“I want to serve my country.” were the words that revealed the true character of the man who sat across from me.
Nivendra Uduman uttered those simple words with the fire of passion in his voice. This was a man determined to serve his fellow man and his country. His colleague Hansini Gunasekara a card-holding feminist was of equal passion. Both of them had found a kindred spirit in each other the day that they had met. “Nivendra already had an idea of what he wanted to do and I just sort of came on board with it because I knew I couldn’t do it alone and it sounded like a great idea.” She said.
When asked why he’d chosen a walk in particular, instead of some other charity event, he calmly stated:
“It would allow me to connect with people I meet along the way and also have access to rural areas that a charity event would not allow me to reach.”
The main inspiration for the walk comes from the time he met an ex major of the Sri Lankan Army who’d done a walk for cancer two years before. Uduman had immediately decided to organize a similar walk but this time for mental health awareness.
A walk for mental health awareness is something which has not been done in Sri Lanka before. When being asked if he’d taken into consideration the consequences of such actions, he replied “It’s an opportunity to serve Sri Lankans as well as to maybe challenge yourself personally both mentally and physically by joining the walk because it would not only give them the opportunity to test their limits it would also give them the opportunity to connect and see Sri Lanka like they never will if they travel by road transport.”
"It’s an opportunity to serve Sri Lankans as well as to maybe challenge yourself personally both mentally and physically by joining the walk because it would not only give them the opportunity to test their limits it would also give them the opportunity to connect and see Sri Lanka like they never will if they travel by road transport"
He was also quick to add that they would use discretion when asking people to share their own stories about mental health as they knew that some patients would be shy to reveal their conditions.
Hansini Gunasekara declared that the walk was about “the whole experience, whether they’re mental health patients, doctors or ordinary people, and understanding the needs that people have, people’s attitudes and views towards mental health.”
She expressed the hope that the Footsteps to Freedom walk was only the beginning of what she hoped, would be a long period of mental health awareness campaigns.
She also added with a mischievous tone in her voice that she personally liked the idea of the physical and mental challenges and that was why she was interested in the walk. She said that being a female, she had faced sexist barriers before and that through this 500 km walk, she would prove that women were every bit as good as men when taking on challenges, both mental and physical, and hopefully by doing so, inspire young women to take more and more active roles in campaigns such as this walk.
Understanding the gravity of a cause matters a great deal and when asked how they planned to make people understand the seriousness of this issue, Gunasekara replied that the workshops they would be conducting would be simple awareness workshops working with different sections of people such as “the Army, children, teachers, hospital staff and so on just to make them understand that mental health is as important as physical health.”
"What inspired me was a talk where a young psychologist came my school when I was doing A Levels and though now looking back I unfortunately can’t remember what she looks like or remember her name for that matter! But I remember that she inspired me and I think from that point onwards I just really got into volunteering and helping people"
They were both inspired by psychologists as role models. In Uduman’s case it is a family business as his father before him was a psychologist as well. This early upbringing in the life of a psychologist may have been a factor in his ambition of following in his father’s footsteps; however he assured me with that never-ending passion that it was mainly his love for Sri Lanka and his deeply felt duty to serve the country that made him choose to follow psychology and he had many other ambitions in his youth such as being a veterinarian. He hopes to help mental health patients, by making sure that mental health was no longer treated as a taboo and that others would accept the mental health patients as “people” and not as bizarre creatures. Gunasekara too stated similar views but claimed that her personal inspiration to follow psychology came from the time when she was seventeen. “I’d always wanted to help people.”
She said “What inspired me was a talk where a young psychologist came my school when I was doing A Levels and though now looking back I unfortunately can’t remember what she looks like or remember her name for that matter! But I remember that she inspired me and I think from that point onwards I just really got into volunteering and helping people.”
Asking them whether they had any advice for an aspiring psychologist , they said that “In order to be a psychologist, the first thing you have to do is be true to yourself and accept yourself as who you are.”
They both promised that the walk was only the beginning for their campaign; they have ideas of a great number of events such as workshops, cycling trips, more walks…all with one goal; to finally bring freedom to those who hide their true selves from the discriminating eyes of society.”
Both psychologists’ passion and love for Sri Lanka showed in their words and more importantly in their actions.
The walk will be a forty day journey from Dondra to Point Pedro and already more than 500 people have pledged support online, while more have probably pledged their support in other ways such as through donations to the Footsteps to Freedom Bank Account, Account No – 106000735348. Nivendra and Hansini are fighting for something beyond themselves, and they are fighting for something that few would actually fight for. They are fighting to make a difference, to make those who felt like outcasts feel accepted.
They are fighting for Freedom and on the 18th of August they take their first steps towards it with hundreds of people at their side.
PIX BY kushan pathiraja