Greatness of Spirit compels one to give of himself, to selflessly serve others for the greater good. ANANDA GALAPPATTI, 2008 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Emergent Leadership, returned to his native Sri Lanka and provided psychosocial interventions for survivors of war and natural disasters (such as the 2006 Boxing Day tsunami). He really didn’t have to, but his Greatness of Spirit got in the way.
University professors Ranjit and Janaki Galappatti know that there is much to learn beyond the confines of the classroom. That is why when they were raising their children in the ‘70s and ‘80s, they always brought along their son Ananda and daughter Sunila on their trips. While on board their white Volkswagon Beetle, the family of four explored every corner of Sri Lanka, skipping the troubled north-west end, in search of historic or interesting sites. Along the way, the children bathed in streams or waterfalls and identified the plants they saw on the roadsides as coached by Janaki, a plant pathologist. Many times they slept in the car in one place and woke up in new territory,
The family expeditions were not limited within Sri Lanka. When Ranjit’s work as civil engineer required the family to live in The Netherlands for about a year in the 1980s, they went on a budget camping trip through Western Europe, this time using a rusty orange Beetle. In the 1990s, while the family was stationed in Bangladesh, parents and children visited parts of South and Southeast Asia.
His exposure to the diverse cultures, life situations, social relationships and, not to mention, the sumptuous foods led the young Ananda “to be particularly attentive to and adaptive to new social contexts”. His experiences sparked an interest in the social sciences so that on his second year at Cambridge University where he was pursuing a degree in molecular cell biology, he decided to shift to psychology with focus on a new field, social and developmental psychology. Upon graduation in 1996, 21-year-old Ananda returned to Sri Lanka after an absence of eight years and declared, “I want to work in developing countries and make a contribution there.”
Ananda Galappatti has been true to his word. Twelve years after he decided on his career path, he has been elected to receive the 2008 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership “in recognition of his spirited personal commitment to bring appropriate and effective psychosocial services to victims of war trauma and natural disaster in Sri Lanka”.
The recognition mentions two different crises in Sri Lanka: war, in reference to the conflict between government and Tamil separatists and natural disaster, in reference to the December 2004 tsunami.
Upon his return, Sri Lanka was experiencing the endless woes that come with war: loss of life and property, interrupted schooling, homeless families, loss of livelihood, hunger, sickness. He took his time to be re-oriented with his country and to understand what was happening. He was aware of his inadequacy as a new graduate and he says, “While my undergraduate education meant that I had the basic conceptual building blocks with which to make sense of the theory and research relating to the psychological and social consequences of conflict…I was still quite unprepared for the work that I would soon be involved in….I was fortunate to receive shorter components of training and mentoring from experienced therapists and social workers, which really helped me to orient my own work.”
He joined the research study team of Dr. Gameela Samarasinghe that looked into effects of war on the people living in conflict zones. The study showed that 50 to 60 per cent of those in the affected areas suffered from post-traumatic stress. To help fill the gap, they formed the War Trauma Psychosocial Support Program (PSP).
Ananda headed the PSP’s capacity building arm and started by training 20 psychosocial workers in Vavuniya, “a war-demoralized district six hours from Colombo”.
He relates his experience on that first training, “This was the first attempt to put into practice the idea that we could address psychosocial suffering through integrating support into mainstream development activities and services. Our view (which was relatively innovative in the late 1990s) was that in conflict contexts, people’s well-being could be enhanced by ensuring that regular processes (for example, resettling refugees in new plots of land, provision of medical services, administering of loan schemes) were conducted in ways that were sensitive to the emotional and social issues at stake for the people concerned. Referral to and provision of more specialized assistance could be provided subtly in conjunction with the more generic integrated support.”
The intensive training was conducted for over a period of two-and-a-half years, with follow-up for another year and a half. The mostly young trainees were taught a range of skills “that would enable them to work in a number of settings and respond to psychosocial distress flexibly”. Among these skills were how to provide individual counseling support, facilitate community groups, design and run play interventions, and use applied theatre techniques.
Ananda reports that even when their trainees were absorbed by government and non-government agencies, PSP still supervised and gave them support. He says, “One set of workers actually wound up being the managers of a resettlement project, since their unique skills and insights meant that they were best able to mediate between the various needs of the resettled people and the activities that had to take place for the building of a new village community.”
Ananda and his colleagues have since refined their training methods and strategies and have since trained people “who are already in crucial support roles to integrate psychosocial support principles into their daily practice.” Such workers are teachers, development workers, play group animators, probation and child care officers, community volunteers, and medical staff.
When the tsunami hit Sri Lanka coastlines in December 2004, Ananda had just completed his masteral studies in medical anthropology at the University College London. He says, “I was much more aware of what I wanted out of education – tools that I could apply to better understand psychosocial suffering, and that could guide the development of services and systems to alleviate it.”
Less than a month after the tsunami, Ananda organized the “The Mangrove: Psychosocial Support and Coordination Unit” together with a network of organizations and core group of individuals. The Mangrove operated in Batticoloa district, one of the worst hit areas in Sri Lanka, to coordinate and synchronize the psychosocial interventions of humanitarian agencies, state institutions, and other groups doing relief work. Mangrove also facilitated technical support to the agencies to improve the quality of services provided.
Ananda was in charge of Mangrove’s day-to-day operations. The Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation citation describes his work, thus: “As the Mangrove’s coordinator, he lobbied incessantly for better psychosocial services. He liaised with local, national, and international agencies; convened meeting after meeting for aid workers and psychosocial practitioners; and briefed newly arrived aid organizations. He set up a rapid assessment system for orphaned children, organized training workshops and mediated quarrels between aid organizations. Constantly networking, Galappatti spread word of “best practices” and warned of harmful ones. Meanwhile, he and his collaborators made countless humane interventions, insisting that women in refugee camps have private places to bathe and sleep, that anxious students have their examinations postponed, that orphans be placed with relatives or familiar care-givers, and that families be granted privacy when identifying their dead.”
He recalls his work, “I had to coordinate a large number of agencies and groups (over 70) in the first six months after the disaster and had to mediate many different interests in quite a chaotic time.” If he was able to give so much time to Mangrove, it was because Ananda had moved in to Batticaloa with his wife and daughter. For their first six months, the family lived in the Batticaloa Teaching Hospital, in the clergy ward which is right next to the psychiatric unit.
From January 2005 to mid-2006, Ananda worked with The Mangrove as a volunteer. Working without pay was, Ananda says, a necessary move. He explains, “I realized from the moment that I was asked to help set up the network that my neutrality would be key to the success of the network. A key part of maintaining and demonstrating that neutrality was to avoid being financially supported by any agency or group.” In addition, he says, “Just after the tsunami, finances were not something that many people worried about. So many people were giving their time and resources without any concern for remuneration.”
In 2003, Ananda co-founded Intervention, a journal that provides a forum for practitioners around the world to access and exchange knowledge on mental health, psychosocial work and counseling in areas of armed conflict. Issues of the journal can be downloaded from the internet after one year and abstracts are provided in Sinhala, Tamil, French, Spanish, Arabic, and Russian.
In recent years, Ananda’s efforts have made possible the offering of certificate-level and graduate training through local universities to build on the skills of workers in the psychosocial support services sector. He has documented and is promoting alternatives to the institutional care of children affected by conflict, poverty, and other crises. He has developed methods for understanding how adults and children in conflict and disaster-affected communities conceive of their well-being so that support work can address their concerns more directly.
Ananda is currently working on an innovative doctoral degree program with three colleagues for which they are working on projects that have evolved from their experiences in the field of mental health, child protection, support for victims of violence and youth sexuality.
After leaving a few years ago due to political instability, Ananda and his family are back in the old town of Batticaloa. They live in the campus of a local university, in a rent-free house. He and wife Sarala engage in consulting work that allows them to continue volunteer work.
Resident artist, crayon-wielding daughter Arundhati, is getting her life lessons early.