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Travelling for WHO – first to Botswana in Africa



Excerpted from Memories that linger”: My journey in the world of Disability
by Padmani Mendis

First Impressions and First Memories

But where are the trees? This was my first thought as the eight-seater circled the small airport at Gaborone, preparing to descend. Trees, green and water was what I was used to seeing in Asia and Europe. When I was preparing for my visit to Botswana, I had read that the Kalahari Desert was savanna on which grew grasses and small trees. Here I saw also that the ground was dry, yellow, sandy.
The airplane was small because the Gaborone airport at that time could not accommodate aircrafts that were any larger and certainly not jet aircraft. The route from Colombo required for me a transfer at Johannesburg to this eight-seater. During my first year of travel to Botswana I was fortunate that BOAC (later BA) – had a flight route that connected Hong Kong-Colombo-Johannesburg. This direct route was unprofitable and on my next visit I had to transit at either Bombay or Nairobi to get to Jo’burg. Five years later, Botswana had its own airport which they named the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport. I have not used this airport.

Sir Seretse Khama

The word Seretse Khama holds memories for me dating back to my youth. While at school and yet quite young, I saw in our morning newspaper, the “Ceylon Daily News,” what seemed to me to be an unusual photograph. It showed a couple standing arm-in-arm. The man was tall and dark with black frizzy hair. The woman was smaller with a light skin. I still see that photograph in my mind’s eye. The caption said that Seretse and Ruth Khama, formerly Ruth Williams, had married in London. The couple will be returning to Bechuanaland, a British Protectorate. Seretse Khama was the son of the former chief of Bechuanaland and was returning to be the chief himself.

This fascinated me, I know not why. I had to ask a cousin where Bechuanaland was, and she did not know either. Together we looked up the atlas I used at school to find out. Thereafter, I followed with interest what happened in that faraway country. I knew of the problems that were created by the British when Seretse returned to his country; and of the attempt by the British to have him and his English wife banished; how his people wanted him back and welcomed his wife with open arms; when it became the independent country Botswana and he became its prime minister; that the country was rich in diamonds, but was still desperately poor. Its diamonds were being mined by their neighbour, reaping the benefits of the growing diamond trade together with the benefits of apartheid for its white and wealthy minority, South Africa.

When Einar suggested that I start the CBR field trial in Botswana, I was just amazed. My reaction called for me to give an explanation to him and Gunnel. And here I was. Botswana was now a Republic and Sir Seretse Khama, GCB, KBE was its first elected President.When I related my story to Adelaide Kgosidinsti, my counterpart, she took me to visit Lady Ruth Khama. Sir Seretse’s health was failing rapidly. Ruth Khama lived in a villa-type residence, not large in appearance, with quite a few plants in the garden. I told her my story. She invited me to have tea with her.

Sir Desmond Tutu

Upon arrival in Gaborone I was met by someone from WHO and taken to check-in at the Holiday Inn Hotel. This was the only international hotel in town. There was another large hotel close to the station where most local people stayed. I too stayed there later on when Gunnel came to Botswana.While I was on the eight-seater from Jo’burg, I noticed a passenger walking down the aisle, greeting his fellow passengers. Going down to breakfast the next morning was difficult. I was alone – had never stayed in a posh hotel like this before. I was bashful and shy and probably showed it too. I sat down gingerly and ordered breakfast. Not much later came the sound of a booming voice.

Familiar from yesterday, on the plane. With a resounding “good morning” and a nod to each table, he sat down with a group.
After a while, seeing me, a lone strange woman in a saree, he came over to sit with me. He was wearing the collar indicative of his calling. Said his name was Desmond Tutu and asked if he could join me for breakfast. He talked with me at length. An exceptionally strong personality just oozed through his manner, his voice and his speech. There was no doubt that I was required to respond. Wanted to know where I was from, what my country was like, what I was doing, why I was in Gaborone, my plans and so on. He was gone the next day. The hotel people told me he had come to Jo’burg for the day to participate in a meeting. They thought he had gone on to Cape Town.

