I first met Karu Gamage, my generous host, at my guesthouse in Mt. Lavinia a few years ago. "You've got to come visit me at my foundation!" He insisted, and he gave me his card, introducing his brother who was with him that day. "You'll have a wonderful time. I guarantee it!" I was in Colombo for a five day conference at the time and though I promised I would come to see him in Hambantota, my promise felt a little empty. I didn't know when I'd be back to Sri Lanka.
When I got the Fulbright award a bit of a conundrum arose as to where to stay once we would arrive in Sri Lanka. The Fulbright Commission in Colombo encourages grantees to find apartments or houses on their own. I wanted a different feel, especially since I thought I might be working more of the time at Moratuwa University. I had stayed at the Ranveli Beach guesthouse several times. The proximity to Moratuwa, the adjacent ocean, the nice pool, and the lovely owner and staff were all good reasons for wanting to stay there. But I also promised Janet, "all kinds of interesting NGO people come through who you'll enjoy meeting." Karu was the person I had in mind.
I had misplaced his card and my schedule for the first few months of the Fulbright was less than fluid, so I didn't have a concrete way to follow up on my promise to visit him. Then one fine day in October, exactly the time of year I had met him before, Karu showed up at Ranveli Beach. Our enthusiastic reacquaintancing was immediate and his short visit at Ranveli was punctuated with laughter, hugs, and much twinkling of the eyes. Bu, my host at Ranveli had spoken very highly of Karu and was truly delighted to see him come around. Again we exchanged cards and again promises were made but without a concrete date in mind. I had to get past the semester's end at Moratuwa and also complete the plenary speaking engagement I had committed to at Kelaniya University. Sinhala language instruction also took until late December. Then, when we had a moment, Janet planned for us to go south to our favorite beach at Goyambokka, just west of Tangalle. I suggested we top off a few days at Goyambokka with a visit to Hambantota, just an hour or so away. So here we are enjoying the time with Karu Gamage, his son, his brother, and a few guests. As a sort of immersion into Sri Lankan life, something I've craved for months since we arrived, this experience has been the deepest and most meaningful yet. It has been like being with family.
Now that was a bit of an introduction leading up to a longer story about giving in Sri Lanka, how it's done and how it's perceived, and the discussion is long and involved but in my opinion, it is a cautionary tale for my own colleagues at the United States State Department. Anyone out there listening?
In 2008 Karu opened the Janoda Foundation (Janoda is a coupling of two words that translates loosely as "community awakening). He built it on land gifted to him by then-president Rajapaksa. This hugely meaningful gift meant something to Karu and to the people of this community who still feel the beneficence of the former government. Gifts that are given are remembered. In a similar way, Karu today gave away two sewing machines to preschool teachers whose schools had closed. We saw him worshipped as I had seen Bu and his wife worshipped at their recent "da-anna" (giving ceremony) in which priests and guests were gifted with food as part of a new home opening. Janet participated in another sort of da-anna with Bu and his elderly parents just a few days back as packets of food and small cash gifts were distributed to the poor, a monthly tradition at the Ranveli.
Beautiful ways of giving, some major and others minor, are a way of life here. Sri Lankans count as their friends people who give. And while we all understand that giving can be overt or less visible the custom here seems to be that overt giving is the more accepted way of doing things. In fact this is supported by a small aside. The day before Budika's da-anna for the poor I had given him a few thousand rupees toward food packets or whatever he chose. Next day he gave the money back to Janet and asked her to participate openly in the ceremony by distributing the cash as she saw fit.
So where's my message to America in all this? In my travels around Sri Lanka I have seen numerous examples of aid given by developed nations under many auspices. Bridges, irrigation works, buildings, and many other infrastructure features have been donated by other governments and they are seen and felt and used every day by Sri Lankans. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak with a State Department representative at a Fulbright event. I asked why we didn't see more evidence of American giving as we traveled through the country. Her simple answer: "the United States doesn't do infrastructure giving."
I can understand that the US may follow other priorities in giving. We may offer various forms of support that are less tangible but perhaps as effective as infrastructure projects. But in my opinion, based on what I've seen here in Sri Lanka, the way to win friends is to give, to give generously and to give appropriately. Culturally appropriate giving, like the types of giving I've discussed here may be difficult to figure out. But that's our job.
As I develop expertise in reading the human landscape of Sri Lanka, a landscape that's full of intangibles, I hope I can do something to develop tangible results in cultural collaboration between our countries.