INTERNATIONAL DAY OF THE WORLD’S INDIGENOUS PEOPLE FALLS ON SUNDAY (9TH)
By Dianne Silva
August 07, 2009 l
The indigenous settlement of Dambana, a little off Mahinyanganaya and 200 KM away from Colombo prides itself as the most pristine example of the lifestyle of the Veddah’s. On first visit to this village that is home to 350 families and approximately 1675 persons, one is hoodwinked into believing that one has taken a trip back in time. However, on close inspection it is clear that the modern world is inescapable regardless of the claims one may make. This tribe led by Uruvarige Vannila Aththo, struggles to hold on to their cultural identity in a world that is fast impeding on their existence and proving their traditional methods defunct.
From the climate change that affects their crops and cultivation patterns, to the education they are expected to give their children and the tourists on whom they depend for existence, the outside world plays a larger role in their lives than they prefer. Proving that in this day and age you “can’t go home again” whether it is to your childhood without TV’s or your indigenous ways of inhabitance 37 thousand years ago.
Children from this village venture out early in life to be educated according to government regulations. Most parents from the settlement don’t oppose this in the hope that their children will have options as they grow older. A vast number of children from the settlement go to the Dambana School and mingle with those from the nearby village. “200 children study at this school over 75 percent of them are the children of the indigenous people, the rest are Sinhalese children from the villages,” Vice Principal of the Dambana School M.K. Shelton Nagasiri told the Daily Mirror.
Although some might hope that this mingling would result in a transferring of culture and tradition from the children of the Veddah’s to the village children, the opposite is true. “The children who come here mix with those from the village and therefore there is no language barrier. The children are well versed in Sinhalese. They are expected to talk in Sinhalese in order to cope with the school curriculum. We really have no control over what they speak and we can’t expect them to use their Veddhi dialect in the hope that this will be transferred to the village children,” a teacher at the Dambana SchoolT.M. Dharmaratne told the Daily Mirror.
Children of the Veddah’s tend to emulate the ways of the many tourists that visit the village. “When outsiders visit the children, the kids try to imitate their ways,” Nagasiri said. The Daily Mirror witnessed this first hand when children outside the school were interacting with a group of foreigners greeting them with lively “Good Mornings and how are you?” they seemed rather eager to entertain and amuse the tourists with their mastering of English.
The teachers themselves however are confident that despite this constant interaction with the outside world these children will not attempt to transform their lives or the ways of their people. “My brother was Dambana Gunerwardene the first indigenous person to go to University. Just because he was educated doesn’t mean that he came back here and tried to change our community or our people,” Dharmaratne said.
Conversely Dharmaratne sees education as a means of improving their world and holding on to their heritage. “I went to the University and studied and now I teach here in order to better educate our children and give them more opportunities to develop themselves in every area including that of our culture,” Dharmaratne.
A greater part of the burden with regard to protecting their culture is in the hands of the leaders of the tribe. The son of the present Vannila Aththo and the next in line to take on leadership of the tribe is Uruvarige Gunabandila Aththo, who sees the acute responsibility in passing down the traditional ways of his people. “I have three little girls and we never let the girls out of the house in the old days but now things are different. The young people have ventured out, so many things have changed. However we try to educate our children about our culture and hope that they will carry it forward to the generations to come,” he said.
Dotted around the compounds and homes of these people are intricately created ornaments, made according to traditional methods. Although these are for sale to the number of tourists that visit, Gunabandila Aththo takes pride in the fact that his children tend to speedily catch onto these crafts and meticulously remember the stories of their ancestry. “When the children are at home for the school holidays we talk to them about our ancestry and traditions and teach them various crafts. They catch on to these very fast and when we teach them once or twice they are able to do it all by themselves,” he explains.
Gunabandila Aththo accepts that change is inevitable in any culture and takes a “what will be, will be” attitude towards these changes, unlike most, he does not believe that keeping the outside world is the best way by which to protect their identity. “When it comes to language we teach our children our language at home there is no special institute for them to learn this from. And when they learn Sinhalese through the government education system they get it mixed up with our language and parts get added and deducted. In future our dialect may change as it has from past generations .However I see no reason to worry about that now; change will happen when it happens,” he says. In certain areas venturing out has become a clear necessity rather than a choice or luxury. With regard to healthcare, traditional methods tend to fail as the community mingles with society and their environment inescapably is polluted by disease. When a bear attacked the brother of the present Vannila Aththo there was no choice but to seek the help of western medicine in order to save his life. “A bear attacked me in the woods and my eye and shoulder were injured badly. At this time they took me to the Kandy Hospital where I received treatment. We have medicine and treatment but due to the seriousness of the situation and my eye coming out of the socket I had to go to the hospital,” he said.
Certain changes on the other hand have been accepted with open arms by the community. For instance modern technology and tourism have permeated to a greater extent. The youngsters of the tribe tend to have cell phones with them and use these to take pictures for entertainment. For these youth the traditional bow and arrow are no longer games, it is the livelihood of their fathers which they wish to avoid. However the elders avoid the mention of these items and stand fast that they are not used in their village. “We have seen mobile devices and people using them but for us these are of no use. We have never used them in our community and even if we did begin using them who are we to talk to?” said Uruwarige Gunabandiya brother of the Present Vannila-aththo. Yet there is evidence that cannot be hidden , despite their best efforts; the Kohomba shampoo packets around the village well or the Fair and Lovely tube next to a tea cup in the house, as well as the number of cell phones in the hands of the youngsters prove that the outside world has now become inescapable.
Sadly though the youngsters are expected to keep this under-wrap; they are constantly hiding their phones or avoiding the use of Sinhala when speaking, in fear that their elders will reprimand them for this. The elders see a far greater benefit than simple cultural protection by sticking to their traditional ways. To them the more traditional they seem to be ,the larger the number of tourists who come to see them. Tourism plays a large role in the economy and everyday lives of these people; they rely on the money that comes in from visitors to sustain them and structure their lives to look perfect to the outside world. The village is mostly empty during daytime only those dressed in traditional clothing are allowed to linger for long, so long as they adhere to the roles expected of them.
Although invaded by the outside world to such an extent that their lives have now degenerated to role playing, the people of Dambana gave us a glimpse into the lifestyles of our ancestors. Modern technology, climate change, health risks and tourism may intrude on their existence yet it is unable to impede on the pride they have in being part of a tribe that has been in existence for over 37 thousand years.