Eighty-three-year-old Gnanatheepam (Gethsie) Shanmugam, a Sri Lankan teacher and a psychosocial counsellor, who counselled war widows and orphans, was one of the six winners to win the Ramon Magsaysay Awards, considered to be Asia’s equivalent to a Nobel Prize. In an interview with the she shared her inspiring life story with its twists and turns, giving an insight into her childhood and her future ambitions. She braved the war, bloodshed and trauma to help its victims. She still continues her reconciliation work. She believes that children and youth can make a huge contribution in driving the society towards reconciliation. She has previously won the Outstanding Personality Child Rights Activist Award and a service appreciation medal from the Sri Lanka-United Nations Friendship Organization(SUNFO).
Following are excerpts of the interview done with her.
QCould you tell us about your inspiring journey towards winning the Ramon Magsaysay Award?
I won’t consider the work I did as a job. I was around 18 when I started working as a pupil teacher at Mowbray College, Kandy, where I had studied. Then my principal sent me for teacher training to Jaffna, and I came back and worked for a while. In Jaffna I fell for a young man. Then after around 6 years we got married. He said that I can’t go to work for sometime. When the children were older I found employment at St. Joseph’s College. A priest there noticed that I was always with children. He thought that I should do counsellor training. He directed me to Fr.Mervin Fernando. He was the pioneer counsellor in Sri Lanka at the time. Under him I did my basic counsellor training.
If you ask me what inspired me, my inspiration was children because I was mostly with them. I also feel that my childhood was affected. I lost my mother when I was very young and I had to care for my siblings. May be these things pushed me. I won’t say that it inspired me. I think it unconsciously urged me. I had to look after my child. When I did counselling I had to look at my childhood which I had lost. I lost my mother when I was about 14. So I became an ‘adult’. When I go back to my life I feel that there was a vacuum and I became an adult too soon. All those things made me more child oriented.
Socially we do a lot of things. Spiritually there are religions, but this is not connected with the other three things. I feel that emotional health is neglected. Feelings aren’t taught in schools. We have to open up and say that we are angered by something and it’s okay to be angry
I was an English teacher in the middle school. I taught life education for students at the Advanced level classes. I may have learned from the boys about them growing up and their problems. All those things made me different. Then I started volunteer work with Fr. Mervin. He had a place called Family Study Services Centre. Somebody had given the tip-off to ‘Save the Children’, Norway (Redd Barna). They pushed me to all forms of training. When they chose me I was older than the others. Some didn’t like that I was older than them. I was more than 50. But recruited me. They videotaped me and sent the videos to Norway. I feel that they wanted an older woman to get into the war affected areas. In England I was given training on children affected by war and violence. I worked with a Norwegian-British psychiatrist who has done much research. I worked in Jaffna for nearly ten years. Then I moved to Mullaitivu during the war where my next step was to work with children and women. There they were called widows because a lot of the men had disappeared.
I didn’t call them widows. I called them amma. In the Tamil society the word ‘widow’ is considered degrading. Such women can’t attend weddings. They can’t light lamps. They can’t put the pottu (fragrant paste applied in the form of a dot on the forehead) if the husband is absent. These were demeaning. In our program they were the first to light the lamp. Then we gradually built their self-esteem.
QWhat was it like to be winning the award?
The moment they announced that I had won an award I was shocked. It was all a surprise.
They came to my house and checked me before the award. I didn’t know anything.They said that they wanted to do a research and that they had heard that I won the Child Rights Activist Award. Personally I don’t like the word Activist. They videoed me and asked different questions. They had tea and left. When I went to the Philippines to receive the award I realized that one of the people, who had spoken to me here, was one of the famous persons in the organization. She had given me a different name and a different card.
QWhy don’t you like the word ‘Activist’?
I don’t think I was an Activist at any time during my life. An Activist is someone who wants to tell everybody ‘hey look at me or look at this programme. Come on. Do this. Do that.’ I liked working quietly. Supportive work was my way. I won’t call myself an activist during any given time though I was called and presented with an Award. I didn’t know anything even at that time.
QYou had to travel to the Northern areas to work. What were the challenges you had to overcome?