Very many years later Nalin and I went for a week’s holiday in Cape Town. On my birthday which fell on a Sunday we went to St. George’s Cathedral. Sir Desmond was Archbishop in Cape Town and St. George’s was his parish. He was preaching elsewhere that Sunday. So I did not meet Sir Desmond Tutu again. An anti-apartheid and human rights activist, he was the first black Archbishop of Cape Town, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism and the Gandhi Peace Prize. I had him in my memories and he enriched them.

Introduction to Botswana

The next morning I was sitting at the desk of the Chief Medical Officer of the Ministry of Health or MOH. He was a Norwegian and it was he who ran the health service in Botswana from the Ministry in Gaborone. There were very few Motswana – as the people of Botswana were called – medical doctors and these few had all studied abroad. Norwegians ran the entire health service. Seeds had been sown for a countrywide Primary Health Care Programme through the Regional Medical Officers of Health. This was said to be developing well and covering large parts of the country.
When he learned who I was and what my mission was, he sent for Adelaide Darling Kgosidinsti. While we waited until she arrived he attended to the collection of files on his table. He was obviously a very busy man and did not talk much.

Adelaide arrived. A lady with a large frame and distinctly commanding presence. She looked quite beautiful with her hair made neatly into a plait and folded round her head. Her skin, as was that of the people of her country, a distinctly lighter shade than those from the countries nearer the tropics like Kenya. Even Nigeria. Adelaide was introduced to me as the Commissioner of the Special Services Unit for the Handicapped. She was in charge of all disability prevention and rehabilitation services in the country. She was my National Counterpart.
The Chief Medical Officer and Adelaide had both met Einar. Einar had been to Botswana three years before me to plan for the setting up of CBR. The Chief Medical Officer instructed Adelaide to take me to Serowe and have me start on the task I had come to do for WHO. He did not show much interest in it. As I said earlier, he was obviously a very busy man. When Adelaide asked him how we should travel, he replied, “Take her on the train.”

Adelaide, I later came to know wanted to take me by road, which is how UN consultants are usually taken. But for me it was overnight on the train. I know not why. Adelaide slept most of the way. I had learned that she was not one given to chatting anyway. I was too excited to sleep. I enjoyed that train ride and repeated it many times, up and down to Serowe, a distance of about 300 kilometres.
However, there was but one experience that I did not look forward to on that train journey each way. I was required to change trains at Palapye, an important junction. This was around two in the morning and I had to wait near enough to an hour. At these times there was no one else around except for a few drunks weaving themselves around the platform. I was safe as long as I could stay away from their line of vision. There were occasions when I could not. Then it was always a game of hide and seek.

On our arrival early morning in Serowe a vehicle from the Regional Health Office met us. Our first visit had to be the Kgotla, the Office of the Chief to obtain his approval for my visit to his village and for my work here. The chief was in his colourful formal attire knowing that a foreigner was expected. Adelaide made sure that I followed all the proper protocols required by way of seating, greeting and conversing.
The Chief was most interested in how I was going to help the people of Serowe. He told me how families cared for their disabled members and explained a few traditional beliefs. He also told me that this was the largest village in Africa, with a population of 30,000 people. It was the home of the Bamangwato tribe and home to the Khama family. He was very proud of this, and naturally so.
Then the surprise – he said that he had someone from Sri Lanka working in his office.

He said I should meet him and had him sent for. In walked Mr. Swaminathan. He was the accountant in this small Tribal Office. That evening Mr. Swaminathan brought his wife together with his young daughter and son to visit me. We became friends. His children loved to visit me and play in my room. They were fascinated by my bedside clock and radio, obviously not having seen things used in the way I did. Here in a village on my first visit to Africa I meet a Sri Lankan. Mr. Swaminathan told me there was one more in Francistown, a large town in the north and another 30 or more in Gaborone. I met some of them on subsequent visits to Gaborone.

