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Microfinance Mends Lives Washed Away by Tsunami

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

From cultivating paddy fields to starting chicken farms, women in a remote region of Sri Lanka devastated by the Asian tsunami a year ago are using tiny amounts of financing to make extraordinary recoveries.

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From cultivating paddy fields to starting chicken farms, women in a remote region of Sri Lanka devastated by the Asian tsunami a year ago are using tiny amounts of financing to make extraordinary recoveries.
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K. Maheshwari's rice farm was lost to the tsunami.

AKKARAIPATTU, Sri Lanka, (WOMENSENEWS)--K. Maheshwari is anxiously waiting for the monsoons to begin in the next few days or perhaps weeks.

The rain, she believes, will water her second rice planting this year and bring new hope for her family after the devastation of last Dec. 26, when the Asian tsunami crushed her entire village and took away her husband.

"I want to build a house and find partners for my unmarried children," says Maheshwari, who speaks Tamil and communicated with Women's eNews through a translator.

Maheshwari is a small, sturdy woman worn down by the hard life of rice farming.

At 56 she looks more like 80. She is the mother of 10 children: eight daughters and two sons who died during the region's two-decades-long conflict. Five of her daughters are married.

For months she has been living in a transitional house made of planks in a tiny, temporary village established for tsunami survivors in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka.

This is how she explains how she and her children survived.

"When the tsunami struck, I managed to climb onto a tree while my children ran to a safe place," she says. "However, my husband could not save his life; he perished in the deadly tidal waves."

Cut and bruised after the tsunami, she and her daughters took refuge for the first four months in a temporary camp inside a school building.

They lived on food and other relief supplies distributed by the government and various nongovernmental aid groups. Then they moved to their current camp, consisting of many wooden huts housing about 50 other families--from formerly adjoining villages--who share water, electricity and toilets.

Not Like Home

While the camp is a step up from living in the school, it's nothing like the home she lost. Maheshwari's family lived in a roomy house with a comfortable bed. Now she stores all her belongings--a sleeping mat, cooking implements, clothing and part of her paddy harvest--in a tiny room in her temporary hut.

Early last spring, when Maheshwari heard about a microfinancing project for tsunami survivors, she seized on it as a lifeline.

In May, she obtained about $300 in financing--half grant, half low-interest loan--funded by Oxfam and administered through a local nongovernmental group, the Social Welfare Organization of Ampara district.

With help from abundant rains Maheshwari had an ample harvest in September. She sold the rice, repaid the loan and put some aside to buy what she needs to recultivate her paddy lands in the forthcoming season.

After the grief and trauma of the last year, Maheshwari says she is beginning to feel better now about the future.

"I have courage now," she says. "I know I'll have to be strong and do everything alone to be successful."

Maheshwari's region, where Tamil Tiger rebels are fighting for a separate state, is among the areas most severely affected by the tsunami.

Here the giant wave killed about 10,000 people and displaced many thousands. The area's limited infrastructure and distance from the capital city of Colombo, about 300 kilometers away, has hindered recovery.

Determined to Overcome Devastation

Amid these obstacles, hundreds of women such as Maheshwari are showing remarkable determination to move themselves and their families from the temporary shelters that now serve as home.

Often, the crucial boost comes from the Oxfam microfinancing program, which extends loans between $500 and $1,000 to small-business entrepreneurs. In some cases the funds take the form of a small direct grant of between $150 and $300.

More typically, however, financial aid is half grant and half loan, with the total amount of the financing broken up and extended in parts with the repayment pace and interest rate determined by the recipient's monthly income. Most of the loans charge a low annual interest rate of 1 percent. So far Oxfam has issued loans and grants totalling around $500,000 in the Eastern Province alone and the project is ongoing.

Kalpana Jeyanathan has rebuilt her chicken business.

Kalpana Jeyanathan also received Oxfam financing in June. She used her first $150 loan-grant package to restart a small chicken farm, begun outside her transitional house in a camp in the village of Thirukkovil.

"I already had some experience in poultry farming," says Jeyanathan, a newlywed in her mid 20s. She has taken trade courses in raising fowl and kept a few around the house that she and her husband, an unskilled laborer, once occupied on the coast.

For three months, Jeyanathan and her husband lived in a transitional camp, wondering and worrying about how they would put their lives back together.

Now she has 50 broiler chickens, several other chickens for eggs, a reasonable income to support her family and tidy accounting books. She has begun repaying her Oxfam loan and is saving money in a bank account to expand her business.

Navamani Opens Shop in Camp

K. Navamani used a micro loan to reopen her shop.

K. Navamani also obtained $150 through Oxfam's loan-grant facility to open a shop selling essentials such as vegetables, rice and spices.

She runs the shop in the front section of the wooden house she occupies in the same transitional camp that shelters Maheshwari.

Before the tsunami, the 45-year-old Navamani ran a shop and made a comfortable living selling vegetables, dry rations and groceries. She lived in her own house by the sea with her two children, her disabled husband and her mother.

During the tsunami, her mother was washed away by a giant wall of water. Her entire village was destroyed.

Initially, the remnants of her family moved to a temporary camp in a school and later on to the wooden house she now occupies in the transitional housing site.

Like Maheshwari, Navamani is looking forward to the day when she can live more independently.

"I want to continue to send my children to school," she says. "I also want to build a house of our own. That's why I am making an effort to save some money."

Chandani Jayatilleke is a feature writer in Colombo, Sri Lanka, who works for the national newspaper, the Daily News.