With goods replaced, tsunami survivors search for well-being

By Coco McCabe
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I have a strong belief in community consultation." - Chamindra Weerackody, researcher who invited women, men, children, and youth to share their criteria for well-being.

Though it's close to dusk and growing dark inside Deepa Galappaththi's house, its orderliness and comfort are plain to see. A new couch and two easy chairs—still covered in their protective plastic wraps—press against the wall. A sewing machine sits in one corner. Family photos, standing framed on a shelf, greet visitors in silence.

It has been three and a half years since the tsunami crashed onto the beach about 200 yards from here killing 88 members of Mawella North, this fishing village on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. Among them were Galappaththi's father and sister whose faces, composed and unsuspecting, fill the picture frames on the shelf.

In the months that followed that terrible disaster—230,000 people in countries across the Indian Ocean lost their lives—support from around the world poured into Mawella North. Food, medicine, boats, houses—all of it was offered. And today, there's a sense that new material comforts have buoyed people used to living hard lives next to the sea. There, in a makeshift lean-to, stands a shiny three-wheeled car. Here's a small fridge, purring in a living room. TVs babble through open windows. And houses dance with fresh coats of paint—turquoise, mango, sky blue—the colors of the life around them.

But beneath this veneer of comfort, troubles sometimes simmer—in part a consequence of the international aid community's good intentions. While solid relationships once bound Mawella North together, say some locals, jealousy over who gets what in the aid game has worn them thin, eroding the village's sense of unity.

"Now, it's lost," says Greta Jayawardana, who lives a few doors down from Galappaththi. "They're fighting family against family."

Measures of well-being

While some say it has improved, friction among community members is just one of the sores villagers revealed when they gathered recently to take the measure of Mawella North's well-being—and ultimately to help aid groups figure out how to do things better next time.

The focus group discussions were part of a study to improve the understanding of mental health issues in Sri Lankan communities affected by natural disasters and long-term conflict. With support from Oxfam, the research is being carried out by the People's Rural Development Association, an organization based in Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital. Sessions for adults and children took place in two villages besides Mawella North, including nearby Nawadivipura, a brand new development for fishing families located high on a hill above a lagoon.

Alcoholism, higher costs of living, lack of privacy, dependency on aid—all were among the ills villagers in the two communities identified in two days of talk as they delved into what it means to have well-being in a world where reminders of the tsunami are everywhere still.

By engaging villagers in a free-flowing exchange, one of the objectives of the research is to encourage them to come up with ideas for solving their problems, too—ideas that could potentially be incorporated into future models for psychosocial care of people snared by disaster or conflict. That participatory approach is a key part of the research: It will not only help in the design of programs that are culturally appropriate, it gives villagers a sense of ownership.

"I have a strong belief in community consultation," says Chamindra Weerackody, the lead researcher for this study. "People are never given a chance to participate in the decision-making process. They've never been able to come up to the decision-making level, and this is what we need."

For aid workers, the lessons of this study could prove to be particularly challenging: Community mental health can't be addressed with a cookie-cutter approach.

"This study helped me to understand that well-being is context specific. It changes from time to time and place to place," says Weerackody. "We think that well-being is only economic. Now, you can see the broader vision of what people think. It includes material well-being like a stable income or better housing. It includes social aspects like good education for children or living without using alcohol, or living in harmony with the family, with the neighbors."

Houses on a hill

For the children and young adults of Nawadivipura, new lives in new houses on a steep hill several kilometers from their former seaside homes have brought challenges they have never had to confront before—like protecting their privacy.

Small and sturdy-looking, the houses of Nawadivipura sit close together on lots big enough to accommodate the planting of just a few bushes or trees for privacy. What families say in one house can be heard in the next.

"We don't have a private life," says one girl on the cusp of womanhood. Another adds that she pleads with her parents to speak quietly so no one will hear.

"Even though we have everything we used to have there, I feel it's not my own home," says Eshani Shanika Muthumala, 23. She used to live in the village of Kudawalla, where she spent a lot of time—comfortably—outside. Here, it's different. She doesn't go outside much.

While Nawadivipura appears livable to the Western eye, small problems fester among the 55 families here, adding stress to lives already strained by the many changes the tsunami brought. A community center on top of the hill looks inviting, but the electricity was off the day the focus group was held: Villagers have a hard time scraping together the extra cash needed to keep it flowing. And transportation—to buy goods, to get to work—represents a new burden for family budgets. Those costs have meant unwelcome belt-tightening.

A village changes

For E.T. Sarath, a father of five children, the post-tsunami problems gripping Mawella North—his village—are profound. He speaks long and emotionally about them.

"The physical look of the village [is better]," he says, "but the quality of people has been destroyed—the values, norms, beliefs have been destroyed."

Not everyone feels this way, of course. And Merry Nona Wijerathna is one of them. She is the only female healer in her village, and after the tsunami she found herself called upon more frequently to counsel families struggling with grief—a difficult task she understood all too well. Wijerathna lost both her husband and a daughter in the disaster.

Now, she lives with another daughter, Deepa Galappaththi, in the house with the new couch and chairs, where the photos of her husband and daughter remind her of their company.

"The happiness is there now," Wijerathna says of her village. "People are living in the village now with fewer issues, fewer problems, especially economical. Most of the families lived in a situation where they were not able to build their own houses in their lifetimes. But now they have houses because of the tsunami. And most people would not have their own boats. Now, some have one or two."

Her serenity implies she has taken her own counsel—advice that others are inclined to follow, too.

"We cannot control natural disasters," says Wijerathna. "There are times we have to face difficult and sad situations. There are times we face happy and enjoyable situations. You have to take it as it is and move on with life."

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