Real life stories from the slums of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka

My friend Boo with some of the children living in this slum

Nine years ago I hiked to Mount Everest Basecamp with my friends Ro, Claire, Jo and Kat to raise money for Ro’s mother’s charity, SHARE Foundation in Sri Lanka. The money we raised helped support one of the projects for two years. TWO YEARS.

Have you ever met, face to face, the people that your charity contributions actually help?

Well, last week Ro’s mother, Celine, took us to visit the slums, the actual village and people that our donations helped.

We were in Sri Lanka to celebrate Ro’s wedding (it was magical, complete with vows exchanged with the setting sun over the ocean in the background and hours of dancing under the stars), followed by a five day wedding tour with 25 others, staying in beautiful hotels along the way, in the jungle, on the ocean shore…luxury.

Celine’s projects provide nursing assistance for those who live in extreme poverty in slums, the kind you see on TV but never actually step into in real life. This way of living is desperate and yet as we walked through the slums we were greeted and followed by smiling faces all around. Big teeth-y smiles, laughter and captivated fascination of our little blond girl…

And abject poverty and illness. And the smell as we passed the trash piling up on one side of the track, with the villagers living on the other (it’s quite clear, trash on one side, housing on the other). Apparently we’re lucky it wasn’t raining.

Real life stories from the slums

One of the patients, an elderly lady with beautiful white hair, had a stroke which paralysed one side of her body. She used to look after her mother, her two daughters and her grandchildren. After her mother died she had the stroke and both her daughters ran away with the grandchildren to live with their husbands’ families. This old lady lives in the tiniest of rooms, a shack, big enough to fit a chair, a chest of drawers, a black and white photo of her mother on the wall and a wooden bed.

With no mattress.

The loneliness is what affects her the most, beyond her physical disability. The nurses visit her regularly to speak with her.

Another patient is a young man in his 20s. He was hit by a car (driven by a man without a driving licence who has been tracked down but won’t take responsibility so there’s no hope of any legal financial support), is paralysed from the neck down and had a leg amputated. His 21 year old brother goes to work and looks after him. SHARE have managed to buy him a mattress so that he doesn’t have to suffer from terrible bedsores as he used to, lying on his back all day every day. He broke into a big smile at little blond Myla waving hello to him.

Another patient is a woman who needs kidney dialysis once a month. She works every day except that one day where she needs treatment. This is an expensive treatment. On the wall she has a black and white photo of her and her husband on their wedding day. Her husband ran away.

We weren’t able to visit the last patient as the son of one of the women sharing the same living space (you walk through one room/shack to get to another) had literally, just killed himself. Ro and some other friends saw the mother faint and retreated from the commotion that ensued to respect the privacy of the community.

As well as the nurses and Celine, one of the members of the foundation visits this village on a weekly basis to talk about mindset. About how poverty is a mindset, that there is a way out, that you can get a job and then a better one and change things. And yet these people only really want to make it through the day. They’re content when they make enough money for that day. The idea of longer term income and stability, a house, enough food etc isn’t something that they particularly want to strive for. These people don’t believe that there is another way for them. They believe this is it and as long as they make enough money for the day, they’re ‘ok’ with that.

Even those who have six children and can barely afford to feed them struggle with the idea of giving their next child up for adoption.

Some of them own their house – remember these are slums, there are no ‘houses’, there are no bathrooms, there is no electricity – the government is tearing these down and moving these families into social housing. Social housing is way more expensive than they can afford but it doesn’t sound like they have a choice. Others are renting their houses.

Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that anyone would be renting in a slum.

This is where I wish I was a writer so that I could really share the full extent of the experience and emotions that this experience brings up so that I can do justice to these people. As someone who has travelled and lived abroad my entire life, including living in third world countries, I’m quite used to seeing poverty. It doesn’t shock me. But meeting these people, being invited into their homes, into the extremes of their situation which we only saw a snapshot of, was truly…I don’t even know what word to use here….

I was afraid that my face would show pity. Yet at the same time I didn’t want to not show emotion. I didn’t know how to be or what questions to ask even.

At the same time it massively impressed me that people like Celine dedicate their time and effort to help these people. As a Sri Lankan nurse working in Europe this is a promise that she had made to her mother, that she would help those back home who could not afford nursing assistance. These are real people helping real people. I sit here and shake my head as I write because humanity really is unbelievable, in so many ways.

Money, in the right hands, can change the world.

I really wanted to share this experience because it was a rare privilege (yes, it is a privilege when one is invited into such an opportunity for personal growth) to be invited to witness how others experience life and where Celine’s efforts have reduced the death toll over the last 15 years. She now has 5 projects across Sri Lanka, one of which supports those who were most hit by the devastation of the tsunami. If you’re looking for a cause to support, please think of SHARE, knowing Celine and the work she does personally makes this message so important for me to share.


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Caroline Cain

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