first time in 11 years that he was clothed and properly fed and had the luxury of sleeping on a bed," said Dr. Gunapala.
According to Dr. Gunapala, Samantha could regain his speech with therapy and counselling. "When he was in hospital he did react to certain things and tried to speak. No matter what he went through, Samantha has not lost confidence and trust in human beings. He is not afraid of people but he takes a lot of time to trust a person, I look him straight in the eye", explained Dr. Gunapala.
Samantha's parents still fail to understand the gravity of their act. When The Sunday Times visited Samantha's home in Kandeketiya his father was away and it was his mother who spoke to us. Asked why she has kept her son this way, Gunewathi lashed out that her son was uncontrollable and would smear the walls of the house with his feces. She insisted that they had taken him into the house at night, but villagers maintain that the boy was never taken out of his cage for the last 11 years.
According to Mr. Napawala the parents could have been charged for the crime but when considering their poverty and ignorance they decided to help Samantha instead. "We did it for humankind rather than as a duty. The entire staff including the hospital gave their best to see that he was looked after", he said.
Once Samantha's case came to light, a home for handicapped children in Nattandiya had got in touch with the DS informing him that they would be more than happy to have Samantha in their home. Thus with the consent of Samantha's father, the Chairperson of Sarana Sanka Padanama for handicapped children took Samantha under their wing on August 15.
Last week 'The Sunday Times' visited Samantha in his newly found home in Nattandiya many miles away from Kandeketiya. We found Samantha seated on a cane chair, clad in a batik shirt and blue shorts surrounded not by four walls but by a group of happy children. Yet he looked at the world with the eyes of a lost soul, finding it difficult to be in the same mood as the others, though his face seemed calm and serene.
The home which houses 43 retarded children, seems to provide a kind and caring atmosphere for the children even with the meagre resources they have. But whether the home is equipped to tackle a case like Samantha's requiring speech therapy as well as physical therapy is doubtful.
However Mr. Munesinghe added that there was vast improvement in Samantha since his arrival. "When we brought him here he did not stand but moved about squatting on his haunches. We trained him to walk. A doctor even helped him with the therapy he requires and said that within six months he would be much better. As he is not a mentally retarded child he has an idea of what is happening but sometimes seems disinterested and lacks the strength to join in. He does react to certain things. For instance if we pretend to skip him when serving meals, he calls us by name and points to his plate. When things like this happen one can see that here is a perfect boy driven to insanity", he said.
Since Samantha is suffering from malnutrition he is given Durol thrice a day along with certain vitamins. "As for his meals he eats anything. He eats by himself and goes to the toilet when he needs to," explained Mr. Munesinghe.
How long will Samantha take to get back to his normal self? Or will his traumatic childhood scar him for the rest of his life? It is obvious that society needs to compensate for all that he has suffered by giving him not only the medical attention he needs but also the human love and warmth that was so lacking.
Whenever the President or a prominent minister manages to secure a pledge of foreign aid during a visit abroad, it is greeted with triumphant publicity in the local media. Reduced pledges by aid agencies are seen as political failures. What we are never told is what the aid is for and how it is allowed to be spent. Does aid create greater dependence or does it evidence is that numerous TAs are commissioned at regular intervals on the same subject without leading to any development work in the areas that are researched. The TAs to the health sector and the transport sector are classic cases in point. The result is that large sums of money that come under the banner of foreign aid, is dissipated without any benefit to the country.
What is the reason for this wastage and why does it continue to happen? Does anyone benefit? Certainly there are beneficiaries. The TAs stipulate that the research be led by foreign consultants, completely ignoring the possible presence of highly qualified and competent local professionals. Furthermore, it is the donor agency itself that selects these consultants, and invariably on the basis of mutual benefit and past relationships rather than any demonstrated skill. Very rarely are these consultants respected as competent economists even in their own countries. These relative "nobodies" are upgraded into "development" consultants" and flown back and forth on luxury class air tickets, housed in five star hotels and paid stipends upwards of $10,000 a month. Always the lion's share of the money allocated for a TA is spent on such consultants.
Naturally, these men (occasionally, women) understand little of the socioeconomic culture and history of the country. Spending little time in the country between trips, the consultant is forced to gloss over many of the thorny issues in regard to the technical necessity and political viability of a project. When the consultant gets his money and leaves, so does the opportunity to make corrections and clarifications regarding the work that has been done.
The country is then left with a report, for which no one is held accountable and to which no one claims ownership. Lack of ownership and lack of accountability lead, as they always do, to sheer inaction. The report gathers dust on a bureaucrat's shelf and the work is consigned to oblivion. This unfortunately is the fate of many of the reports funded by TA grants and loans to Sri Lanka.
When the TA comes in the form of a grant, from the Sri Lankan perspective this is not aid at all but simply a waste of money and a transaction between the rich in which we have been used as an excuse and an intermediary. (After all, the agencies have been given money by their donor governments and the money has to be spent before more can be received!). When the TA comes in the form of a soft loan as it often does it is an expense and burden that the Sri Lankan taxpayers can ill afford. The poor end up servicing the rich in the name of "development assistance".
Graham Hancock, in his expose entitled Lords of Poverty, questions the efficacy of international multilateral agencies employing so-called foreign "experts". At any given moment it seems that there are 150,000 of these experts employed in "developing" countries. According to his calculations at least 35% of all official "development assistance" by multilateral agencies are spent on this group of high flyers.
Are such colossal salaries justified? Do these foreign "experts" at least deliver the goods?
The Harvard College Economist reports that in one series of World Bank assisted agricultural projects in Nigeria which had a total cost of $1.5 billion over 1,040 staff years of technical assistance was provided by the Bank and its consultants. Despite the massive influx of expensive foreign skills the projects had almost zero productivity increases. After a survey of project aid of a similar sort, the OECD's Development Centre concluded that there were few advantages in the consistent use of foreign consultants except as a way of spending money given by Western governments to multilateral agencies as "Third World Aid".
It is not only the so-called "unique perspective contribution" of foreign contribution that is suspect. According to Hancock, consultants have often come to look on their overseas assignments more as extended tourist trips than as anything else. It is a rare occasion when the consultant actually knows the language of the people they are ostensibly there to help. Even more rarely does a consultant venture forth from his luxurious hotel suite to visit the rural areas which suffer the burden of his recommendations.
Who are our local representatives who deal with these foreign demigods? Despite the fact that we have economists more qualified and competent than many of these foreign "experts", the former are usually ignored by local politicians and multilateral agencies alike. Perhaps our economists must learn to be more articulate, and our civil servants less servile. So, the next time you read a newspaper headline proudly announcing an "aid pledge" to Sri Lanka by the WB or ADB, why not write to the minister concerned and demand to know how it is going to be implemented?
Continue to Plus page 2 - Rain, rain, come again : will the power crisis continue next year? * DSHW: Dirty, Stinking Hospital for Women
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