Travelling was a challenge, but I enjoyed travelling. I was born in Nawalapitiya. I was a naughty child, not a ‘saintly’ one. When I used to come home (I was in a boarding then) my mother would give me food and have a nap. That was the time I sneaked out. There were large rocks. I would climb them and jump up and down. A snake used to come to a place close by. Everyone was scared, but I wasn’t. I don’t know why. I was may be six years old. The best thing I liked to see was the snake shedding its skin. The day I saw this I told someone who in turn told my mother. I was beaten, put in a room and locked up. Hiding behind tea bushes and seeing these creatures was interesting. May be these things made me enjoy travelling.
Then I moved to Mullaitivu during the war where my next step was to work with children and women. There they were called widows because a lot of the men had disappeared.
I didn’t call them widows. I called them amma
Sometimes we had to travel at night. At the middle of the night there would be a tyre puncture. The driver would then be fast asleep and I would walk up and down. Even now I don’t mind travelling.
QDuring the war time what were the challenges you faced?
During the war we had to have a permit from the Ministry of Defense. So ‘Save the Children’ obtained the permit for me. But I had to take my ID along with so many other things they asked for. At every point they would check and send me through. Up to the level of the army it was not difficult. However, the no man’s land was scary. At the end of the no man’s land there was the LTTE checkpoint. They used to be very strict. But I didn’t bother. It might have been because of my age. They called me amma and I was allowed. Then I entered the villages Redd Barna was already working in.
QDid you ever fear that you might be caught in a crossfire or a landmine?
I don’t think I entertained fears. It was kind of a challenge. Sometimes a vehicle would come and the army would ask us to get in. So we went to the army camp where we were safe. The real trouble began in 1996 when I was in Mullaitivu. We were about to leave. The Army took over the Redd Barna office near the beach. We had to move to another area where there was a smaller house. Eight miles from the shore there was a fight. Nearly thousand died because they opened fire. After that I couldn’t come out. Everything was locked. Everybody was worried. My family was abroad. Then there was fear. I felt lonely. But I had to wear a mask and pretend to be strong, because there were people and children looking up to me for support. So I had to plan creative programmes for them. In the night we would have dances and some would feel shy. They used to write, act etc. They were occupied the whole day. Mothers would cook outside. Fathers listened to the radio all the time. They were all displaced people.
The after effects were stronger than the immediate effects. When I returned home I locked the door. I asked the maid not to come. I didn’t want anybody. I just stayed with a cup of tea. Then I was wondering how to get help. I went to ‘Save The Children’. A Norwegian there looked at me and asked why I should be scared when I was a counsellor. I returned. I called a friend of mine, a Sinhalese lady. I wanted to speak to a Sinhalese lady because I was caught in between. The Tamils would want me to be against the Sinhalese. The Sinhalese would look at me as if I was against them. I was in the middle and there was emotional turmoil within. So I thought I should meet a Sinhalese and I met Meena. She didn’t counsel as much. For two days she asked me to rest and gave me coffee. A lady would massage me and I would have an oil bath. There was good food. After two days she started talking to me and I told her about how I was feeling.
But every bit has been a learning experience. I think I received this award because of this experience.
QYou referred to emotional turmoil and being in between two communities. When it comes to war widows or orphans their line of thinking would be that they became widows or orphans because of the actions of another party. In such a situation how can you change their mindset to reconcile with the other faction?
Though we say it’s one side, it is not one side because both sides were attacking. Even the other side took their children away. Pictures are appearing. People say that their children are lost. There is evidence that they had been taken underground, taken to torture camps. The other side also took them and we know that even people among them like their brothers were killed. So you can’t take a side. As for me I feel that you must think of people as humans rather than taking sides, because both parties have their problems. Both parties were fighting. We intervene to help the people who require help. And you can’t go there and say that that man is bad or this man is bad.
Another problem with us is that we are selfish. I remember when I was small there were Sinhalese people helping us in the estate. There was a Sinhala lady who helped us and when my mother died. She used to mother us. Then you don’t feel bad about these people at all. You never feel that you want to destroy them. finding harmony isn’t an easy thing.
My idea was to work with the strengths of these people, not with the negatives associated with them. Negative things are challenges. My idea was to see what was positive even during the war.
