The Absence of Technology?

posted in Note by Producer

The Absence of Technology?

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Meemure, June 2013. Photograph by Aamina Nizar

Many of us take connectivity for granted – we have our mobile phone at hand at all times, we stress when there is no 3G coverage, when the internet is slow, or when bad weather affects the TV show we are watching. Meanwhile, there are people in parts of Sri Lanka for whom connectivity is a luxury not a basic need, an occasional choice rather than an integral part of their daily lives. This is sometimes because of a lack of interest or relevance to them and their work, a lack of availability or affordability, and sometimes as simple as a lack of electricity to charge their phones or watch an evening TV programme. Covering the village of Meemure at the foot of the Knuckles range, Puthukuduyiruppu in the war-affected North, and Narahenpita in the heart of the commercial capital Colombo, this feature explores how three communities manage with limited access to telecommunications and how this influences how they live and their outlook on life.

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Meemure, June 2013. Photograph by Aamina Nizar

“I don’t know what they want cellphones for. We don’t even have coverage. But all these fellows have a phone”, a farmer in Meemure says almost sarcastically. Nestled amidst the picturesque Knuckles mountain range and famed for its isolation, Meemure is a little village located 65km from Kandy. A veritable “hermit’s paradise”, the village has no electricity from the national grid or mobile network coverage. The only phones that work are ‘CDMA’ ones. Sri Lanka’s almost ‘90% access to electricity’ is due to rural electrification schemes that are not connected to the national grid. Three years ago all of the villagers pooled in money and built a mini-hydro power generator, which gave them some kind of access to electricity. The village is self-sufficient and is primarily a farming community. Meemure fits the cliché of the quaint rural village largely untouched by technology’s influence. Its residents are friendly, unassuming and aren’t awed by tourists or by modern technology. Even the young people there seem to care little about having no internet or mobile network access. Paradoxically, though, apparently at least one person in every home here owns a mobile phone!

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Meemure, June 2013. Photograph by Aamina Nizar

As night falls, Meemure is engulfed in absolute darkness. There are no street lamps, no lights in the houses, and the only illumination the night I visited was the headlights of our vehicle and the occasional candle. We passed a small shed where a few young people were seated, most of them glued to the screens of their mobile phones. With no network coverage anywhere in the area, “what do you use your their phones for?”, I asked one of them. Music, photographs and light, was the reply. “We mainly listen to music on our phones”, says one young girl. She said that they usually travel to Hunasgiriya, download whatever they need, and come back and use their phones for entertainment.

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Meemure, June 2013. Photograph by Aamina Nizar

The lack of electricity is often one of the main reasons why easy access to ICTs is limited in rural Sri Lanka. Before the hydro plant, solar power was the only way the villagers of Meemure powered their homes. But solar panels don’t come cheap – one set could cost over Rs. 65,000. Given the limited access to consumer products, the farmers earn a good income from from selling rice, pepper and kithul to outside markets, but since there is little consumer items to spend money on in the village, the farmers save a lot and can and use it to purchase things like solar panels which are essentials for them. But with no access to electricity from the grid, solar panels were their only source of electricity. The panels are connected to car batteries which power light bulbs, sometimes a CDMA phone and occasionally a black and white TV set. Not everyone has a solar panel, of course, and the villagers help each other out by charging their CDMA phones at their each others houses. Given its location amidst the Knuckles Mountains, the village is often cloudy and doesn’t always get sufficient light to power the solar panels. Yet, the people of Meemure seemed quite aloof and unaffected by it all.

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Meemure, June 2013. Photograph by Aamina Nizar

A young son of Meemure resident, Ravindra, plays with a toy mobile phone, probably unaware that much like his toy one, even real ones wouldn’t be able to make a call in Meemure as there is no network coverage. He tells me that his favourite cartoon is ‘Ben Ten’ and he loves wearing his Ben Ten t-shirt to prove it! But I found it rather unusual that he was so familiar with TV shows even though his family does not own a TV and they rarely have electricity. Apparently he watches the show when he visits his mother’s family in Mihintale every 6 months.

