April 26, 2013
DAMBANA, SRI LANKA – Tikiribanda Uruwarige, 15, dropped out of school in the fifth grade when he was 11 years old to work in tourism. He started working as a tour guide at the nearby museum that features the Vedda community, one of Sri Lanka’s indigenous groups.
To represent to tourists that he is a Vedda, Tikiribanda Uruwarige wears a sarong and keeps his chest bare in the community’s traditional style. He is fluent in Vedda, a creole of Sinhala. He is conversational in Sinhala and even learned a few English phrases to appeal to tourists: “Good morning,” “Welcome,” and, “We are Veddas.”
Tikiribanda Uruwarige’s brother joins him after school to work as a museum tour guide. They also sell crafts that their two sisters make to tourists in order to earn money for their family.
“I have [a] few dollars,” Tikiribanda Uruwarige says, showing his earnings proudly.
He says he is happy to have this work. It enables his brother and two sisters to attend primary and secondary school, which he was unable to do.
“I will find a job in the town when I am older,” he says.
Government conservation and development programs have hurt the traditional livelihoods of the Vedda community and increased tourism. Now, Vedda children are dropping out of school after fifth grade to work in the tourism industry to earn money for their families. As Vedda leaders fear that interaction with tourists will lead young people away from their community, others say educating Vedda children on their culture is the best way to preserve their traditions in the face of inevitable modernization.
Dambana, a village in the landlocked Uva province in southeastern Sri Lanka, is home to 350 Vedda families. Veddas also live in the Eastern province’s Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts.
The Veddas first faced dramatic cultural change 60 years ago when the government began creating national parks on the land where they used to roam freely, says Vanniyaletto Uruwarige, 65, the Vedda chief. Now it is illegal for Veddas to hunt or cultivate crops in national parks, hurting their traditional livelihoods. “Vedda” means “hunters and gatherers” in Sinhala.
The Veddas in Dambana faced additional cultural changes following Gama Neguma, a rural development program initiated by the Sri Lankan government in 2004, Vanniyaletto Uruwarige says. The program equipped Dambana with roads, electricity and modern houses. Now, most of the houses are cement, but the chief continues to live in a traditional mud house with a thatched roof and without electricity, television or radio.
“It is good to develop our villages with good roads, electricity and telecommunication,” Vanniyaletto Uruwarige says. “But these create more problems.”
For example, Dambana’s development has allowed tourists easier access to the indigenous culture, Vanniyaletto Uruwarige says. These tourists bring foreign ideas and modern conveniences that lure the younger generation away from the Veddas’ traditional way of life.
The restrictions on forest access, and thus the Veddas’ traditional livelihoods, have forced Vedda family members to look for other employment to support themselves, says Gunawardena Dabane, 46, Vanniyaletto Uruwarige’s distant relative and a teacher at Dambana’s Gurukubura Primary School. With increased tourism in the area, most Vedda children abandon school after grade five to work as tour guides.
“There are 35 students at the school, and some are very studious children,” Dabane says. “But it is sad that most of them drop out of school after grade five and run after tourists who come to the village.”
They carry bows and arrows to display themselves to tourists as Veddas, even though they are not allowed to hunt, Vanniyaletto Uruwarige says.
Because of the Veddas’ traditionally unstructured lifestyle, parents do not push their sons or daughters to study. Traditionally, Vedda children did not attend school but learned about life through nature. Now, children find it is easier to earn money than pursue schoolwork, Dabane says.
“Children and also their parents still don’t see the value of education,” he says. “They all want money to survive.”
Geethani Amaratunga, head of the sociology department at the University of Kelaniya in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, says that Vedda children need to help support their families by working.
“There are studious children in Vedda families, but they have to drop their schooling to support their families to earn a living,” Amaratunga says.
Some Vedda children pursue education after grade five, Dabane says. A handful of them continue their studies until they reach the advanced-level exams, and one or two students go to a university, but not every year.
Since 1990, more than 10 students from Dambana graduated from universities, says Dabane, the first university graduate from Dambana. More than 100 youths passed the advanced-level examination. Most of these students now work government jobs.
Change in the Vedda way of life is inevitable because of external influences, Dabane says.
“We can’t blame Veddas for the transformation,” he says. “With the fast development phase, new technology reaching the villages in Dambana, restrictions for hunting, dwindling forest cover, how can one expect the Vedda community to remain unchanged?”
Vanniyaletto Uruwarige says he does not blame the Veddas for embracing modernism to survive. But he implores his seven sons and one daughter to continue the Vedda traditions.
“I have to fight more to keep them alive,” he says of the Vedda traditions.
Asking Vedda children to not embrace modern lifestyles is unrealistic, says Dissanayake Sugath, a 28-year-old half-Vedda whose Vedda father married a Sinhalese woman from a nearby village. He studied up to grade 10 within the Vedda community but left to join the army to earn a decent salary. He owns a motorcycle and dresses in modern clothing.
“In this modern world, our youths can’t live in the original Vedda lifestyle, which is very hard,” he says, with a smile. “It is like living in the Stone Age.”
Vedda families have no other options than to embrace modernization in order to survive, Amaratunga says. But Vedda parents and teachers can educate the younger generations about their own culture.
“I hope that they can preserve the Vedda community by educating their children about their own culture and traditions,” Amaratunga says.
The younger Vedda generation needs to find a balance between tradition and modernism, Sugath says.
“I think Vedda children should study and find good jobs to make our community proud,” he says. “They should earn, dress and live well. But, within their hearts, they should always remember they are descendants from a unique community, which has a rich culture and traditions.”
Interviews were translated from Sinhala and Vedda.
Although local custom in the Vedda community is to list last names first and first names second, Global Press Institute follows The Associated Press Stylebook on this matter.