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Thoughts about hope and sense

Inspired by an old German daily

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

This quote by Vaclav Havel can be read over the obituary of Ekina Omelka, born on October 1st, 1930 and died on March 24th, 2010. Name and date give an idea of a life with war, expulsion and poverty during childhood and youth. I’ve read the obituary in the weekend edition of the Munich daily of March 27./28. Gone yellow I found it lying in a corner, obviously I had no time or interest in reading it so far. Why am I doing so today on this Saturday evening at the end of July?

Rats have found the big packet of paper, nibbled it and forever took away some of the stories, pictures and ads in their bellies or nests. The rest is now a part of history too, it has only survived unnoticed in a dusty corner thanks to my sloppiness.
There’s nothing older than yesterday’s newspaper, I have been taught during my training of journalists. The world cannot and will not pause and reflect, reporters are constantly hunting for news which will be out of date before the printing ink has dried. And now I’m sitting here in the Sri Lankan mountain jungle flicking through a local newspaper that is more than a hundred days old. So many things have happened here since that weekend shortly before Eastern. Each day is so full of experiences, challenges and surprises – the occurrences of only one day could easily fill a whole interesting book. So how shall I summarize these 100 days? It’s impossible without records. Since I always only plan to record things and then have no time to do so I can only use some examples now to describe this day, which is already in danger to fade away, to get mixed with the days and weeks before, and which arouses the feeling that you never have enough time to plan, control, take care of the concerns of the employees, the children and all the people, who continually knock on our gate and not least to write, to capture these unbelievable moments, which have dominated my life for years and in retrospect have made it indescribable. So I pause for a moment and try to save this day from fading away.

My aching feet remind me that I’ve been walking quite a lot – I surely walked 15 km through the two farms in Dikkapitia and Nikapota, the children’s village near Koslanda and the boy’s house on top of the mountain.

In the children’s village we have started planting the rice. Tuft after tuft is being placed into the marshy-ground which has been laboriously prepared for two weeks. 12 of our older children and trainees also help. “School of life” we call that, and this way we intend to prepare the older children step by step for their life after Little Smile. Every Saturday they have to help for 3 hours in areas where they are good and where their strength lies.
Rebekka and Krishna (starting left) have been given their own little paddy field, which they are cultivating now and hopefully one day will be able to harvest.
The practical work on the fields is accompanied by theoretical lessons where the children learn to plan, to calculate and understand the simplest rules of economic survival: Only if profits are higher than expenses the work makes sense. It’s a bit like rehearsing for the real life – of course with a little smile, especially when Lokuthatha shows up in the paddy field.
In our organic farm in Dikkapitia some important decisions are pending: What are we going to cultivate in which areas and how much can we risk investing in these uncertain times? Due to the weak rate of the Euro we lose money with our spices, but cannot simply dismiss workers, because they all depend on this work, and moreover, most of them are abandoned women or widows with children whom we want to give a chance in life. Dikkapitia means climbing, that is because the farm has an altitude difference of 200 m over a length of 2 km. And that really makes you sweat!
I also have to go and check the situation in our two nature reserves, because the neighboring piece of land – till recently an almost untouched mountain jungle – has been leveled to the ground. It has been decided to cultivate sandalwood there and therefore, after having divided the land into tiny plots, these plots have been sold off as a “good investment”. It is said that this whole madness even is funded – among others – by a European eco-fund.
Note: First you destroy the natural forests and sell the tropical wood and then you submit a petition for reforestation, take the money and plant trees which have as little to do with a natural forest as the zoo in Colombo with wildlife. The problem is that our mountain jungle in Nikapota, which is now missing its entire southern flank, is one of the last natural forests and the only water reservoir for a number of villages.
But the borders of our forest are in danger too, people are constantly trying to take away a tree here and another one there, and if I do not show up and rigidly chase every wood thief the days of this little paradise for animals and plants are numbered. Unless money from the emissions trading soon reaches Sri Lanka well controlled the last forests here won’t have a chance to survive.

Back in the children’s village I am told that 5 more children have fallen ill. Fever, vomiting, diarrhoea – it is one of the endless numbers of viruses that easily spread once they have reached a children’s house. The number of infected thus has increased to 10 children and 3 child-minders.

