Walk with joy in your own skin | Sunday Observer

Walk with joy in your own skin

5 July, 2020
Robina P. Marks with Sybil Wettasinghe
Robina P. Marks with Sybil Wettasinghe

Bertolt Brecht once wrote a beautiful poem called A worker reads history part of which says:

Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Philip of Spain wept as his fleet As sunk and destroyed.
Were there no other tears?
Frederik the Great triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?
Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?
So many particulars.
So many questions.

It is indeed another powerful poem by Bertolt Brecht which brought so much insight about the prejudice and unfairness of history and its mankind. This poem seeded in the mind of Robina P. Marks - The South African High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, for many years and led to write a remarkable story for children about the history of the Afro-Sri Lankan community in the island.

Robina P. Marks  
Pic: Rukmal Gamage

The picture book Tell us our story, Grandma written by Robina P. Marks is the latest addition to every school library across the country and of great magnitude for its vivid illustration done by veteran artist, the late Sybil Wettasignhe. Tell us our story, Grandma was one of her recent artistic encounters before her departure.

The picture book, Tell us our story, Grandma examines the unfair prejudice carried out during the colonial era and about the sad history of the slave ancestry of Afro- Sri Lankans.

“I have a personal interest in wanting to see this book see the light of day-I am partially from slave ancestry on my maternal side, and on my paternal side a local indigenous tribe, the same tribe that Nelson Mandela comes from, the Xhosa tribe. And so I carry the colonial trauma in my DNA. We dare not forget the antecedents that gave rise to the scourge that is slavery, and the way in which it dislocated people from their history, their culture, and their identity,” said Ms. Marks in an exclusive interview with the Sunday Observer.

Besides her diplomatic career as the South African High Commissioner to many South East Asia countries, Robina P. Marks adds the title of author to her growing résumé through a children’s book that focuses on the Afro-Sri Lankan community that live in the island. As she elaborates, her primary intention is to introduce her ancestral community to Sri Lankan children and nurture the awareness of colourism, self-love and acceptance to help girls and boys find the inspiration to ‘walk with joy in their own skin’.

Excerpts of the interview:

Q. What kindled your interest in an illustrated book to document the story of the African origins in Sri Lanka?

A. South Africa and Sri Lanka were colonised within the same century by the Portuguese, the Dutch and finally the British before gaining their freedom to determine their own national path towards self-determination. Colonialism caused deep trauma in both countries, as people lost their lives and livelihoods, were taken by force and enslaved as uncompensated, imprisoned labourers to create wealth for a foreign power, which set back severely the natural evolutionary development of our indigenous societies from which much of our current status as ‘developing countries’ derives.

And so South Africa and Sri Lanka were both victims of the lucrative Indo-Atlantic slave trade, which was only abolished in the 18th century. Some of the negative impacts of colonial rule include the exploitation of natural resources exported to such countries, and created enormous wealth for them.

And so the negative impact of colonialism can still be seen in many post-colonial challenges that has beset many countries. The Afro-Lankan community, currently around 350 families, many of whom have inter-married Sri Lankans, reminds us of the devastating impact of colonialism and the effects of the slave trade on the life of subsequent generations of Afro-Lankans.Unfortunately, some of the ‘benefits’ of colonialism include vestiges of colourism and asymmetrical power relations. An unfair tax burden on colonial subjects, for example, rolled back any of the investments in railroads and the education system that was made, while the bulk of colonial taxation went towards maintaining colonial governments.

Today, they form part of the wonderful mosaic that makes up this beautiful country, but it is important that their history be shared with the present generation of Sri Lankan children, to remind us of the respect for the lives and dignity of every Sri Lankan irrespective of where we come from.

Q. What are the objectives sought by this book?

A. As an Embassy, we have been working closely with the Afro-Lankan descendants, some 350 families scattered across the island in various clusters, particularly, the well-known Ceylon Manja group in Puttalam, who through maintaining the rich oral history of their forefathers, proudly demonstrate with song, dance and food their rich history as part of an integrated community, but proud Sri Lankans.

We have always maintained a close relationship with this somewhat marginal community in Sri Lanka. We even helped to facilitate a visit to South Africa with the kind support of the Sri Lankan embassy in South Africa, because the group had never visited the continent of Africa before! Incidentally, one of the first issues we had to address at the time when the group applied for visas, was their naming of themselves as ‘Kaffirs’. We had a long conversation with them at this point, because the word ‘kaffir’ is a pejorative, racial slur, deeply offensive to us as Black people.