Some years later when I went to The Gambia, a small landlocked country in West Africa, I met around 30 Sri Lankans there too. In both places many were teachers, while others were accountants and engineers. More Sri Lankans were met when I went to the Bahamas on the other side of the world. We Sri Lankans had certainly spread ourselves around the globe.

Courtesy calls and finding a place to stay

After the Kgotla Adelaide took me to the social services office – it was a small one – to introduce me to Ethel Matiza, Social Service Officer or SSO for Serowe. Adelaide said she would be my counterpart in Serowe. We packed Ethel also into the pickup truck and went on to make a courtesy call to the Regional Medical Officer. He was from Hong Kong. When he heard that I planned to be in Serowe for three months, he invited me to stay with his wife and himself. They had a large house and plenty of space for a guest.

But Adelaide was quick to say thank you on my behalf. Because, she said, that she arranged with the director at the hospital to have me accommodated there. Which was just as well, because later I had a very small difference of opinion with the RMO. Being his guest would not have been of help in that. I learned a lesson here from Adelaide.
The director was waiting for us at the hospital. He showed me the room he had for me. The room had a bed and a dressing table. The mattress on the bed was bare with signs of long use. The windows had no curtains. I walked down a lengthy corridor to see the toilet and bathroom I would share. The bathroom had a bucket storing a little water. He then took me to the hospital kitchen and said I could prepare my meals here. I thanked him and asked if I could come back later?

Back in the vehicle, Adelaide said before I did that this was not suitable for me for a stay of three months. Ethel reminded Adelaide that there was just one option left – the Serowe Hotel. I said I did not need to see it, because that is where I would stay. Adelaide did not object too vociferously. I checked in at the Serowe Hotel and was allowed to choose my room – one of the only two that the hotel had. I chose the one with a window. Adelaide had never been here before.

Starting the field trial

We now planned with Ethel how we were to start the WHO field trial. The Regional Medical Officer had made it clear that we could have 15 Family Welfare Educators or FWEs – that is what the Primary Health Care workers were called – to participate in the trial. We could have these 15 for a maximum of three days, not more. Their routine work could not be interrupted. As soon as Ethel heard this from the RMO she sent off a message on the human telegraph line that the selected 15 should be at the community hall by 9 a.m. the next day. And they all were.
In the community hall the next morning Adelaide welcomed them, explaining to them that they had been asked to come to learn how to carry out this important task for the World Health Organisation in Geneva. And then she left for Gaborone to get back to her other duties. She came back to Serowe a couple of times to see how I was getting on. She went with us to the field to learn about CBR (Community Based Rehabilitation) in Botswana.

Ethel and I worked with the FWEs to prepare them for the work they were to undertake. We had enough Manuals to give one to each of them. We introduced them to all the components of the Manuals, discussing how each could be used; we had them describe and discuss the different disabled people – children and adults – they had met in their villages, the problems they had, and look for relevant parts of the Manual which they could use to give them advice on what they may do.

We set them problems to solve, case studies to discuss, turning the Manual this way and that, inside and out. Our aim, given these three short days, was to make them as familiar as possible with the actual physical handling of the Manual while learning it. At the same time as she was teaching with me, Ethel was also learning about the Manual. It was she who supervised the use of it after I was gone.
All in all, the entire workshop was essentially participatory and action-oriented. There was no other way. Serowe in Botswana was just one example of rural health and development and prioritising delivery needs. This was the reality in most developing countries.

This was the reality which CBR will have to use as an entry point. An essential first experience.Before the three days came to an end we made a programme with the FWEs. Ethel and I would visit them in their own areas of work. We asked them to get together in groups of three for this purpose. We would visit each group once a week. Before our visit, they would select disabled people in their areas who we would visit together. We would go to the homes of these people together, to continue their learning and ours in the use of the Manual.

