A new life for tsunami widowers in Sri Lanka
By Francis Mead
Thangaiah Simson is 59 years old. A small, slight man with an intense, weather-beaten face, he has four sons. One of them is married and has moved away from home; two are fishermen; and the youngest, Satharsan, is 12 and still goes to school. Thangaiah stands in the doorway of his new home, just withdrawn into the shade, staring off into the distance. Satharsan, his T-shirt neatly buttoned up to the neck, wanders by and they exchange a quiet word. A breeze stirs the parched straw and reddish dust at their feet. A kilometre in the distance, a row of trees marks the shoreline. That’s where they used to live, before the tsunami.
As with thousands of other Sri Lankans, Thangaiah’s life changed forever on 26 December, 2004. When the tsunami struck he says he saw eight waves in all. The little piece of land where the village stood in Batticaloa province on Sri Lanka’s east coast, forms a small peninsula, and the tsunami battered both sides of the narrow strip. When they saw the first wave approaching, Thangaiah and his family began running. The children managed to climb trees, but his wife was caught by the waves. Life for the Simson family would never be the same.
When his wife was still alive, Thangaiah used to get up at around six o’clock to go to work. But now, he says, he rises at about 4 or 4.30 to prepare a meal for his youngest son and then gets him ready for school. Only then does he set off for his day’s work as a fisherman, hauling a net single-handedly along the shore.
35,000 Sri Lankans lost their lives when the tsunami came. In many areas about twice as many women as men lost their lives, leaving a large number of widowers. Like Thangaiah, some of these bereaved men have found themselves leading a new and unexpected way of life – learning how to cook, washing clothes, seeing their children off to school, and putting them to bed. Some found they couldn’t manage and quickly looked for second wives. Others have settled into their new role, even drawing a degree of comfort from their new responsibilities.
When ESCO, a UNICEF-supported local organisation, started to work in the cluster of four villages where Thangaiah lives, they found 82 men who had lost their wives in the tsunami. They were not doing well. Some, who already had problems with alcoholism before the tsunami, were drinking even more. Loneliness and bereavement took their toll, and for a time the men had no way to earn a living. Before the disaster, they used to go fishing twice a day, but their boats and equipment had been destroyed, and there was no fish to transport and sell in the local markets. They were forced to live in temporary shelters, and some struggled with guilt over the loss of wives and children.
With international and local help, things slowly began to improve and the men are now fishing again. Bit by bit, a new village is being built further inland from where the old village had been located - the government had set a buffer zone along the shore where rebuilding was prohibited. At the new site neat piles of grey stones, ready for new walls, lie at regular intervals along a central path. Rows of sturdy, single-storey brick buildings, many complete or almost complete, march along either side. Although there is no electricity, the concrete floors are bare, and there’s hardly any furniture, Thangaiah and others have moved into the new houses.
ESCO started two weekly support groups – one specially for widowers, and one focusing on alcoholism. Thangaiah regularly attends both. In the widowers’ group, the men are given musical instruments and encouraged to play, as well as to talk about their lives. Sitting with a group of about twenty-five men at the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, Thangaiah says he used to be a very heavy drinker, but that he has managed to cut down, even though he still has lapses.
Another man at the meeting says that, after his son-in-law was killed in the tsunami, he took in his daughter and her two children. He says he is struggling to meet the costs of this newly extended family. A third man says he married his wife’s sister after being widowed, and now has responsibility for his new wife’s children. Other men complain that government food rations have been cut, even though their new homes are not yet complete.
As in many areas of Sri Lanka, growing signs of conflict and insecurity are making it increasingly difficult for the men to go to work. In the Batticaloa area, soldiers and checkpoints frequently punctuate any journey, and vehicles often have to divert around military encampments ringed by barbed wire and wooden barriers. For the fishermen in the group, who go to work either late at night or before dawn, the risk of armed attacks is especially acute.
Holding a family together after the tsunami, and now under the pervasive threat of conflict, is not an easy task. For widowers, the changes have often been bewildering and disturbing and many are quick to remarry. Half of the 82 widowers in the four villages smashed by the tsunami have now married new spouses.
But for fathers like Thangaiah, things will never be the same again. Now, he says, his only thought is for his children. From a shaded counter-top in his new, barely furnished home, he takes out his small collection of pots. Squatting on the floor, he begins to spoon out the rice, vegetables and fish for the next meal.