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One of my favourite parts of living in Sri Lanka is the sound of the waves. The lull of the water pushing across and away from the sand offers me great comfort and always puts me at ease. My first night in Hambantota was spent in a hotel along the beach; I slept well despite my mixed nerves and excitement to begin my mandate.
In Hambantota, villagers often discuss the rhythm of the sea; it is the District’s heartbeat. The size and sounds of the waves dictate a resident’s day. As they rock across the Indian Ocean, the waves bring important messages. What kind of conditions will fishermen face on their boats? Are the waves too high for a swim? Can we walk along the shore for a brief respite from the heat? The answers often lie in this rhythm.
But just like life’s rhythm, the rhythm of the sea is spontaneous and changes without a warning.
The woman I live with was in Colombo when it happened, she tells me. It wiped out her cousin’s store and home. When the topic comes up in conversation, every Sri Lankan I’ve spoken with remembers exactly where they were on December 26, 2004.
Halfway around the world, I would have been nine, finishing up a snowy Christmas of opening presents and eating a turkey dinner with my family. Nearly 12 years later, I find myself in one of most-impacted regions by the tsunami.
Sparked by an earthquake earlier that day, the tsunami’s interruption of Sri Lanka’s usual rhythm brought devastation. Houses were lost, businesses destroyed and families separated. To this day, there is an influx of orphans and the occasional story of families reuniting after over ten years of separation. This was country deep in the throws of a civil war both before and after the wave hit.
The impacts of the tsunami make themselves known in the infrastructure, the lack of it, across the District. There are buildings in construction or simply gaps from where a home, farm or shop used to live. There is also a section known as the tsunami apartments, small quarters for families who lost their homes but chose to continue living in Hambantota.
A few weeks ago, I had a chance to Skype a cousin of the woman I’m living with. She and her family live in Toronto, relocating after their shop was destroyed by the tsunami. She asked me if I found the food too spicy, if I had tried her cousin’s famous tea and told me I could visit her in Toronto when I get back to Canada.
Every Monday and Thursday, I swim laps in a pool at the Peacock Hotel, it was recently rebuilt. When I first arrived, I saw pictures of the remnants of the hotel before the construction.
A few weeks ago I took a safari in Yala National Park. Covered in dust and sweating from the heat, most would not know Yala received the brunt of the tsunami’s devastation in the region. While many bodies were found, few belonged to the park’s animals. They had successfully fled hours before, sensing the impending wave.
I’ll continue my last three weeks as a communications advisor to the Hambantota District Chamber of Commerce and Deep South Tourism. Yesterday the HDCC celebrated 23 years of service to the District. So much of that work was rooted in helping members reclaim their businesses in the immediate years after the tsunami.
A prominent Sri Lankan poet and author, Ramya Chamalie Jirasinghe, worked with the HDCC to produce a book, unsurprisingly titled Rhythm of the Sea, that looks at personal stories of Hambantota residents. All proceeds from the book go back into the District’s economic development.
Living in the Southern Province amplifies the country’s survival and generosity despite the events of the past few decades. I do no understand what it is like to have lived through both a natural disaster and a civil conflict but each day I witness the impact.
Hambantota continues to support local businesses and other enterprises. In the aftermath of the tsunami, citizens of all religions and backgrounds helped each other despite the ongoing conflict. A few weeks before I arrived Buddhist monks gathered in a Catholic church to give out meals to Muslim residents breaking their fast at Ramadan’s end.
In many ways, the tsunami created a new rhythm that beats throughout the District. It is present each day as I witness a resilient community that remains hopeful, joyful and generous despite past hardships.