Religion, Food and War
19.06.2010 - 30.06.2010 28 °C
Whilst working in Sri Lanka I've been staying in a small family run guest house. This has given me the chance to sample the culinary delights of Sri Lankan home cooking, from dosai to hoppers, string hoppers, roti, rice and noodles- all accompanied of course with curry. And my God is it HOT! it must be at least double the spice of what I had tasted in India or Nepal. They put chillies in the meat, in the veg, in the source as well as the rice; there's no escaping it! Even when I order an egg for breakfast it comes with a thick black layer of pepper on it.
The family is extremely religious, they hold 4 services at the house every Sunday, which starts at 6.45am with a lot of singing. The mother invited me along to the English service at her Baptist church, so I went-for kicks! It was insane; everyone was singing at the top of their voices, not mumbling along to the hymn like we do. They were clapping, stamping their feet, and occasionally a congregation member would lift their lands to the sky and shout over every one "Hallelujah" or "Thank you Jesus Christ!" I didn't know what to do. I was shocked. It felt like I had just walked into one of those awful American bible conventions...saying that, I went back the following week and started tapping my foot!
Around the country you see many 'Disco Buddha's' and 'Disco Jesus'' in their huge (very kitsch) glass cages lit up with flashing coloured lights. In this country religion is such a major part of peoples lives, influencing social position, education and job opportunities. The two questions I get asked the most- on a daily basis in fact, are 'are you married?' and 'what religion are you?' I receive quite a shocked look when I explain that I used to live with my boyfriend, but no I'm not married, and yes I call my self a Catholic.
Since being in Sri Lanka I have really started to pick up on the religious background to the civil war, which saw the Sinhalese and Tamils fighting, and Muslims quite often caught in the crossfire. The majority of the Tamil population are Hindu, originating from South India they were brought over to Sri Lanka by the British to work. They are considered to be at the bottom of society, the lowest caste. The Tamils are much darker skinned that the Sinhalese, it is very easy to distinguish the two. Comparably the Sinhalese Buddhist population comprises of 50% of the highest caste. After visiting the Tamil villages a week before, it was clear to see that these communities are receiving little government support and are living on the very edge of society.
The Tamil and Sinhalease languages are completely different, with a sepperate alphabet entirely. Most children in the country attend faith based schools which traditionally teach one or the other. It is not uncommon for two families living on the same street all their lives to never speak to one another. This language devision has also fostered segrigation. Tamils were legally restricted (up until 1 year ago) from working in the government or military. Sharlini, one of the girls at the NGO is of Tamil decent, and was telling me how her brother changed his name before applying for the military. He looked and spoke Sinhalease, so managed to get in indetected. Military personell in this country are treated like Gods, there are 'war hero' statues everywhere.
Having no political, economical or physical presence or power in the country the Tamil population grew resentful of being pushed to societies peripharies. Hostilities between the Sri Lanka military/government and LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) intensified throughout the 80s and 90s as the Tamils started fighting for an independant state called Eelam in the North. Things erupted in 2009 as the government pulled out of a ceasefire and pushed to resolve the tension and but an end to the conflict with physical force. In May '09 after 30 years and approximately 100,000 deaths, the LTTE conceded defeat.
I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with a larger international NGO 'ZOA' who work in partnership with LEADS to focus on refugee care. I spend several hours asking the country director as many questions as possible. Approximately 1/2 a million Tamils fled the country during the war, many of whom were educated; a 'brain drain' effect has happened in the Tamil communities causing the remaining citizens to loose their voice so to speak. The government is moving many Sinhalese families from the slums in the south to the north, giving land and building Buddhist temples (yet not repairing the heavily damaged Hindu ones). And this is all in the name of 'Tamil integration'.
I have obviously only witnessed life post war, so I know there is more to this story, but I am extremely eager to learn more about the conflict.