QThere would be resentment within these children and widows. How could you overcome resentment and create reconciliation?
It wasn’t easy. But at that time we used peer counselling within the groups of women, because you couldn’t counsel everybody. So within groups we planned questions and while talking they realized there were similarities. Then they would get together. They were counselling each other. For example one person would say that she had a particular problem and she received Rs. 50 000, but a man came to her house. Her husband would have been taken away. Another woman would say that she had experienced a similar plight. So they help each other. These type of things are terrible for those who live in a society. If somebody gets to know about such people they’ll call them bad names. So we tried to help their self-esteem. When you build them up, they come up. The children also come up. We worked on their strengths.
QHow did this contribute towards reconciliation?
It’s happening in a small way. You can see so many mixed marriages. Tamil girls have married soldiers. They hate them, they say. But they marry them. I did a research on Girl Child soldiers. I was taken secretly to a place where girl soldiers were. One girl said that her friend married a soldier and was living happily. Before the war a way to find harmony wasn’t insight.
I wanted to speak to a Sinhalese lady because I was caught in between. The Tamils would want me to be against the Sinhalese. The Sinhalese would look at me as if I was against them. I was in the middle and there was emotional turmoil within. So I thought I should meet a Sinhalese and I met Meena
In Mamkulam there was a battle between the LTTE and the Army. The leader of the LTTE unit told one of the girls to take her cyanide capsule because she (the leader) feared the army would rape her. She said she didn’t have it. Then she was asked to take the leader’s cyanide. But she refused. Then the leader shot at the girl because she didn’t want her to live. This girl had been helping the leader to administer first aid. She had bandages, glucose etc, and somehow survived. Then the army arrived. The girls thought that they’d kill them, but they didn’t. The soldiers had scolded them in Sinhala filth. But when they came close by they had given a toffee. One girl in this group married a Sinhalese soldier. This girl told me why she joined the LTTE. She had a stepmother who was very cruel. She had wanted a gun to shoot her. So she thought that she should join the LTTE and obtain a gun. I am a Christian, born in the Central Hills. I married a Hindu born in Jaffna. I worked in a catholic school. I used to quarrel with them and ask why I couldn’t go to their church because it’s the same Jesus Christ. They explained the differences and I used to sit and think. Being mindful is very important.
QIt’s been more than eight years since the war concluded. It’s often said that though the war ended the conflict still continues. Apart from the political decisions that have to be made, as individuals, as human beings, as citizens of this country what can we do to create harmony?
This is where we are now. Politicians will fight their way and they are going to continue fighting. We also have to understand that we can’t find a quick fix because it was a long war and for the war to start there were years of planning. Unrest, anger, hatred at one point surfaced in the form of a war. The creator has given us the sparks of love and life. Sri Lanka was a pearl which became a teardrop. We were crying. Now the pearl has to return. This isn’t easy. So we have to quietly work. We can’t be blaming each other. Let us look at the light within the people. Religions can do a lot. What are we teaching in schools? Physically you must eat well. Intellectually we study (mental health). Socially we do a lot of things. Spiritually there are religions, but this is not connected with the other three things. I feel that emotional health is neglected. Feelings aren’t taught in schools. We have to open up and say that we are angered by something and it’s okay to be angry. If I get angry I can hit the table, the pillow, but not a person, because you can’t get the person back if he dies. So you can’t destroy. Another thing is awareness; something which they have to give to the others. For example, people won’t come to the Muslims to inquire about Islam. Muslim children told me why they sit and stand (prayers). They also said that they clean their ears. Our people just wash the face. We have to help each other. These are simple things, but they go a long way.
QWhat kind of a future do you envisage for Sri Lanka?
I envisage a beautiful Sri Lanka. We still have the beauty. It’s not all gone. When you go to Jaffna some people say that it’s like a desert. But things are coming up slowly and trees are being planted. People’s mind have to be beautiful and this is the hard part. This has to begin with children. But they need role models. I tell children to look up to their happy role models. If there are no happy role models we have to be the happy role models ourselves. We try. You have the wealth of the pen. The pen is mightier than the nuclear bomb. You people can give small messages. If the youth wake up the present child will become better. Let us hope. Let us not lose that hope.
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