In the peace of early evening, as the heat ebbed and the dogs curled into the shallow beds they had scratched in the dust, E.T. Sarath sat folded in his sarong on the veranda of the temple near his home on the southern tip of Sri Lanka. A monk at the temple had offered us tea, steaming and electrifyingly sweet in porcelain cups, and we were sipping it quietly, thinking about all that Sarath had told us and worrying that his tsunami tale—blunt and bitter—could be so different from W.H. Priyanka Krishanthi’s.
“Now people have come to a situation that’s worse than the tsunami—and that’s dependency,” Sarath had said. “Most of the NGOs are responsible for this situation.”
But in another coastal community not so far away exactly the opposite outcome has changed the way Krishanthi, married at 12 and the mother of two children, sees the world and her place in it. For all its terror and heartbreak, the tsunami and its aftermath have opened doors to a whole new life for her.
Taking advantage of countless trainings offered by aid groups—on good governance and women’s rights, on leadership and accounting—Krishanthi has emerged from it all with a fire to share her new knowledge and boost the confidence of others.
Together with her husband, 11 years her senior and supportive of her drive and initiative, Krishanthi built a new house—in a safe location—using funds from an aid group and her family’s own sweat and labor. She has started a small money-lending business with earnings saved from a food-selling enterprise. And a community-based organization she formed has now attracted the membership of women from half the households in her village. Once a shy woman who ventured out little, Krishanthi, at 30, has become a role model for others. Even the men in her community point to her as an example for their wives.
As aid providers, what’s the lesson for us in the stories of these two survivors? Their interactions with the aid world arc between two extremes—the worst and the best—spanning a sea of human experiences, each one different, each one true. We were there to listen and learn. What went right? What went wrong? How can we do it better next time?