Powerful Resources, Personal Learning
E-mail from Co-Director CAPAsia Wes Janz

Wes Janz

March 7, 2005

Colleagues: 

If I might, as a follow-up to Nihal Perera's e-mail . . .

The CapAsia group just departed our hotel for the job site where today they will participate in the construction of foundation walls of the first house to be built on the new site of the village of Kalametiya. This village of 30 families was completely destroyed in the tsunami. It is such a small settlement, that it does not appear on any maps of Sri Lanka . . . we are approximately 20 kilometers east of Tangalle, the city where we are staying.

Pre-tsunami, the Kalametiya population was 190 persons; 11 were killed in the tsunami and  only three bodies have been recovered. The main organizer in the village is a young woman who was holding her 1-year-old baby as the tsunami hit. They became tangled in a barbed wire fence and as the mother struggled to untangle them, her baby was swept away. That was the last time she saw her daughter. The mother's body was raked by the fence and two months later, she is still taking care of her physical and emotional wounds.

Just a 30-minute drive to our east is Hambantota, a city of 40,000 where the tsunami killed 10,000 people.

The government has proposed a 100-meter buffer zone along all the oceanfront of the country, arguing this is being done to protect the citizens from future tsunamis (even though this is the first such natural disaster in the country's known history). Many see this as a land grab of national scope.

Kalametiya was located on the beach, and behind the original village is a large bird sanctuary. Because of these convergences, the temporary village (built by the Oxfam international aid organization) is located four kilometers from the water— you can imagine how this has influenced the fishing work of the men, the economy of the region and the dynamics within every family. The new village that  we are assisting is 1/2 kilometer to the east of the temporary village.

I arrived here last Sunday, and Nihal and the students arrived in Kalametiya on Wednesday. Thursday morning we participated in cleaning the lagoon across the roadfrom the old village. It was a powerful experience for all of us— we were picking up the physical remnants of peoples' lives and we asked the students to be respectful in the moment, as we retrieved boats, teapots, file cabinets, clothing, family pictures, fishing nets, papers, broken plates, fence posts and many, many other items. I found someone's passport, and looking through it, tried to imagine the life. We were joined by several hundred locals, and have since heard of their gratitude for our pitching in.

Later that first day we visited the very rough temporary settlement, and after a few awkward moments, settled down with sketchbooks, watercolors, paintsand a Frisbeewith the women, men and children of the village. The site where they live is so dry and arid and hot (in stark contrast to their nice, but destroyed, houses nestled among coconut trees on a sand dune by the ocean) that only 10 or so families have taken up residence in the temporary settlement. All others— the older members of the village and most of the families— have dispersed to other locations, temporarily.

We are working with a very grounded Sri Lankan architect named Madhura Prematilleke. Madhura came to Ball State two years ago to work in my graduate studio for two weeks; we are very good friends, and he and Nihal were classmates when in architecture school years ago. Madhura had made previous connections to Kalametiya, and following the tsunami, volunteered his services to the planning, design and construction of the new village.

The size of the village is critical to our experience— even with language barriers, we now know many people in the community, and all of us feel the strongest of commitments to them and the rebuilding of their lives and houses. At the same time, we understand that our role is that of 'catalysts' bringing immediate big energy to the beginning of the new village, but in almost every moment, deferring to the people, their local knowledge and practices.

Two days ago I was driving back to the airport north of Colombo to pick up Tim Gray, anarchitecture instructor, who is now here with us building houses. That was my first drive along the southern and southwestern shore, which are among the areas hardest hit by the tsunami. There are thousands and thousands of tents along the beach and just inland, of all shapes and sizes and colors— large tent cities, individual camping tents tethered to partially destroyed buildings, small tents within several feet of the road. Driving through these devastated areas, all I could think when I saw someone walking was, "How did that person survive?  What is her story?"

