REVISITING SRI LANKA

REVISITING SRI LANKA — TSUNAMI RELIEF 2006

WORLD MEDICINE

In September 23rd 2006 Bill Deng and I set out from KLIA for Sri Lanka to meet other organisers of the World Medicine team. We had been preparing for some months, fundraising for our trip together with the help and sponsorship of Pacific Spa Academy in KL. This culminated in me doing live acupuncture on morning TV and a noisy night doing acupuncture and massage mini-treatments with an increasingly inebriated crowd at Frangipani bar!

Our plans were thrown into confusion when we received news that the area we had arranged to visit on the east coast had become too dangerous. Eleven Muslims had been shot dead and the area was in uproar. After quite a few calls we were invited to revisit Kirinda, an area in the south unaffected by the conflict, where a World Medicine team had gone last May. This village had suffered terrible damage and losses in the tsunami and had been rebuilt on higher ground by a Dutch charity.

It was a ten hour drive from Negumbo where we stayed on the first night to Kirinda. We then had a week to liaise with the local temple, to find accommodation, a venue from which to work, transport, interpreters, arrange meals at the venue and let the local community know we would be there. A tall order to accomplish in a week, but we managed!

A week later, after a blessing from the local Bantei, the chief incumbent of the local Buddhist monastery at Sutilpawa and a powerful man with jurisdiction over fourteen monasteries in the area, we started our clinic. There were nine of us, four who had been before and five new practitioners. Bill practised his new shiatsu skills and also performed the role of treasurer and administrator for the small group. He performed both roles superbly and it was due to his good management that we were able to keep to our budget throughout.

We treated in a community centre. 30 chairs in a circle and 8 beds around the sides for the more complex cases. At first things were slow, which to the veterans of previous trips was frustrating but to the newcomers this was a welcome slow start which helped them acclimatise to the informal and uncomfortable nature of the work (it`s not easy to bend over a chair or a bed all day!). It also meant that we had the luxury of saying “Come back tomorrow” to people who needed to. On previous trips we had been so busy so fast that we had to ration repeat treatments.

It was Ramadan and the 20% of the population who were Muslim were unable to come during the day to `take medicine`. This does not seem to be a problem in Malaysia but in Kirinda it seems that they were not permitted to have needles penetrate the skin during the fasting hours. Nevertheless we were able to network with the local Muslim community and ask them if they would come to a night clinic. This idea was enthusiastically received: It meant splitting our little group of nine practitioners into two shifts: one morning and evening, the other morning and afternoon. But the idea worked. By the third evening clinic we were already totalling 200 people a day. By a strange coincidence it turned out that the Muslim community in Kirinda were descended from Malay traders. This meant that they also spoke a kind of Bahasa and made communication much easier with Dennis, one of the World Medicine practitioners who is half Dutch and half Indonesian.

We were very lucky to find the Waterfront hotel. The manager was fully behind what we were doing, and was able to give us huge discounts on rooms and meals. This meant that we had the luxury of staying somewhere really rather nice for less than RM 35 a day per person. The hotel was by a lake, and we were able to watch stunning sunsets every night after work (or before if we were on the night clinic!). Sri Lanka teams with wildlife. The air is full of birds, bats, and all manner of insects. Every day towards a dusk a herd of water buffalo would swim past the hotel. We drove past elephants and monkeys every day. It`s very beautiful there.

The work was very successful. We don`t know why, but people get better faster in Sri Lanka! Perhaps it`s because we are foreigners and there`s a placebo effect. Perhaps it`s because we treat in one large communal space and there`s a kind of group healing energy. Maybe this is because they were a rural population living more in tune with nature and day and night rhythms and thus they responded better to natural medicine than our usual urban patient group. Whatever the reason, we all wish we could get results like this in our normal practices! It was as if they just wanted permission to get better.

There are many cases I can mention: the woman who had been paralysed in one arm since she was six months old who started to get her movement back. The girl with constant headaches for six months and the teenager with nosebleeds who were both cured. Also the woman whose arm was horribly scarred from the tsunami and still infected after many surgeries. She improved on a daily basis until she would arrive swinging her handbag with her bad arm.

But I think the effect of the mission went beyond individuals. The community was so scarred by its experience and its losses. Many people, especially the elderly could not make eye contact with us, or even their own family members. It was as if they were in a continuing waking nightmare of loss and bereavement. It was extraordinary how many people complained of numbness: in the feet, the legs, the hands, the back, to the point that we wondered if the numbness was a psychological reaction to the horror of losing so many. Nevertheless we saw a gradual change and opening out of these reactions. The elderly, especially softened and starting making eye contact again and smiling. Every day there was more and more laughter in the clinic. This was the most rewarding of all the impressions I got: that we weren`t just helping individuals, we were helping a whole community.

The feedback from the community was very touching. We were given constant gifts of home made food throughout our stay from people expressing their gratitude. On our last day we received treasured peacock feathers. The most frequently asked question was “When are you coming back?”.

That was hard to answer. There are so many communities like this one. One thing I really believe is that we`re doing the right thing. All these people have fallen into a crack that conventional relief work doesn`t reach. You can build people new houses and give people surgery for their injuries but this doesn`t address their wounds. Complementary therapies such as acupuncture and massage clearly do. We were able to help in many different ways on many different levels.

So to those of you who donated your time, money and energy to this trip, thank you so much for your help and support. It enabled us to do a little bit of good somewhere.

You can read more about world medicine at www.worldmedicine.org.uk

Oran Kivity BAc. MBAcC (overseas)