Colombo, Sri Lanka
It’s Thursday 20 January here and we are parked on the outskirts of a refugee camp. We’ve made repairs to our van to escape the rain and to cobble together this note. Bhante Wimala along with six other monks from the Colombo and Matara areas are conducting a memorial service with the few hundred people housed in this muddy camp, eerily perched on a lagoon just steps from the sea.
It’s 8:15pm, thirteen hours since our day began. We’ve been traveling with Bhante Wimala for two days – two days so pregnant with activity that we’ve, almost thankfully, been unable to really fully assimilate the spectacular devastation wrought by the planet on its inhabitants here in South Asia.
There cannot be any preparation for the scale of the disaster. A journey which took several hours down the coastal road is like driving through a plowed highway after being emancipated by an enormous snowstorm. Only in this case, the sides of the road are piled high with the detritus of daily life, homes, flora and fauna.
These two days have felt like a week as we tailed along with Bhante Wimala’s relentless immersion into a gigantic process of humanitarian relief. There is a begging need from so many directions that it is nearly impossible to avoid freezing with paralysis at the contemplation on where to start.
But Bhante Wimala knows where to start. He exists in a somewhat peripatetic process that has him going in a multitude of directions simultaneously. He is genuinely a “Type A” monk.
The remains of schools and temples have become the loci for many of the displaced people. These are our primary stopping points. In the past couple of days there have been many, many of these stops where we have delivered relief materials: back packs and school supplies, toys, pot, pans and cooking utensils, chairs, tables and mattresses.
One of Bhante Wimala’s concurrent endeavors has been to establish and inspire a network of monks working as a make shift NGO filling a void where it seems that aside from food rations, no government aid has arrived, over three weeks after the Tsunami struck.
We have several days to go on this tour duty with Bhante and we are tired. Alas, while we indulge in such luxuries as a few hours of sleep and a quick plate of something, we’ve yet to see Bhante do much, if any, of the same. Our guess is that while we eat or sleep he is still on his mobile commandeering supplies and coordinating the activities for the next hours and days.
What he seems to be have managed to do, despite the insensitivity of the metaphor, is to harness an ocean. A good deal of the work cannot even be planned for as the various needs and crisis steps up to you and demands your immediate attention, often arriving without any prior announcement.
As a microcosmic example, earlier today a small village which was trying to conjure some kind of start up assistance informed Bhante Wimala that they were in desperate for some rudimentary carpenter services. Bhante found a carpenter who had lost his workshop and all of his wares to the Tsunami. Next he found a hardware store which did have supplies. So Bhante bought out the store and brokered a deal with the carpenter where he would outfit him with all the tools of his trade in exchange for the carpenters or pro bono work in the aforementioned village.
Later in the day upon arriving in a refugee camp, Bhante was immediately surrounded by a group of parents concerned that the Christian Aid workers (who’ve established a presence in the camp) were making attempts, some less subtle than others, to introduce their own religion to the children in the camp. The concern about this missionary work highlights a larger problem that some of these camps are without guidelines or any official supervision, leaving the vulnerable inhabitants exposed to any sort of exploitation.
A few phone calls later and we were sitting in front of a regional government representative, essentially establishing policy. They were riled into immediate action.
It really is unending. This disaster is as unprecedented as are the demands for resourcefulness and efficacy of this particular man. On we go into another day.