Thursday, March 31, 2005

Vulnerability - Sri Lankans Prepare for a Second Tsunami

News broadcasts began to warn Sri Lankans about Indonesian Earthquake about 10:15 PM. Even though my Sinhala (the principal Sri Lankan language) is minimal, it was easy to pick out the word “Tsunami” from the excited reports. My Colombo lodging was inland so there was nothing to do but listen, wait and then try to get a bit of sleep, with more than 16,000 miles and 30 hours of travel ahead.

My driver arrived punctually at 3 AM. I have made this trip to Bandaranaike International airport, in the darkness of early morning hours, more than a score of times. Years ago, the road was a narrow and potholed two lanes in many stretches; and barely lighted. Now it is wider, smoother and brighter. The small shops and boutiques on the side of the road, the occasional pedestrians, the draft animals and stray ones, the ubiquitous king coconut trees, remain pretty much the same.

In the interim since the first news reports, coastal residents had evacuated their homes. This time, warnings of the quake arrived immediately, was transmitted widely, and taken seriously. Queues of men, women and children stood along the roadside (the Colombo – airport road parallels the coastline, some distance inland.) or lay down on improvised sleeping mats or the ground, trying to get some rest. Some simply remained in the busses that had evacuated them. I saw this all as my air conditioned vehicle sped by.

Years ago, development scholar Dennis Goulet, a sometime acquaintance of mine, wrote that for a development scholar/practitioner to fully engage with an alien culture, he or she must be prepared to accept the “postulate of vulnerability”. Stripped of academic jargon, Goulet’s point was that an American (or other western) passport and a ticket home differentiates the “expatriate” from the “native” in a fundamental way. We expatriates can always ‘go home’ in difficult times. Even though we may choose not to do so, it is still a matter of choice. I am deeply connected to Sri Lanka, but not tied to it by an umbilical cord of nationality and citizenship that cannot easily be cut and, perhaps, not be cut at all. That differentiates me in the eyes of others. I view my surroundings through a fundamentally different lens than my friends and colleagues.

I strongly experienced feelings of differentiation as my taxi sped past the hundreds of Sri Lankans, lining the road and awaiting an uncertain future that the sunrise might bring. I was reminded of an earlier departure. My wife and I had completed an earlier tour of duty in the midst of two civil wars. We left our friends, tickets and passports in hand, at a time that the takeover of Sri Lanka by a Pol Pot type regime seemed a real possibility and the writ of the central government ended at the littoral of the Capital City, Colombo.

Democratic Sri Lanka – and most – not all - of my friends survived. This time, the impending threat was nature-made, rather than man-made. But many of my feelings were similar, as my air conditioned taxi sped onwards towards the airport – and “home”.

I have seriously considered becoming a Sri Lankan citizen, but have not fully accepted that ‘postulate of vulnerability” – at least not yet.


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