Human disaster elicits superhuman response that offers more than cash and condolences

June 23, 2006

A Sri Lankan project launched by Durham University in response to the 2004 tsunami could be the template for future humanitarian aid, reports Mandy Garner

On Boxing Day 2004, a heavily pregnant woman was walking down a road in the Sri Lankan village of Palana West when she was swept up by the tsunami that blasted the country's southern coast. The shock brought on labour pains. A local priest managed to drag her to safety and delivered her baby on to his robes. He then lifted the infant on to the ledge of a nearby Buddhist temple. Both mother and baby survived, but other villagers were not so lucky. Many died or saw their houses destroyed in what has been described as the worst humanitarian disaster the world has ever experienced. Because the village lies between the sea and a river and the tsunami swelled the river causing it to overflow, some people do not know whether the bodies of their loved ones lie in the sea or the river and so do not know where to mourn them.

More than a year later, trees are appearing along the coastline, planted in memory of those who died, and buildings are being reconstructed. One of these is a state-of-the-art preschool. The money for building the school has been raised thousands of miles away by 15 students at Durham University. They are heading out to Palana West next month to spend eight weeks working with the children at a local school and at the nearby University of Ruhuna as part of a project that has been described as a possible model that could be transferred to other humanitarian or international projects.

As such, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has agreed to fund a grant for a three-year pilot study that will each year allow three Durham academics to teach for between four weeks and a term at Ruhuna. In turn, the British Council is paying for Ruhuna academics to visit Durham to exchange research ideas. The aim is to develop a two-way process that goes against the usual pattern of rich Western country giving aid to poor developing nation.

Joy Palmer-Cooper, the dynamo behind the initiative, says: "For our academics it is a personal development opportunity. They experience teaching in a different international setting and have the space to develop research partnerships."

The Hefce-funded teaching pilot is the last part in the jigsaw for what is a huge project, involving not just the two universities but also the two communities of Palana West and Durham. In Durham, organisations that are taking part include the Rotary Club, a local church and local schools. In Sri Lanka, Sarvodaya Shramadava, a non-governmental organisation, is working with the university. People in Durham are sponsoring 58 children in Palana West so that they can finish their basic education. The students, who have been extensively prepared for the trip, will take photos and small gifts to the children when they visit, acting as a link between Durham and Sri Lanka. Schools in Northumberland have also raised money for books and play equipment for the nursery school. The Rotarians are raising money for the local high school. Eventually, the university hopes to raise funds for scholarships for Sri Lankan students to come to Durham.

The project originated soon after the Boxing Day disaster. Like many people, Palmer-Cooper, former pro vice-chancellor at Durham, and her husband, the philosopher David Cooper, also a Durham academic, were horrified by the news of the tsunami. Their shock was compounded by the fact that they knew the region well. Cooper had worked on two research projects in Sri Lanka, one at Ruhuna. They contacted the people they knew there to check that they were OK, but they also began thinking about what the university could do to help.

The university resolved to make post-tsunami reconstruction a substantial project. "If Durham got involved, we wanted it to be a significant piece of work, not a one-off charitable effort," Palmer-Cooper says. Students were consulted, the student union came on board, and it was decided that the university would focus on one of the countries that had been hit.

Palmer-Cooper was put in charge of co-ordinating the effort because of the knowledge she and her husband had of Sri Lanka. The BBC reporter George Alagiah, a former Durham student who is of Sri Lankan origin, lent his support.

From the beginning, people at the university recognised the need to take time to think through what they wanted to achieve. Those involved were determined the project would be long-term and all-inclusive. "It was essential that the students were personally involved in Sri Lanka,"

Palmer-Cooper says. "This was at the heart of the project. We had to make real links, and they had to go there for a significant period of time." The plans for academic, teaching and community links followed.

Cooper and Palmer-Cooper made their first visit Sri Lanka to discuss the plans and possible areas of collaboration last October. They met with the vice-chancellor, Ranjith Senaratne, and academics at Ruhuna, the only university in southern Sri Lanka. Apart from two student hostels, it was not physically affected by the tsunami because it is set high up overlooking the ocean. It is, however, serving as an intellectual centre for reconstruction and rehabilitation and has set up modules on disaster management and started research into early warning systems as a result.

Many academics were personally affected by the disaster, and the vice-chancellor missed being caught up in it only because his car would not start that day.

Palmer-Cooper says that, although buildings are being reconstructed and fishermen are returning to the sea, the deep psychological trauma the disaster has left in its wake is palpable everywhere. Some children have not spoken since the tsunami washed away their homes or relatives.

Palmer-Cooper speaks of one eight-year-old boy who saw his mother die. "He will not talk about it. He is terrified. He heard his mother scream, and then his mind went blank." Another child refuses to leave his mother's side.

The students have been prepared as well as they can be for confronting such trauma. "People in Sri Lanka do not have the Western attitude of letting it all hang out," Cooper says. "They should not be pressed and asked what it was like."

Rosamund Bale, a second-year anthropology student selected to work in Sri Lanka, admits that it is daunting. "You wonder what 15 English people can do, but I guess we will have to play it by ear," she says.

"They will get very new perspectives on life and humanity," Palmer-Cooper says.

The academic exchanges began in January with a visit by Sri Lankan academics. In February and March, academics from medicine, philosophy and biological science visited Sri Lanka. Palmer-Cooper wants to make the exchanges as cross-disciplinary as possible. The aim is to find common ground for research partnerships.

Pali Hungin, dean of the School of Medicine, is keen to collaborate on a variety of projects, including one on functional health disorders - illnesses that are not caused by any known physical abnormality that can be surgically treated, such as irritable bowel syndrome. In the West, more than 50 per cent of general practitioner consultations involve such problems and they are usually seen as diseases of affluence. Hungin was surprised to find that in Sri Lanka, such problems account for up to 80 per cent of consultations. "It is extremely exciting and suggests that to some extent the biomedical model does not help people - that daily life is estranged from biomedicine," says Martyn Evans, professor of humanities in medicine. Keith Lindsey, a plant biologist, also visited Ruhuna in February and is looking forward to working with academics there on areas such as developing biotechnology applications for medicinal plants that abound in the Sri Lankan jungle. Ruhuna's vice-chancellor is keen to develop spin-off companies, something that Lindsey has some expertise in.

The vice-chancellor also wants to develop international interdisciplinary research and hopes to boost philosophy at the university. At the moment, philosophy is concentrated mainly in the religious studies department, but Cooper has been invited to lecture there and to draw up plans to increase the discipline's presence. One plan is to organise an international conference on environmental and medical ethics in the context of the tsunami. Cooper says the interest in philosophy is in part a response to the tsunami, to give the university space to reflect on people's experiences of the disaster.

Palmer-Cooper hopes that the Durham-Ruhuna project will develop further in the future and she is already recruiting students to go out to another area of southern Sri Lanka next year. "We would like to maintain our links. In five years, we could have a whole series of student union preschools."

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