And this field teaching and learning is what we did for the next 11 weeks in Botswana. It was at this time that the words of the Chinese Philosopher Lao Tzu came home to me with conviction:
“Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders (teachers), when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say ‘We have done this ourselves’ “.

This has been the philosophy underlying my own CBR teaching from those first days in Botswana to this day.

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Understanding policy of neutrality



Yuan Wang 5, Chinese research and survey vessel, at the Hambantota port in August, 2022.

by Neville Ladduwahetty

In order to assuage the apprehensions of India regarding the intended arrival of the Chinese research vessel Shi Yang 6 to Sri Lanka, an informed source of the National Aquatic Resources Research Agency (NARA) is reported to have said “a team of officials from the NARA would board Shi Yang 6 to observe research activities”. This act is “widely seen by Sri Lankan interlocutors as an attempt by the Government to signal to the countries which are at loggerheads with China that Sri Lanka is privy to what is transpiring in the whole process and to make sure that it will pose no security threat to any third country” (Daily Mirror, September 19, 2023).

Continuing the above DM report states: “Sri Lanka advocates a neutral foreign policy. However, India, Japan and the United States are skeptical about Chinese maritime activities in the Sri Lankan territorial waters since they fear that it is part of a major effort by China to systematically map the seabed across the vast swath of the Indian Ocean. They fear hydrographic data, collected in the process, can be used for security related purposes later …. Nevertheless, Sri Lanka insists that it is a neutral venue to all countries, and won’t allow its territory, be it sea, air space or land to be used against the security interests of another country, particularly India” (Ibid).


Sri Lanka is indeed encouraged and heartened by the stand the country has taken to exercise its rights in keeping with its stated policy of Neutrality backed up by provisions of Internationally accepted Customary Law relating to entitlements, such as exploring within Exclusive Economic Zones of Coastal states. However, this stand could be strengthened by incorporating provisions of International Law as stated in Part V of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea presented below.

By incorporating these provisions into the Corpus of Domestic Law, Sri Lanka would be in a much stronger position to exercise its sovereign rights in the Exclusive Economic Zone by way of imposing penalties on those who violate its provisions and in particular those who engage in illegal fishing and destroying natural resources by the fishing crafts of India and other countries.


Rights, jurisdiction and duties of the coastal State in the exclusive economic zone

1. In the exclusive economic zone, the coastal State has:

(a) sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting conserving and managing the natural resources» whether living or non-living» of the waters superjacent to the sea-bed and of the sea-bed and its subsoil» and with regard to other activities for the economic exploitation and exploration of the zone such as the production of energy from the water currents and winds

(b) jurisdiction as provided for in the relevant provisions of this Convention with regard to:

(i) the establishment and use of artificial islands, installations and structures:

(ii) marine scientific research:

(iii) the protection and preservation of the marine environment:

(c) other rights and duties provided for in this Convention.

2. In exercising its rights and performing its duties under this Convention in the exclusive economic zone the coastal State shall have due regard to the rights and duties of other States and shall act in a manner compatible with the provisions of this Convention.

3. The rights set out in this article with respect to the sea-bed and subsoil shall be exercised in accordance with Part VI.


A top source that is considered to be familiar with Indian affairs is reported to have stated: “Sri Lanka’s neutral position is acceptable but it is doubtful for India whether Sri Lanka being economically weak, has the strength to maintain such an approach” (Ibid), and cited the example of India purchasing fuel from Russia despite objections by the United States. That top source has forgotten that India despite its power, once “invaded” Sri Lanka hoping to resolve the conflict in Sri Lanka and was compelled to return in shame having failed to fulfill its mission.

According to him “India can act in this way because it is powerful enough to resist any pressure…”. For India to buy oil from Russia despite objections from the U.S. means that these objections are relatively benign because the U.S. needs India as part of QUAD to counter China. However, this being a commercial arrangement, it cannot be compared with the legacy of despicable acts repeatedly committed against humanity of weaker States by so called “powerful states” in the pursuit of their interests.