We have come in contact with a number of international aid organizations including Architecture for Humanity, International Citizen Services, GOAL, Red Cross, the Green Movement of Sri Lanka, Architects Without Borders and others. We are talking with as many representatives as possible, hoping to get a better understanding of such massive relief efforts.

Our plans for this week are to get as many houses underway as possible. This means digging with hand tools (there is no electricity on site) in the hardest of hard pan soils, in the hot sun. We have good breakfasts, drive to the site and work hard for three or four hours, take two- to three-hour lunch breaks at mid-day, and work for another two to three hours in the cooler late afternoon before returning to our hotel for a good dinner. We are drinking great amounts of water, keeping track of all the students to make sure they rest in the shade from time to time, and using lots of sunblock!!!

It is the most amazing of construction sites— tractors pulling two-wheeled wagons are now appearing, dropping off rough granite stones (for the foundation), sand and granite aggregate and bags of cement (for the grout and bond beams), handmade bricks (for the walls)— one never knows what to expect when another tractor and wagon show up. We are always being watched and worked with and laughed at. And we are engaging the locals, laughing with them, digging alongside them, learning from them huge lessons about decency, hope and friendship. And my goodness, it is something to see a big, strong American man (not me, one of our students!) outworked by a small, apparently frail, Sri Lankan woman!!!

Each house project is overseen by a Sri Lankan mason (a "bas") and his small crew, and of course all the villagers are involved, digging alongside us, taking breaks with us, drinking tea with us. Nihal and Tim and I are constantly reminding our students (and ourselves) that we are here only to begin the project;  it is their village, these are their houses and homes, and the Sri Lankans have their own sensibilities about building, materials, construction rituals and procedures, and we are determined to respect and learn from these local practices and beliefs, even as we use these experiences to ask questions about such moments in the United States.

By the end of the week we hope to have one house completed, a number of houses with foundations complete, and all the foundation trenches dug. We are told that 200 local workers are to arrive on the site today, so it will be a mad house of sorts, but I am confident that all can be organized and good progress made.

Three Buddhist monks came to the site yesterday morning, for the Auspicious Moment when construction began, at a time in alignment with the cosmos. The monks sat and chanted on the site of the first house. The owners had put together what is called a Foundation Stone, to be buried under the foundation of their house, to bring good karma to the village and its people. Also, the husband and wife set a bowl of coconut milk above a small campfire, and as the monks chanted, the couple stoked and fed the small fire, intending to boil over the milk to bring good spirits to the endeavor, the house, and their family. We then spread out among the other 29 house construction sites, where owners tended their own small fires, and we helped them gather twigs and dried leaves to feed to their own fires. We joined these Sri Lankans in bringing the best of spirits to their houses and lives.

It is very likely that we are the only U.S. university with such a presence in Sri Lanka and maybe the entire tsunami region, and it is quite possible that Kalametiya is the first new permanent village to be under construction in the country. This is what we are hearing, but we have no way of knowing for sure.

We plan to leave Kalametiya on the 13th, to drive along the coast up to Colombo, where we will spend several days visiting a number of interesting planning and design projects and offices. In addition we will visit the University of Moratuwa and show this year's CapAsians the timber and mud pavilions built in 2003 by the students of CapAsia III. 

As Nihal said in his earlier e-mail to those of you who donated funds to the Lion's Club for use in Sri Lanka, I say thank you. There is great need here . . . and . . . I should say, the locals are well on their way to making their own futures, to finding their own way in their new worlds, lives, houses  and occupations.

It is an amazing opportunity for us, the fullest of moments to be alive, to be contributing and to be understanding the decency and compassion that exists in the world, and in our students.

Thanks again for your interest. Tim Gray and I return to Indiana on March 17 and to BallState on March 18. Nihal returns around the 20th or 21st. All of us are available to come talk to your classes if you have any such requests. 

Sincerely,

Wes Janz
Associate Professor of Architecture
Co-Director, CapAsia Field Study Program