06 November 2016

TRAIL 2016 and the unleashing of hope

Little drops love made an ocean of hope 
Mahela Jayawardena, former cricket captain of Sri Lanka wept.  He recalled how his brother had died of cancer twenty years previously.  Through his tears he acknowledged that the past 28 days had been the most wonderful of his life and he thanked Sarinda Unamboowe and Nathan Sivagananathan for providing the opportunity.  

It was a poignant moment.  It was just one of many.  His weren’t the only tears and neither was he the only person moved to walk from the northern most end of the island all the way down to Matara on account of losing a loved one to cancer.  And it was not only about cancer or building a facility to those inflicted by the disease.  

“The Trail” which saw the direct participation of people and drew contributions from countless others from all parts of the world had a tangible goal, that of constructing a hospital.  But this ‘Trail’ as opposed to its precursor, the walk in the opposite direction, from Matara to Point Pedro in 2011 July, which was also about building a cancer hospital (in Tellippalai), was also about peace and unity.  

Returning home from London having seen his sister succumb to cancer, Nathan had wondered what kind of treatment facilities his own country had.  So he had visited the Maharagama Cancer Hospital, made inquiries about needs and done what was at the time possible.  ‘The walk’ idea, originally, however had nothing to do with cancer.  It was about walking the length of the country after the three decades long war ended.  That’s how Sarinda, a colleague at MAS, had got involved.  And then they thought, ‘let’s raise money to help cancer patients.’  That’s how the ‘Colours for Change Trust’ came about.  Good people like Nathan, Sarinda and Mahela stood up.  They spoke a few words.  They let their bodies do the rest of the talking.  

They had planned to start in January 2011, but many had thought it was too crazy an idea.  It was around that time that Chairman, MAS Holdings, Mahesh Amalean had asked them about this walk-idea of theirs.  He had promised to help.  Others had chipped in.  Some promised to walk, some gave money and others promised airtime on television.  When they finally set off, six months later, there had been 1,500 people ready to walk with them.  That effort, the emotions, the solidarities, friendships formed, the misconceptions that whittled away, the mistrust and enmity that dissolved in the hope that was generated and of course the fulfillment of objective, has been recorded.  It ended with another beginning.  Nathan and Sarinda said they wanted to walk again, this time from Point Pedro to Matara, another 670 kilometers to “honor and help those fighting cancer” by raising awareness and funds for a second hospital, this time in the Southern Province.  In Karapitiya.  

Thousands came together ‘to blaze a trail across Sri Lanka’, as per the fervent hope of the organizers.  There are thousands of testimonies posted on social media by those who came, those who walked, those who saw, cheered, were overawed and empowered, and those who gave one way or another.  There are thousands of pictures.  There were the occasional brag-shots let’s say, those that were more about ‘I was there’ than anything else, but those were the exceptions.  If only a single word was permitted as overall descriptive, it is undoubtedly ‘humility’.

Naturally.  How could anyone not be humble when Sarinda and Nathan have given new meaning to the word ‘humility’?  Wait, that would be a half-truth or less.  Courage, determination, commitment, community, generosity.  Hope.  They embodied all these things and more.  And yes, ebullience too.  

When it was all done, I wrote down my thoughts and posted on Facebook:

For more than 25 years I thought that ours was a generation that had lost its best to insurrection and war.  I still believe we lost many who could have made a difference. But then again, we have to make do with resources at hand. Today, I believe that fate (or whatever you may want to attribute this state of affairs to) was not too unkind. There are always people who rise up to the occasion, and people who make occasions rise up and embrace entire communities. Nathan Sivagananathan and Sarinda Unamboowe, in my eyes and I am sure in the eyes of countless people, stand up there among the best human beings that have walked this earth. They don't belong to our generation, but belong to all communities across time and space simply because ownership is not their thing, but sharing and caring are.

Here are a few of the thousands of other testimonies.  First Dumindra Ratnayake, formerly of Etisalat.  “Close your eyes, Think, how many people you know, friends, relations have succumbed or is suffering because of the dreaded disease called cancer. Count the number, just donate a dollar (Rs 150) for each one of them.  Something amazing is happeing these days, standing tall among all the other things that is happening around us. The TRAIL walk is possible becuase of two people, Sarinda Unamboowe and Nathan Sivagananathan , two amazing individuals in my opinion taking the initiative help millions without waiting for governments, institutions or others!”

Hilmy Cader, in an article titled “Learnings from the ‘Trail’” explains the overwhelming volunteer response thus: “The cause is life changing, the intent is sincere, those enabling it are not worried about who gets the credit, neither are they trying to glorify their names, (they are) willing to ‘walk the talk’ and there is ‘fun’ in the ‘hard’ work.”  He asks a pertinent question: “Can our political and business leaders learn something from this?”