It is evident that the “top source” is unaware that the International Order does not make a difference between “powerful states” and the rest, because one of the principal pillars on which the United Nations Charter rests states in Article 2 (1) that “The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members”.

Furthermore, Principles and Duties of a Neutral State are based on International Customary Law, which in its Introduction states: “The sources of the international law of neutrality are customary international law and, for certain questions, international treaties, in particular the Paris Declaration of 1856, the 1907 Hague Convention No. V respecting the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers and Persons in Case of War on Land, the 1907 Hague Convention No. XIII concerning the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers in Naval War, the four 1949 Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol I of 1977 (ICRC Publication June 2022).

Despite the existence of such International provisions “powerful states” have not hesitated to brazenly flout its provisions in the pursuit of their interests most of which are warped imaginations.

For instance, it was India that imposed its will on Sri Lanka when it forced Sri Lanka to accept the 13th Amendment; an act that denied Sri Lanka the fundamental right of self-determination enshrined in Article 1 (2) of the Charter of the United Nations that state:

“To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples…”. This Amendment crafted by India compels Sri Lanka to adopt devolution to Provinces as a form of internal government to satisfy the imaginations of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. This was violently rejected by the People when it was first introduced and ironically even after more than three decades continues to be rejected not only by the majority but also by the Tamil community in Sri Lanka. Despite such rejections, India keeps insisting the Sri Lanka should live by its provisions; the latest being at the ongoing General Assembly Secessions in New York.

Under the circumstances, Sri Lanka has to come up with an innovative strategy within the provisions of the Constitution to get free of 13A because its entrenched contradictions hinder peripheral development. What is most objectionable about devolution as a concept is that it fosters the operation of Central Government and Provincial Government functions simultaneously that often are at variance thus perpetuating disparities within and among Provinces amounting to entrenching discrimination among the Peoples; a fact that is starkly evident among the States in India and other countries that have divested Central power.

Another practice adopted by “powerful” India is to overlook the violations committed by the Fishing community in Tamil Nadu at the expense of the Fishing community in Sri Lanka, by robbing the maritime resources and vandalizing the marine environment by resorting to bottom trawling within Sri Lanka’s Exclusive Economic Zone notwithstanding the fact that it is a violation of Article 56 of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Instead of raising such issues at bilateral meetings, despite the presence of the Minister of Fisheries, Sri Lanka has been trapped into commitment to issues of connectivity that bolster India’s influence over Sri Lanka.


While Sri Lanka appreciates and is proud of the position taken by NARA and the Government in respect of the intended arrival of the Chinese research vessel, Sri Lanka has to exploit all International safeguards to overcome potential threats from the so called “powerful states”. In a background where “powerful states” would not miss an opportunity to exploit the circumstances in other States, countries such as Sri Lanka have to depend on the shield or weapon of international law to protect their interests.

Therefore, for them, it is the codified rule of the Rights and Duties of a Neutral State and the incorporation of the relevant provisions of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea into Domestic Law or the fact that its provisions are part of Customary Law to protect its sovereign rights and enforce its interests in the Exclusive Economic Zone.

Such material should form the framework of a Standard Operating Procedure as suggested in a previous article (Neutral Foreign Policy in Practice, August 22, 2023). A strengthened Sri Lanka would then be in a position to avail itself of the resources of the International Court of justice, as other countries have done to seek redress. Furthermore, since they are numerically greater, their strength lies in a Rules based World Order and not on “power”, irrespective of its source.

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Some buildings with their attributes gone forever



Rest houses were places we grew up with and most had existed during the later years of British rule in Ceylon. Counterpart in India was called a dakh bungalow, or so Cass remembers from staying overnight long ago in one in Sanchi. Rest houses were really what their name implied: places to rest in; mostly for government administrators when they travelled on government business termed circuits. There were the circuit bungalows too but they were in remote areas and with much less amenities.