Irushi, 5 years old and with a size and weight of a 3-year old German child, is waiting for me with a febrile but grateful look. Four hours she has been waiting because she wanted me to give her the mug of water with medicine. I have put her and 3 other children into the sickroom, because the virus is apparently very contagious.
A lot of excitement in the Green-Star-House! 13-year old Shripani has fallen from the rooftop and is now lying in bed moaning for some attention. Thank God nothing was broken, only a few bruises and scratches and thus the chance for her to get some extra kindness and affection. So I sit down next to her bed and tell her a story: “Once upon a time, when I was a little boy…” Most of the children here love such stories from my own childhood, because they can hardly imagine their “Lokothatha” (which means big father) was also once a little child. With the promise that everything will be okay tomorrow, I say goodbye and immediately have to hurry to the gate where a heated discussion is going on.

The 11-year old Banu, who is suffering from constantly festering open foruncles, had to be brought to the hospital two hours from here. Now the driver is calling, telling me that the car broke down. Later we found out that despite our repair service and a weekly control the battery had completely run out of water and therefore broke down and with it the entire electrical system of the car.

A loud discussion going on between two child-minders and the mother of a girl who has been living here for 8 years and will have her final examinations at the end of this year. For years the mother hasn’t appeared and shown any interest, but today she comes and wants “her” child back, because she is pregnant and needs a servant. It’s just that easy, and in court I probably won’t have good chances and then have to send her away into a future without prospects. It’s too sad, because she can make it, she has talents and moreover, this place is her home now. Sad but true: Very often relatives and even mothers are the ones who prevent the children from being happy and progress in life. I’m watching the scene for a while, hidden behind a big tree, astonished by the hubbub. If you have never heard Singhalese women debating, you cannot imagine how fast human beings are able to speak without breaking their tongues. I finally have heard enough and step out of the shadow, but my appearance doesn’t stop the debate. I’ve rarely seen Laksha the girl’s child-minder so angry. Outside the gate the women would surely have started a fight.

My old gatekeeper seems almost helpless, especially now that the boss has appeared. I guess he has hoped to see a little fight, since normally there isn’t much to see here at the gate. But now he quickly adjusts his uniform cap, straightens as if this posture would already increase his authority and tells the women in a strict tone to stop that shouting.
My appearance has changed the balance of power it seems, and so the woman realizes that she won’t achieve anything here today. I calmly explain to her that she needs an official paper from the authorities to get the child back. Secretly I hope that she gives up because official papers would mean too much inconvenience for her.

Our 10,000 liter water tank is almost empty again. Somewhere in this large area a tap has been torn away or a pipe broken. That happens frequently, since you only can get cheap taps of a bad quality made in China. And if a garden worker hits a plastic water pipe with a pick, the problem is hidden with earth, branches or leaves and thus becomes a real big problem, cause then the water flows out for days until we finally find the defect.

A group of monkeys has devastated our vegetable field and with baring teeth send Krishanti running, who herself was trying to frighten them away screaming loudly and waving a big stick. Strikingly these animals have become more aggressive over the time – they are not frightened by children and only a little by women. The cultivation of fruit and vegetable can only be described as an animal-loving project.

In the boy’s house on Hill Top elephants have again pushed down the fence for the umpteenth time, and now cows are eating our laboriously raised young trees.

The director of a Singhales school calls to ask if we could help to build toilets. He says they have only two for 1,000 children, and these two are without water. Great!

All this I hear from Saradha on our way down to the office. The 24-year old has been living here for 7 years now. Starting with the work in the children’s houses and after that the office she has assumed more and more responsibilities and by now manages most of the organizational matters of the children’s village.

Oh yes! I should not forget to mention the good news she has presented proudly in the middle of our way: A banana bush weighing more than 50 kg carrying real monster bananas. It’s amazing that the monkeys haven’t touched them – maybe it was the impressive size.

Mahashwaran is only 17. The quiet and shy Tamil boy didn’t like school much, but he is a diligent worker. Like any other boy he dreams of a motorbike, but till he has saved enough money to buy one he still has to harvest a lot of bananas. Unlike the extern workers he is absolutely reliable – the children’s village is his home.
Just arrived at the office the gatekeeper comes in exhaustedly. Our area is big and steep and he’s of a certain age now. Another visitor has arrived with whom he doesn’t know what to do. Since the monkeys have cut the phone lines again and again and we finally gave up repairing them, he has to climb up and down the way from the gate frequently.