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Meemure, June 2013. Photograph by Aamina Nizar

‘Snail mail’ is still an important form of communication in the village, but it is so isolated that it does not receive mail directly from the postal department. Post is received through a unique, old-fashioned ‘relay’ system. A man is nominated from the village to walk 14km daily to ‘Thapal junction’ where he is met by a relay postman from the nearest town. Mail is then exchanged and the Meemure relay man walks back to town to deliver the post to this box. From here another villager is in charge of distributing the letters to people’s homes. The current relay post man, Mr Jayasinghe – also known as ‘Thapal Jaya’ – says now that he has a motorbike, it’s a lot faster to collect and distribute the mail. However, since the advent of CDMA phones, he observed that the village receives less post.

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Meemure, June 2013. Photograph by Aamina Nizar

Weerakoon owns one of the few tourist guesthouses in Meemure and finding new customers isn’t easy. He is looking at new ways to market his venture and sees Facebook as a potential to grow his business. However his 21 year old son, Chamila, for whom he recently bought a new laptop, does not have a Facebook account unlike the millions of other youth his age in the country today. He says he’d like to use the new laptop for his studies but has rarely been able to because he has no way of charging it at home. While his father has bigger dreams for his son, sending him to study for a Business Management degree at ICBT in Teldeniya, his son does not entirely make use of his resources. “Well we do not have any network in Meemure, so it’s quite pointless using the laptop back home for Internet. We just play games on it most of the time.” After he finishes his degree he said hopes to go abroad and look for a job. “My cousin works in Korea and we visit his family in Kandy often and Skype with him. My uncle in Kandy has a computer and Internet”. He added that he didn’t think a computer was very useful to him, “living in Meemure, it doesn’t really help to use one anyway.”

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Puthukuduyiruppu, June 2013. Photograph by Aamina Nizar

Little Diana Jackson, 3, is brought up by her grandmother in Puthukkudiyiruppu. Her father passed away in the war and her mother was only 17 when she gave birth to her. As she was very young her paternal grandmother adopted the child to allow Diana’s mother to re-marry. Diana’s aunt was an LTTE cadre and lost her life in the war. But raising Diana isn’t easy for her grandmother, with no household income to support their needs. Illiteracy is high among the adult population here and people are mostly engaged in day labour jobs. Unlike in Jaffna, where education is seen as an essential investment and the highest ideal to work towards, education is a low priority here given the kind of labour jobs they perform. Employment opportunities are scarce and adults do not have a solid source of income and so idle for most part of the day. Some own little convenience stores in front of their homes, while others live off remittance money sent by their relatives abroad. But life in Puthukkudiyiruppu is moving on. The roads have been built and the town has electricity.

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Puthukuduyiruppu, June 2013. Photograph by Aamina Nizar

Three kilometers from the town is the village of Thimbili where the ‘Centre for Hope’, a youth volunteer organization, runs a unique community centre. The volunteers are from Colombo and they teach English and IT among other subjects to the children of the area. The school desperately needs English teachers and the volunteers teach both at the local schools and also offer classes at their centre. For these young volunteers, Puthukkudiyiruppu is a world apart from anything they were used to in Colombo. Their centre gets electricity only for about two hours a day through their generator. They use this time to charge their phones and laptops and finish cooking dinner. No lights or fans after 8.30 in the evening – tough in the sweltering Northern heat.

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Puthukuduyiruppu, June 2013. Photograph by Aamina Nizar

Students at the Centre for Hope wait for their IT class to begin. All the children had family who had died in the war. One student at the Centre of Hope, aged 18, she lost her father four years ago. She is now doing her A/levels in the local school and is studying in the Arts stream. but the centre owns a few laptops which they use to help with the lessons. However, since they cannot be charged for long, even their usage is limited. Many of the IT lessons are theoretical but the children learn fast. According to the volunteers, “the children are fantastic with the laptops, iPads and phones. They learn very fast. But they only see it as an object of curiosity rather than a real tool of education”. The older students learn basic Microsoft Office while the younger children use Paint and familiarise themselves with the tablets and laptops.

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Puthukuduyiruppu, June 2013. Photograph by Aamina Nizar

Robinson and his family live opposite the Centre for Hope and is one of the few lucky ones to be able to buy a second hand solar panel. “Brand new it costs about Rs. 70,000, but I managed to get this for Rs. 20,000.” The solar panel is connected to a small battery that powers their tiny TV and DVD player. The neighbour’s children join Robinson’s family to watch movies. His daughter studies at the Centre for Hope, goes for IT lessons and speaks a little English and Sinhala. Robinson used to be a mason before he was paralyzed after a wall fell on him on the job. Meanwhile, his home was taken over by the LTTE to be used as an office, and they now live in a small shack with tarpaulin sheets for walls.