The best-known rest houses were Nuwara Wewa and Tisa Wewa in Anuradhapura, the one jutting into the Parakrama Samudra in Polonnaruwa, in Belihuloya, Ella, Hambantota Tissamaharama, Kankesanturai and Elephant Pass, and in Peradeniya, opposite the Botanical Gardens. They were well known for their gentlemanly keepers, most dressed in cloth and shirt, and the food served: excellent lunches with the invariable fried karola or hal messo; the wonderful coconut sambol and the fried red chillies which was not a usual homemade appetizer.

Now, most of these wonderful places of staying in comparatively cheap, are called resorts and expanded, losing the old-world charm, the warm welcoming ambience, and the spacious one storey roominess. They were tossed aside by hotels being constructed and so they too changed ‘shape’. One or two deteriorated – the Hambantota RH accompanied by the deterioration in standard of clientele too becoming more a water hole than temporary stay-in place. Some surpassed their previous selves like the Ella RH which was transformed to a high-end inn.

We often lunched and stayed in several times and remembered was the Peradeniya RH with its wide veranda with tables to lunch or dine at, looking across at the trees in the Gardens, particularly that variety which had red drooping down flowers bordered by bright red spathes which we called kukul kakul and even ate, delighting in its sour flavour. No more. None of the view of glorious nature; none of the almost al fresco lunching; none of the old-world charm and particular ambience of the old rest house. It has been rebuilt and ‘developed’ to a horrible state.

Change – for better, for worse

On a recent visit to Kandy after many years the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens was walked through, with plenty others, both local and foreign. One small niggle of doubt was the fee charged from foreigners Rs 3,500, Cass believes. Too excessive is her opinion particularly in comparison to what locals pay. We should not fleece foreigners though they are with dollars, pounds sterling, euros or whatever.

The gardens are excellently maintained; the orchid house glorious in its blooms and the banning of vehicular traffic very wise. Unlike many of our Buddhist places; visitors who found it difficult to walk much and toddlers were amply catered for by frequently running motorised open vehicles. The layout of the Gardens is almost the same as it was for many decades previous, but improved and maintained sprucely clean.

In sharp contrast was the Peradeniya Rest house. Cass forgot to note its name. The old building was so stately yet with a comforting, welcoming air about it. You usually parked yourself in the wide quarter-walled verandah at a table or in a comfy, un-upholstered chair. Now you are led to the first floor to a fully curtained room. Tall windows were all closed and the drawn curtains obliterated even a glimpse of the outside. Cass ordered rice and curry since she did not want a buffet lunch. Not possible to serve rice and curry a la carte was the waiter’s reply. Only Chinese dishes could be ordered. Cass was aghast.

Imagine not being able to order our basic meal in a restaurant that was a rest house previously with the reputation of serving the best rice ’n curry. You had to have the buffet if you wanted rice and curry; if you ordered your lunch it would be Chinese – fried rice, chopsuey, etc. Isn’t that a travesty? You are enclosed claustrophobically in a heavily curtained room with fans; cut off from fresh air and all the greenery around, and dictated to on what you eat. That is development for you!! Cass calls it mudalali aberration. The buffet was simple enough with a couple of additions like soup to a rice and curry meal costing 1800. Chinese was 1200.

Special committees

I am sure all adults of Sri Lanka object to President RW’s promise to set up a Parliamentary Committee to look into and report on the Easter Sunday suicide bombs in April 2019. A comment people make is that RW’s solution to any problem/matter is to appoint a committee; never mind the report and taking action.

You can bet your last thousand rupees that if a Parliamentary Committee is set up to report on the C4 documentary and its repercussions etc., all politicians will be exonerated and the ones who are pointed at as the accused, would be pronounced lily white. Zahran did it all by himself with ISIS control. We millions of Ordinaries too cry out against a fully local panel of investigators, and never a group of MPS.