An old woman has appeared at the gate with 3 children. Only at first sight they make a good impression, but if you take a closer look you see the misery behind the polished façade. It’s the girl, whose mother had suddenly appeared 6 months ago taken the girl away, my gatekeeper says, rather annoyed by this new incident. “Her name”, he adds, “I don’t remember”. But I do remember her name! I remember Dammika as if she had never been away. Her parting after 5 years in the children’s village had really hurt me, because I knew she wouldn’t get any chance in the small Tamil village in the middle of tea plantations. In her case it was just the same – the mother was pregnant and needed someone to look after the new born baby. Dammika had just turned 11 when that happened.
Her grandmother is standing before me trembling from exhaustion and hunger. They have walked 8 km, and the old woman carried the youngest girl in her arms the whole way. It’s a disaster over there in my daughter’s house, she explains. Her new husband has constantly hit Dammika and the old woman – 70 year old – only got something to eat when she had earned some money collecting firewood. But there are more and more people in the forests looking for wook, and it happens more and more frequently that someone takes away the wood that the old woman laboriously has collected.
Dammika seems embarrassed, biting her lower lip and doesn’t dare to look at me. Some children come running to us – the news has spread quickly. Rangika, with 13 years already acting as the speaker for the Green Star House, come to me saying that she would like to talk to me. “Please, Lokuthatha, give a chance to Dammika.” Rangika knows that Little Smile usually doesn’t allow children to return once they have left the village. Otherwise we would have a permanent coming and going. All 10 girls from the seventh grade have been waiting in some distance and are now coming closer to express their support for this objective. The grandmother shows me the children’s wounds, which result from neglect and strokes.

“And what about you?” I ask Dammika now directly. “Please” is the only word the girl says with a shy quick look into my eyes. I have to pretend to be unsure, have to prolong the decision process a bit to make sure that everybody understands that they cannot come and go just as they like. In my heart, however, I already knew I would give Dammika a second chance.

I’ll have to go and check the work in the plantations, the girls from Luckyhouse have a problem and want to talk to me, I want to look how our sick are doing, and due to special circumstances today I will miss the daily joint prayer with children and child-minders down under the Bodhi tree, cause in the boy’s house on Hilltop 5 km away there is a special event pending: Damith, who had been brought to us more than 10 years ago as an extremely small and skinny 7-year old boy, “celebrates” his 18th birthday today.

And since in Sri Lanka there is a special celebration held for girls when they have their first menstruation, I have declared the 18th birthday as a special occasion for the boys. Damith has become a wiry young man, he is preparing for the final examination of the A-level, he wants to go to the university and become a doctor at all costs. And I really think the boy is able to achieve that. He has a strong will. For years he has won the marathon in our region with such a time lead that except from the Little Smile participants there are hardly any other competitors. He runs the marathon without shoes, and afterwards limbs for days due to burnt soles full of blisters. Therefore, my present for him today is a pair of cross-country shoes, for which I walked all over Colombo.

Shortly after sunset I’m sitting next to the young man in front of the boy’s house at Hilltop. I’ve brought two bottles of Carlsberg beer for us – I guess it’s the first beer for Damith, at least officially. In the valley below the lights go on, so there is apparently no power cut tonight. Behind us the moon, which seems to me much bigger here than in Germany, is making its way high up over the horizon. You’ll have to take a closer look to find the missing piece – tomorrow is full moon.

It’s a clear night and you can see very far. It’s not getting very dark here, only the colors reduce to a dark green, to all kinds of grey and a lot of silver. Contours soften and sometimes fade, but in a clear night like this you can almost see as far as in the daylight, things only look different. A breeze carries many smells and brings a welcome cooling.
“When I came here”, I tell the young man next to me, “there were only very few houses and only those next to the street had electricity”. That’s only 12 years ago, and shortly afterwards the first children came – Damith was one of them. Many things have changed since then. Although there are still wild elephants here their number has already declined. A major part of the forests has been cut down, properties wired and there are many more people living in the valley now.
Up here, however, the boys only dare to go out after sunset when I’m around, because recently there’s an elephant cow with her child showing up regularly. This place still provides a retreat for these animals. Although elephants are considered holy in Sri Lanka people reduce their natural habitat more and more.
We have been sitting here in silence for some time, letting our thoughts run free. And it is precisely this silence that connects us – something words cannot achieve that easily. I try to remember what I did on my 18th birthday, but I can’t. It was probably wrong not to celebrate it with a big party, cause at the age of 18 you really have good reasons to celebrate – life still is a mere promise then, the world is only waiting for you to discover it.
“You know Damith, all this – the earth, the wind, the trees, the moon and the sun – all this is yours for a moment. But be careful, because time won’t stop not even for you. You can have all this for a little while and then it’s another one’s turn. Each time has its human beings and each human being has its time. And you should use your time sensibly so that you needn’t be sad when it comes to an end.” I wasn’t sure if the boy has understood what I wanted to tell him, but then he suddenly turned to me and said, “When your time comes to an end, then for you Lokuthatha there’s no need to be sad”.

