In retirement, Fernando finds a golden opportunity helping coir workers

By Coco McCabe
Women have not understood the strengths they have in themselves. Once these are known to them, there will be no boundaries or limits to their capacity." Vinisius Fernando

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Vinisius Fernando might never have guessed that retirement could also come with a high degree of job satisfaction. But that's the rare position he finds himself in today—a spot that puts him in regular contact with some of Sri Lanka's hardest working women: the coir spinners.

As the son of a Sri Lankan fisherman—and the first from his village ever to attend university—Fernando knows well what it means to work hard. That has been one of the defining elements of his life. But little did he know that when he left his position as a deputy director in Sri Lanka's Ministry of Agriculture he would soon become Oxfam's point man in Matara helping to revitalize the local coir industry, which turns the fiber from coconut shells into ropes, mats, and other products.

It was the tsunami that changed all his plans.

After 22 years with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fernando had retired at age 55, as many in government service do—to work longer requires permission—and had found another post, a lucrative one, in the private sector. But within days he realized it was not for him: bribery was one of the job requirements.

"I was shocked by it," he said, and, with the blessing of his wife, promptly gave his notice. Home, with its two acres of land in Kalutara district, beckoned instead.

"I started a little farm," said Fernando. "I had plantains, goats, and chickens."

Then the wave hit. His house was spared—it was far enough inland—but the coastal home he had grown up in, and which he had just restored for other family members, was swept away.

"Everybody got out—thank God," said Fernando, including his elderly father who, at 89, was saved by some youths who scooped him up in a plastic chair and carried him to safety in a church.

Right away Fernando jumped into the relief effort, working with a German organization that was assisting children affected by the disaster.

"I was helping them and I was very happy," Fernando recalled, and that's when he saw an ad Oxfam had placed for a livelihoods assistant in Matara—and applied. He had to convince the hiring committee, however, that he was the right man for the job. Why would a man from the upper echelons of Sri Lankan government service with decades of professional experience want to take the post of an assistant?

The answer was simple and unarguable.

"I want to serve," Fernando remembered explaining. "I have come from a fishing village. I'll help the same people."

They are the people, like his mother, whose early influence on his life set the standard that has guided him ever since.

"My mother was very pious and economical and good with saving," said Fernando. "Even though we didn't have money, she had money. Even today I can't believe my mother, on my father's meager earnings, had money."

Now, engaged with the coir workers, Fernando is helping other women in similar circumstances slowly build some financial security for their families—a mission that speaks to the core of who he is. The coir project, known as the Poor Women's Economic Leadership Coir Program, has helped save its members from exploitation by middle men. It has found them new markets for their coir products and introduced labor-saving equipment. Most of all, it has helped women build unity, through self-help groups and a newly formed federation that will make them a force to be reckoned with.

"I have very good job satisfaction working with these people," Fernando said. "I am happy we have empowered them. They can do anything they wish. And their living standards are becoming better."

What about this project makes him the most proud?

"Having the opportunity to work with the women," said Fernando. "They have the courage and interest to do better in society."