A boxed news item on page 1 of The Island of Tuesday September 19 had this heading: CID takes over probe into gun attack on MP. The car with Anuradhapura District MP Uddika Premarathne was shot at. No one was injured. But quick as lightning, the Police handed over the hunt for perpetrators to the CID. They too will work overtime and catch the miscreants.

Good! But what happens over the several motorbike shootings and those guilty of distributing dangerous drugs and making this lovely island rotten with drug importers, peddlers and takers? Oh, those can be taken time over and never nail the guilty and punish them. Rather assist those caught and jailed to get out or at least attempt escape.

Heartwarming story

An Indian friend sent me this story which so gladdened my maternal heart. It is shared here so more mothers could feel appreciated.

Ninth Grader Ajunath Sindhu Vinayala of Trissur (Kerala), often heard his father brush his mother aside as “just a housewife. She does not work.” Ajunath was surprised because he never saw his mother not busy so he painted this picture (published with this article) depicting all the chores she did. His teacher sent it to the State govt office where it got selected as the cover for the 2021 gender budget document. The appreciative son with more of his pictures can be accessed on the Internet.

Almost all Sri Lankan mothers will agree with Cass that our sons and daughters are wonderfully grateful and caring people, with many living overseas but still visiting, transferring money and sending parcels of goodies and necessities. Bless them, we mothers/grandmothers chorus.

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Amunugama on Anagarika: A partial review



By Uditha Devapriya

In the course of his study of myths and legends, Bruce Kapferer observes that those who attempt to rationalise myths are as much in error as those who believe in their literal meaning. There are several points in his book with which I beg to differ, but I agree with this specific point. Myths have a logic and a life of their own, and any external compulsion to alter or rationalise them will be met with hostility. Kapferer’s other contention, that myths are continually being renewed and reborn, is also tenable. The narrative around which these myths revolve may stay the same, but the implications of such stories change from era to era. Millenarian platitudes about glorious pasts and histories, of utopic Edens before the Fall, whether in Buddhist or Christian societies, fall into that category.

I reflected on Kapferer when I reread Sarath Amunugama’s impressive book on Anagarika Dharmapala, The Lion’s Roar, the other day. Dharmapala has gone down as perhaps the most misunderstood national figure or figurehead in our history. For close to two centuries if not more, Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe got a bad press as well, but thanks to recent forays by Gananath Obeyesekere, we have come to understand and, as a nation, identify with the tragic figure that he was. Dharmapala, however, is more complex, because his writings and speeches lend themselves to a multiplicity of interpretations: out of necessity, he made it a point to speak differently to different people. Ultimately, I believe all national figures end up being misunderstood. Dharmapala was no different.

What Amunugama tries to do in The Lion’s Roar is to present Dharmapala in a new light. As one reads through his book, one realises how predictably he has been presented until now. Most contemporary assessments of Anagarika Dharmapala place him at the forefront of the Buddhist Revival of the late 19th century. Though, in later years, he broke ranks with the organisation which gave the revival its impetus, the Theosophical Society, he nevertheless maintained contacts with it. Sociologists and anthropologists have presented the Revival as having been led by an emergent, nascent Buddhist bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. The latter were constantly frustrated in their efforts to join the ranks of the former, a point which more or less pitted them against foreign traders and minority groups.

Anagarika Dharmapala

Until now, social scientists have been content in casting Dharmapala as a messiah, of sorts, of this petty bourgeoisie. Dharmapala’s actions certainly did not endear him to the up-and-coming Sinhala bourgeoisie. Unlike his brothers Edmund and Charles, he was alienated from the many elite and bourgeois groups which formed the basis of later political associations, of which the most prominent would have to be the Ceylon National Congress. That may have been because of Dharmapala’s own background, which stood a tier or two below that of the Senanayakes and the Attygalles. Sarath Amunugama goes as far as to contend that the death of F. R. Senanayake in India closed the possibility of an open conflict between Dharmapala and these families. Yet even Senanayake’s death did not wholly foreclose these possibilities, as the many press campaigns against Dharmapala shows.