The truth is that the till-collection alone brought in over fifty million rupees.  Passing vehicles, buses, people going to work, children on their way to school, even mendicants were turned into givers.  It is hard to think of any political organization garnering anything close to that through any kind of walk.  Governments tax; ‘The Trail’ was made for giving without compulsion.  Hilmy probably got it right.  

Sachini de Silva exclaimed, “humanity restored!”  Shazna Muzammil put it simply: “Walk. Unite. Heal”. 

Graham Marshall elaborated: “What can I say? This is a brilliant, moving piece of work, Sari and Nathan, the energy that Trail has created has to.... has to have moved the hearts of the people of our land to see beyond the narrow confines of their personal ‘what-can-I-get-from-this-day mindset’."  

They were among approximately 70,000 people who participated, who literally ‘walked the talk’.  Hundreds of thousands would have in all likelihood participated with eyes, thoughts, words and quiet contributions.  

Thirty two exceptional individuals did the entire 670 kilometers and each of them, I am sure, would say, following Sarinda and Nathan, ‘it’s not about us, we were part of something that was larger than all of us, a collective several times greater than the sum of its components.’  

Everyone had something to say ‘thank you’ to, someone to dedicate the effort to.  Nathan Sivagananathan had three special people: “1. My dad, who I lost many years ago for teaching us the act of giving at a young age and thinking of others before ourselves, 2. My sister Rajayogini, fondly known as Rajam who we lost to cancer 10years ago. She has been the inspiration for the cause and we miss her every day, and 3. Dhishal Jayawardena who was lost many years ago by Mahela Jayawardena, for being the light that has driven Mahela to support the cause.”  

On September 9, 2016, he recalled that terrible day when he lost his sister: “One of the saddest days of my life was the day my bone marrow match to my sister came in as non compatible. I was the last hope amongst the siblings and the search had to widen to others in the family and friends. Living in Sri Lanka the testing could not be conducted here and the blood donors had to give a sample which then had to be carried to DELHI for testing. I am ever grateful to Ushaan Abeywickrema who hand carried this several times to india beating all the customs regulations and the coordination by my ever efficient assistant shimmy Hassim. The results were negative sadly and I lost my sister....this is why cord blood storage is important for the future.  THIS IS WHY WE TRAIL.”

And so he adds, “Also to all those who succumbed to the disease. We are trying to make a difference, even if we save one life, the distance we walked with blisters and strapping and constant pain.....would have been worth it.”

Sarinda, at the end of it all, penned a few capture-all lines: “And just like that it's all over. Thinking back it all seems so surreal. The support, the participation, the energy, the passion and the emotion. There was [literally] blood, sweat and tears, but every drop of each was worth it. My fellow walkers.. my Trail family; I will miss you. Thank you for sharing this amazing journey with us. Sri Lanka... I have never been prouder to call you my home.”

A few years ago, Thrishantha Nanayakkara made a poignant and in a sense disturbing observation:  “All wars have been fought twice; once in the battlefield and once down the alleys of memory.”  What has transpired since May 2009 offers splendid but sad support to this uncomfortable and disconcerting claim.  But something happened between October 6 and November 2, 2016; something whose ‘happening’ was birthed many years previously, a journey that was completed but also one that happily mapped out other pathways to walk and most importantly demonstrated that Sri Lanka has the strength, the will and most importantly the tenderness to take the blows, fall at times, but stand up and keep walking.  

Something else happened between the 6th day of October and the 2nd day of November in the year 2016.  During those blistering days that made feet feel like cement blocks and yet did not stop people from flying, a sad but perhaps inevitable second battle field was being slowly and surely filled with a memory-making something that was felt and defied description; felt by those who walked, and those who gave and those who watched and those who knew.  The post-war alleyways of memory are typically lined with land-mine stories, unutterable grief, unnecessary fires and deep, deep, deep wounds.  There are flowers blooming in these places now.  Takes me back (yet once again) to the words of Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

“Your feet bleed, Faiz,
but something must surely bloom
as you water the desert
simply by walking through it”.

Mahela’s tears watered a post-conflict landscape that was unbearably desolate.  And not just his tears and not only tears.  There was sweat and blood that watered the alleyways we’ve had to contend with over the past seven years.  Most importantly, these ‘waters’ came from tens of thousands of hearts.  They are altering the colors of these memory-landscapes.  It is not over, Mahela said, and he’s right, and yet we can say with some certainty that something is blooming.  Each step walked by each foot stirred the dust of our most terrible days and the earth as though in surprise breathed out an amazing fragrance.  It’s the perfume of hope.  