A day like any other and yet very different – simply unique. Is it true, should there be no reason for me to be sad? Have I always done the possible and right things? It’s almost midnight. I flick through the old newspaper from Munich, which so clearly shows the transience of a moment.

What has happened since that last weekend in March, on which this newspaper was current? In Germany, of course, it was primarily the World Cup, there were lots of so called “public viewings”, black-red-gold, the colors of the federal flag everywhere, Germany in football fever. From this remote place here I experienced the World Cup in a very different way – football here is as unknown as cricket, the Sri Lankan national sport, is in Germany. It was quite strange to hear the names “Sweinstaiger” or “Mueller” in Singhalese pronunciation coming out of the TV room in the tropical night with all its sounds. The guys seemed to be farer away than Africa, rather somewhere in space where you find the satellites which only make this parallel transmission possible, even if not always comprehensible. The German team has achieved more than I – and probably most of my contemporaries – had expected, but this ends today, I guess, because they won’t have a chance against Argentina. Thus, for the new fans probably the last possibility to see the team of my old home country. Especially Müller has a lot of female fans here, and so they got sort of a special permit to sleep on the floor of the TV room. The alarm clock rings shortly before midnight, I’m so tired I would rather continue sleeping, but there are 14 sleeping fans confident that I would keep my promise and wake them up for the kick-off. What happened then really surprised me – no boring match at all and extremely pleasant for the fans of black-red-gold. But despite 4 goals and a bag of jelly babies, the girls fell asleep again and again. My cheering startles them, so that I’m only happily humming when the 3rd and 4th goal is made. And then Germany enjoys a flush of victory and we a few hours of sleep. It’s almost 2 and at half past 4 a new day starts for us all.

I emerge from my memories exactly when the minute hand runs over the12. So now Saturday the 24th of July once and for all is a day of the past. I’m flicking through the old newspaper by candle light, because meanwhile we have a power cut.
The major headline, the lead story of the front page says: “Sleep well once again” – what researchers recommend – the best tips.” I don’t need to worry about a good sleep, exhaustedly I always simply fall asleep, no matter how many hungry mosquitoes are around.

On page 22 there’s a former colleague from the Bavarian Broadcasting, Dietmar Gaiser – a nice guy. When he suddenly got the programme “Jetzt red I” (Now it’s my turn to speak) from Wednesday’s news program “Abendschau”, he became famous, a public person. I dimly remember his farewell party. And what came after retirement? So many years later, tonight I get a response without having asked. From “Jetzt red I” he changed to “Jetzt schreib I” (Now it’s my turn to write) – Gaiser, the citizens’ advocate in the newspaper “TZ”. His hair has turned snow white and he still seems to favor red framed glasses. And he’s fighting, according to the newspaper, for the ordinary people, whoever that may be. It’s about the dispute over a taxi bill, about the German TV licensing organization with false claims and about holiday bookings via internet.

What else do I notice? The daily “TZ” sent its correspondent a Dierk Sindermann to Hollywood where a 150 million dollar villa has been offered for sale. A page full of unbelievable kitsch and pomp. 123 rooms has the former house of the producer of such “beneficial” films like “three angels for Charly”.