This is a word embedded in the racist ideology of white supremacy, and was used to devastating effect to dehumanise, oppress and kill many people in South Africa. This was explained to the group, and when they understood the meaning of the word, they self-identified themselves as Sri Lankans of African descent. We have a rich vein of written history that chronicles the names and presence of as many as 30 ,700 people from Sri Lanka (particularly Colombo and Galle), India, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore during 1652-1806 and brought to our shores. I guess in some ways we can say that we share a common gene in some instances!

I, therefore, hope that our children’s book, that was developed with this community of Afro-Sri Lankans that tells their story dating back to the slave trade, will shift mindsets and deal with the issues of marginalisation. We have also set up a special scholarship fund for the children of Afro-Lankan ancestry, because we have discovered that many of the people are poor, and the number of learners who pass the GCE O/L examination is less than five in the country.

Q. How did the celebrated illustrator and writer Sybil Wettasinghe cross your path?

A. I have always loved children’s books, and I became aware of the prolific number of beautiful stories that Aunty Sibyl had published over the years. Of course, given her age, I had no idea that she would agree to do the illustrations for us. I had merely gone to her house to tell her how much I respected and admired her work, and was surprised when, after hearing the story, she immediately agreed to do the illustrations! I could not have been happier! She told me something that really tugged at my heart.

She said, “I know what it is like to be teased about the colour of your skin, because when I was a child the other children used to call me ‘kalu’ and make fun of me. I told my father about their teasing, and he told me that I was his precious jewel, and I must just ignore them.

That’s why I feel I must help with this book, because all children should love and care for each other, no matter the colour of the skin”. I then had several meetings with her to discuss the book, and am happy to say that her illustrations captured beautifully the story and emotion we tried to convey!

We are honoured that someone who is a foremost female illustrator in Sri Lanka, and a pioneer in the field and who opened the path to men and women, was willing to help us with this project. I regard her as my second mother, and admire her greatly for her gentle, wise spirit.

Q. As relatively a ‘new fan’ of Sybil’s work, what are your thoughts of her unique ‘talking pictures?’

A. She has a warm, evocative style, and show great respect and empathy for her characters. She truly understands the heart of a child, and I am certain this will become a well loved children’s book for years to come, and serve as an enduring testament of her talent and the history of this beautiful country.

Q. Who are the parties you wish to remember who were involved in the research for the book?

A. There is a dearth of research on the lives of slaves. They are the forgotten people of most countries, and their lives and histories are seldom recorded. And of course, there were no cameras at that time, and I had to rely on line drawings, some of which was shared generously with me by renowned expert and historian on Dutch history, Prof Paranavithana.

And the Galle Heritage Foundation, and its board members, were extremely helpful in pointing me in the right direction for further research. Also, Dr Lionel Mandy, provided the much needed research material for which we are deeply grateful. We also received a generous financial contribution from R. Rajamahendran of the Capital Maharaja Organisation, and are deeply grateful for that.

Q. What measures are envisaged to make this book accessible to the Sri Lankan public? Will it be commercially available?

A. This book is an important contribution to all Sri Lankan children learning history to leave it to the capricious market to decide whether it should be sold or not.

Therefore, we will be distributing the book free, to all primary school libraries in the country, and in all three languages.

At present we only have sufficient funds to publish 1,500 copies, so I would like to appeal to any kind benefactor to help us ensure that the book reaches as many school libraries as well as public libraries as possible. Please contact our Embassy if you can assist, on, [email protected],gov.za

Q. What message would you like to give the international community through this labour of love?

A. I can only repeat the words of our great leader and former president, when he said, “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. It always seems impossible until it is done”

Q. You captured the imagination of Sri Lankans as a ‘people’s diplomat’. This labour further manifests the fact. When you look back, how fulfilling was your stint here in Sri Lanka and what are the best ‘gifts’ Sri Lankans have given you in terms of memories to take home? During your tenure what did you identify as ‘distinct strengths’ of our tiny island?

A. It has been my greatest privilege to have served in this beautiful country. I met a people who are proud of their country, heritage, culture and hopeful for their future. I am pleased that we were able to increase our trade positively during my tenure, which places our bilateral relations on a much stronger and healthier footing.

I will treasure the many beautiful places I was able to visit, and leave with a strong and abiding love for the beauty of this country that will definitely keep me coming back for more and more!

I am satisfied that we have a newfound respect and appreciation between our two countries, and wish to thank Sri Lanka for making my posting here a memorable one!