The laying of the foundation stone says something but not all about the building
blocks of goodness that birthed an idea that stirred a nation.

Sarinda's brief notes 

Sarinda Unamboowe posted a ‘trail note’ at the end of each day.  Here are a few excerpts:

Day 1. Done. Massive crowd turnout at Point Pedro. Over 1500 walkers on first day. A blistering hot 16km 'warm up' day.  Humbled by the support. Looking forward to a first full walk tomorrow.

Day 2: Huge crowds and support right through Jaffna. Some of us have started developing a few blisters. Hopefully will get sorted out soon. Longer day than yesterday but the early departure meant much cooler weather. Great company and some meaningful chats along the way. 

Day 3: And we march on…27km's from Jaffna to Kodikamam. Longest day yet. Massive crowds again and huge collection of contributions along the way. Sri Lanka, you amaze me. 
We truly are ONE.  Come join us on this incredible journey.

[Day 4 was special.  ON this day, Sarinda Unamboowe has been awarded the Ithaca College Humanitarian Award and his son Sachin Unamboowe did the honors of receiving it on his behalf in upstate New York at his old college.]

Day 6: Hot hot hot.... not a patch of shade along the route. We need a massive tree planting campaign on the A9. 

Day 7: Today we met the three girls for Mankulam who made such an impression on us last walk. It was great to see them looking older and well taken care of with a better home to live in. Their smiles were so special to see. It's so amazing when people walk up to us and share stories of how the last walk had an impact of their lives. 

Day 8: The negative i continue to see is the sad amount of garbage along the A9. We have a massive garbage issue in our country and someone needs to start taking ownership and solving it. 

Day 10: The dreaded 30km day, the longest on TRAIL, turned out to be a breeze.  Walking conditions are improving but my blisters are giving birth... now I have a little family. 

Day 12:  Seeing friendly faces makes a huge difference to all our morale. Thank you one and all who come up to join us and keep us going. You have no idea how much having your energy helps. 
The response from the schools in Galgamuwa town was staggering. Incredible to see children supporting us so eagerly. 

Day 13: An amazing fact to note is that during the first half of this walk, which was entirely in the north / north central parts of the country, our tills have collected the same amount of money we collected during the entire walk in 2011. What amazing support in the north for a hospital in the South. One Sri Lanka!!!! Incredible!!! 

Day 14: This walk is so much about the journey.... not the destination. We lose so much when we just focus on finishing. Audrey Gomez-Jeganathan .. thank you for opening my eyes to that. 
Thank you Sri Lanka. I love you with all of my heart.

Day 15: Massive welcome in Kurunegala. Amazing crowds and support continues as we roll on towards our goal. One Sri Lanka with access to the best cancer treatment/cure for all. 
This is all so surreal

Day 16 : Roadside collections have exceeded Rs11million.  You have to experience this generosity to truly understand how special it is.

Day 17: And it RAINED.  The heavens opened up and it poured midway through the walk but and it was great fun.

Day 18: Sweaty Hugs' all round. Love you guys and truly, deeply, madly appreciate all you have done to make TRAIL the phenomenon it is.

Day 20: Monster crowd turned up in spite of the threat of some nasty showers.  For those of you who had to battle the massive traffic jam we caused, I sincerely apologize. Please bare with us. We will be out of Colombo by tomorrow. Just one more day....

Day 21: Wow.... Colombo !!!!! 13,000+ turned up to walk with us today. Absolutely blown away. I cannot believe the support we have got on this journey.

Day 22: Trail... what started as a wild dream, is now an amazing reality.

Day 24: I am asked many times, how we do this day after day. Truth is we depend on you, and your energy to carry us along. Every friend or supporter of Trail who joins, brings with them an amazing energy that carries us through the heat, the rain, the blisters and the general aches and pains. YOU make this happen. Thank you. 

Day 26: Sri Lanka.. you have such a generous and giving soul.

Day 27: What an incredible journey. What an incredible family this has become

Day 28: And just like that it's all over. Thinking back it all seems so surreal. The support, the participation, the energy, the passion and the emotion. There was [literally] blood, sweat and tears, but every drop of each was worth it. My fellow walkers.. my Trail family; I will miss you. Thank you for sharing this amazing journey with us. Sri Lanka... I have never been prouder to call you my home.

See also:

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who contributes a weekly column for the Daily Mirror titled 'Subterranean Transcripts'.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene.