Sri Lanka finds itself in a strangely awkward position.
Life for many people is still very much conducted in third world conditions. Little or no indoor plumbing. Low wages. Menial jobs. Small houses with poor planning and little knowledge of basic things we take for granted, such as traps to keep sewer gas out of the house. I passed a cement block home on the main tourist street, Lewis Place, early one morning, that had its door open. There was a small clay oven against the wall outside, an outhouse in the backyard, and only one room in the house. It had a wooden chair against one wall and a pile of blankets in the corner.
Oddly, though, the average family only has two children, not the three to seven children that one would expect in such conditions given the average fertility rates in other similar countries. Family planning is very much in effect here. One woman we know told us that while she and her husband love their children, they will not have more than two because they are very expensive. She didn't mean to raise. She meant in case they get sick and needed medical attention. One trip to the doctor can cost 3000 rupees - 1/7 of the average monthly income. Thankfully, most pharmacies here do not require prescriptions. You show up, tell them what's wrong, and they give you the medication for it at a very reasonable rate. Or, if you are like me, you take a picture of your husband's heat rash and show that to the guy behind the counter, who then gives you the cream your husband needs for 200 rupees ($1.53).
Yet, for others, life is good. Very good. Hotel owners that we know paid $65 000 cash for a luxury car recently - 8.5 million rupees, or 32 years salary for the average worker. The gap between rich and poor is so wide that ordinary people are being shut out of their ordinary neighbourhoods, as land prices are on the rise exponentially in popular areas like Negombo.
Sri Lankans in general are very well-educated. According to wikipedia, "Education in Sri Lanka has a long history that dates back two millennia. The Constitution of Sri Lanka provides for education as a fundamental right. Sri Lanka's population has a literacy rate of 98.1%, higher than that expected for a third world country; it has the highest literacy rate in South Asia and overall, one of the highest literacy rates in Asia. Education plays a major part in the life and culture of the country and dates back to 543 BC." Girls have a slightly higher literacy rate than boys.
This focus on education has led to many Sri Lankans looking for work overseas. The Middle East is a popular option, as is Australia, Malaysia, and France. They are even finding their way to Newfoundland. This is in addition to the many people who left Sri Lanka during the civil war. Many of those who leave are the most educated.
And this has led to many Sri Lankan families becoming truly global citizens. One friend of ours has several children, all of whom live overseas. To visit them, he has traveled to Switzerland, France, Canada, the United States, Australia and Malaysia. Some of his grandchildren he can speak to - they don't know Sinhala, but they do know English. Other grandchildren he cannot speak to without a translator, because they speak French or another language as their mother tongue. But he, like many others who find themselves in similar situations, do not begrudge this one bit. They are happy that their children are happy, their grandchildren are happy, and that they were able to help their children rise to a level of success that would likely not have been possible here.
Even businesses reflect the diverse international community. Drive down any major street in Colombo, the capital city, and there are billboards and signs advertising jobs abroad and language classes in Japanese, Chinese, German, English, and a host of others. Chinese, Japanese, Italian, and Indian restaurants abound, North American chains such as Pizza Hut and KFC and Burger King are easily found. There are even restaurants that serve Swiss and German fare!
Steve receives many compliments on his ability to speak Sinhalese and Tamil. One tuktuk driver actually stopped the vehicle, turned around, and exclaimed "You're Sri Lankan?" when Steve gave him directions one day. Some Tamil fishermen we met on the beach near the hotel we stayed at for the first week we were here often greet me with "Where is your husband, the man who speaks our language?" if I run into them without Steve.
But it's different in Colombo. One tuktuk driver asked Steve why he was bothering to learn Sinhalese since it's not an important language. The answer is simple. Sinhala is an important language. While Old English was just getting started around 550 A.D., Sinhala had already been around for almost a thousand years, with a rich literary history that influenced the development of Buddhism, now with over 300 million followers around the world. While the Western world was floundering in the dark ages, Sri Lanka was famous as the "rice mill of the east" and was trading cinnamon globally.
And so, we come full circle to the awkward situation that Sri Lanka finds itself in, this strange mix of keeping long held traditions and culture alive, while moving forward and working its way out of third world status. This is why the government is pro-Chinese waterfront development, why it is involved in so many infrastructure projects to rebuild roads and town services, and why it is against huge Australian casinos being built here.
Sri Lanka deserves more credit for what it is doing right from the global community. Perhaps then it would not find itself in the strangely awkward position it is in.