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Puthukuduyiruppu, June 2013. Photograph by Aamina Nizar

We heard a mobile phone ringing inside one of the houses nearby and we went in to find Satgunasingham answering a phone call from his wife. He has no access to electricity to charge his phone. But his wife works in a town nearby that has electricity and he visits her everyday just to charge his phone. Using a mobile phone here is restricted. Not because of a lack of network or security restrictions, but simply because charging the batteries is impossible as there’s no access to electricity. Yet, nearly everyone I met had their own mobile phone. With the increase in mobile phone usage, people in areas like this that managed without electricity for years, are now realizing that having a mobile phone and somehow finding the means to charge it up is very important to them.

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Puthukuduyiruppu, June 2013. Photograph by Aamina Nizar

Electricity is a rare and expensive commodity in these resettlement villages. Walking around, though, this might not be obvious because as you look around you see many of the houses connected with power lines attached to wooden poles. But following the lines reveals the reality of it – one of the houses owns a generator and supplies electricity daily from 6.30 in the morning to 10.30 at night. Each household has to pay around Rs. 2,000 a month and they can only power one or two lightbulbs, their mobile phones, and possibly a small television for a few hours a day. Those who can’t afford it charge their phones in the homes of those who can. But the lack of electricity doesn’t stop them from enjoying life. Music and movies play a huge role in their entertainment. When people want to party they hire a generator and music set up for Rs. 8,000 and dance all night long for several days.

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Narahenpita, June 2013. Photograph by Aamina Nizar

Down Thalakotuwa Gardens in Narahenpita, and near the banks of the canal, lies a colourful, multi ethnic colony. Despite being in the heart of the commercial capital of Colombo, this area had received grid-connected electricity only seven years ago. Some houses are permanent, some makeshift, and not all authorized. Just behind the colony exists an affluent residential area, which is also home to three prominent international schools. The houses of some of the 400 families living in the colony barely have doors, with curtains providing the only privacy to its inhabitants. Yet, no matter what the state of the houses, nearly every one of them has a television and small dish antennae.

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Narahenpita, June 2013. Photograph by Aamina Nizar

These urban settlements are a multicultural melting pot. Wilfred, a three-wheel driver and resident of the colony, says “People here are very peaceful. We are not affected by the recent religious tensions in the country”. In fact, Wilfred’s wedding was a secular affair with no church ceremony or poruwa. Their house does not pay homage to any symbols of religion. When I walked into the house, his wife Samitha was teaching the English alphabet to their 5 year old son even though she doesn’t speak the language fluently. They don’t have a computer at home and do not even visit internet café’s to go online. The only time they do use the internet is to download music on Wilfred’s phone. Samitha’s sister has a computer however, and they used to visit her to use it to make video calls to relatives abroad. Wilfred is optimistic about buying a computer one day. “I feel having a computer would be good, even though I don’t really need to use one in the kind of work I do. Maybe for the children.”

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Narahenpita, June 2013. Photograph by Aamina Nizar

The television shares a wall with a shrine to the gods in Chandramohan’s house. Chadramohan, 41, lives with his wife Leelawathie and their three young sons. He has a simple phone with no access to the internet and has never used the nearby internet café. Like others in the colony who are mainly engaged in manual labour-type jobs, he didn’t think that computers were important for any of them. His family watches television for the most part of the day and entertainment is more important than news on TV. “Seven years ago when we did not have electricity we could go to our friends who had TV to watch anything important”, he added.

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Narahenpita, June 2013. Photograph by Aamina Nizar

“My name is Ayesha,” says Ameena Begum’s 10 year old daughter in English. She studies at Muslim Ladies College in the Sinhala medium whereas her mother had studied in Tamil. She shares the home with her sister and the two have a small business making rice packets for lunch and stringhoppers for dinner. She only watches TV after 9pm after the day’s cooking is over. Ameena’s husband works in Qatar. Her young nephew repairs computer for a living, a skill he learned going for computer classes. “I will probably get a computer for my daughter when she is a little older.”

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