Anagarika Dharmapala

Is it accurate, then, to locate Dharmapala at that crucial juncture between the formation of the Theosophical Society, the beginning of the Buddhist Revival in the late 19th century, and the emergence of a weak but aspirant Buddhist petty bourgeoisie in the early 20th? This is how social scientists have generally viewed him, so far.

Dharmapala himself may not have been conscious of his role here. Yet as Regi Siriwardena eloquently put it once, “[t]o say that any thinker or leader served the interests of a particular class is not necessarily to say that he was conscious of doing so, still less that he was hired or commanded by that class.” The ultimatum of social scientists and anthropologists, hence, seems to be that he became the ideological vehicle of these groups, that as the latter’s attitudes to foreigners and minorities hardened, they saw in him a definitive “ancestor from antiquity.”

Amunugama attempts to shed new light on Dharmapala’s followers and acolytes by bringing to the foreground groups which have been excluded from most contemporary assessments of Dharmapala’s life. Prime among them are what Amunugama sees as “subaltern” groups, among whom he includes the Sinhala working class. This working class, he contends rather convincingly, were swept away from their roots into the cities, where they confronted a new and different social order.

As they became more aware of the conditions of their existence and sought to transform them, they began to encounter foreign traders and minority groups, hired by the colonial government to counter the growing tide of trade unionism and Sinhala proletarian discontent. It is against this backdrop that they saw Dharmapala as a saviour, and not just a saviour, but someone they could call their own.

This is, to be sure, an intriguing point. Yet how “subaltern” were these classes Amunugama associates with Dharmapala? Without splitting hairs too much, I think we must bear two points in mind. The first is that, until the formation of a Left movement in the 1930s, no political association, however radical, envisioned a Ceylon falling outside of the orbit of the British Empire. This was as true of bourgeois reformist associations as it was of nationalist ideologues. Whatever “subaltern group” in Sri Lanka at this juncture saw things differently, in contrast to their mobilisation by the Left after 1935. In that sense Dharmapala fulfilled a role, however limited, for these groups. The Marxists could not have been more different to his ideology, as their struggles on behalf of Indian Tamil plantation workers showed. But then Dharmapala was no Marxist, even if a scion of his family – Anil Moonesinghe – made a seminal contribution to the Left movement of the country.

The second point recalls an observation Gananath Obeyesekere once made in relation to Dharmapala and his disciples: namely, that their attitudes to the Other – which Amunugama dwells on at considerable length in his remarkable study – were paradoxically activated by their alienation from their social and kinship groups. In their quest for “identity affirmation”, the Dharmapalists sought a negative identity for themselves, in relation to the Other.

I think that more or less explains the Sinhala working class’s affinity for Dharmapala, at a time of rising anger against foreign traders and minority groups, including the Malayalis. Such anger cannot be condoned, especially when it transforms into racialist feelings. But it helps explain why, in the absence of an anti-imperialist Left movement in the country, these groups could gravitate to nationalist figures – and why even as key a representative of the Sinhala working class movement as A. E. Gunasinha could invoke him in his struggles.

Does this necessarily mean Dharmapala’s politics were not anti-imperialist, or in the least radical? I think the jury is still out there, though I believe that Dharmapala’s emphasis on industrialisation has been missed out by those who see only his ranting against other social groups and ethnicities. Dharmapala once counted among his defenders a highly unlikely figure: Yohan Devananda.

Writing in the Lanka Guardian, in response to Regi Siriwardena, Devananda contended that Dharmapala “did perform an essential historical function in rousing the national consciousness against the foreigner.” I do not know what to make of this assertion, given that for Dharmapala’s followers, “the foreigner” has come to include all groups deemed “alien” in the country. But there is no doubt that he did, at the end of the day, serve a function. The question that countless scholars have raised, which Amunugama tries to answer, is exactly in whose interests he served that function.

The writer is an international relations analyst, independent researcher, and freelance columnist who can be reached at

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