Two pages for the big TZ-series about famous buildings and places in Munich, a city where I’ve been living for 15 years, but never felt at home. This issue is about the “Platzl” (name of a special place/piazza and hotel in Munich), and the most important question for the two authors seems to be “who owns what at the Platzl?”
And this way the reader finds out that the Inselkammer family or better the limited partnership named “Platzl Hotel Inselkammer” owns more property an average mortal could ever imagine. What are you doing when you’re so rich? I remember that family operating a beer tent at the Oktoberfest in Munich, but that must have been a pure hobby for them. I wonder what it’s like to be born into such a family? Isn’t your future predetermined already then? Isn’t life in general predetermined for all of us?

Since I don’t have secure answers to this kind of questions, I go on flicking through the paper and learn that Thomas Gottschalk presents his show “Wetten Das?” meanwhile together with Michelle Hunzicker – a blond who has been put at his side to improve the viewing figures – that weatherman Kachelmann is in big trouble and the boss of Ferrari is angry with Michael Schumacher. I learn all these spectacular news on my journey through this old daily, and suddenly I end up reading the obituaries.

Page 28 – MISCELLANEOUS ADVERTISEMENTS. Why miscellaneous when the whole page is full of obituaries? Well, I guess people are simply not good at dealing with death and dying and such topics are not well appreciated in such an unformal paper with lots of pictures, and so this topic is entitled with “miscellanenous”. Whenever I read these black bordered announcements I first have a look at the date of birth of the deceased. How far away is my own date of birth? Monika Wiesbauer, born September 3rd 1947 is nearest to my birthday and still soothingly far away.

“This gap will never heal”, says the obituary. Can a gap heal? A wound can heal, in case of a scar I’m not so sure, cause it’s the result of the healing process, but if the scar becomes inflamed it can, of course, also heal – but a gap? I must admit, however, that I have forgotten a lot of my German, cause only in rare occasions I have the possibility to speak my mother language. Nevertheless, the people who have placed this announcement were full of sorrow and convinced that this sorrow would never end, the gap never be closed. I wonder how they feel today, 100 days later?

And then there is the obituary of a Robert Huber, awarded with the Bundesverdienstkreuz (German Federal Cross of Merit) and the medal “München leuchtet” (Munich shines). The announcement furthermore explains why Robert Huber was so highly honored: Carnival or more precisely “München närrisch” (Munish foolish), traditional costume procession, “Wiesn Einzug” (festive kick-off at the opening of the Oktoberfest). Oops – then it must be “my” Huber, the one I had to do with when I was working for the ARD-TV and reporting for them from the opening celebrations of the Oktoberfest. Memories again! Surely I’m the last one who reads this IN MEMORIAM…..the urn was buried in the Chiemgau mountains. End? Over?

Remembering people who are just a memory now. I’m surprised by the number of people who once crossed my way and now emerge from these old yellowed pages.

Some day each gap is closing, the costume procession takes place without Robert Huber, Formula 1 races will be won by someone whose first name is not Michael, the weather doesn’t care if a Kachelmann makes money with it – each gap is closing some day and often sooner than one might think.

I step out into the moonlit night. They are not able to handle the problem with the electricity here in Sri Lanka. Well, actually we should thank them for it. When was the last time you saw such a moonlit night without any artificial lights disturbing? It’s almost 1 am, the night belongs to the animals and the thoughts and memories evoked by this old daily that somehow made its way to this place.

I sit down on a stone and let my thoughts wander and circle. Former colleagues are coming to my mind, surely some of them have already passed away. It’s like a quick look into a world I left 11 years ago. The period I call “my life before Sri Lanka” seems just as strange to me now as if I had read about in a book. I just walked away, left the premises of the Bavarian Broadcast in Freimann behind. I didn’t know that it would be a goodbye for good. There was no speech, not even a handshake or a written farewell on this occasion. More than 20 years of work for the Bavarian Broadcast – simply over. I’m sure that gap had been closed quickly. What remains from this period of my life? At least some good films in the archive and ideas I have left without getting rich, but from which others live quite comfortably now.

I rub my eyes, but this silvery darkness that is night without really being night still remains surreal. You cannot photograph or film it and hardly describe it. Good that there are things we have to experience by ourselves to properly feel them.
Is there anything behind that darkness out there that gives our existence here a deeper meaning? Something like the perfect light?

“Hope is the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
Well, then I can easily and full of hope sleep another 3 hours of this day that has just started, a day that surely will bring lots of challenges before it will irretrievably belong to the past too.

Good night Ekina Omelka, wherever you might be now and thank you for transmitting these thoughts from Vaclav Havel.