Polishing Diamonds in the Rough

13 Aug


Ever since it was announced a few weeks ago that Gethsie Shanmugam (82) is a recipient of this year’s Ramon Magsaysay Award – Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize – visitors and journalists have been flooding her home. The sprightly silver haired lady is taking it in her stride with good humour and grace, although the constant influx is not easy on her elderly husband (89).

The chaos currently in her home is nothing compared to what she had to undergo not too long ago. She was voluntarily, constantly in and out of the war zone in the North and East, juxtaposing Colombo’s relative stability with the constant aerial bombardments of bombs and shells in the war zones she was traveling in, in order to counsel the war-affected and heal their trauma – even as they unfolded before her eyes. She was by then already in her 60s, but did not consider her age, gender or ethnicity as frailties.

How did she do it? Was there ever a time she feared for her life?
“No, I never thought about it. I just did what I had to do.”
Was she traumatised herself or suffer compassion fatigue?
“Yes, sometimes I would almost quit. Then I would get back up and go on.”


She recalls scenes of devastation in the aftermath of frequent battles. Army and LTTE fighters alike flailing in pain, along with civilians. Of civilians even then showing humanity by tending to both factions regardless of whether they were Sinhala Army soldiers or Tamil LTTE cadres. At great personal risk to themselves she takes care to reiterate, as both factions took revenge on those who gave succour to the other. That was what led her on. The fact that even if she saw inhumanity in some cases, she also saw great humanity in other instances, cutting across the lines of ethnicity and war.

“I never took sides in the war, it was not my place. As an Estate Tamil brought up by a Sinhala lady and eventually married to a Jaffna Tamil, I have been from childhood beyond the narrow definitions of ethnicity and regional affiliations. The same goes for religion. I am a christian married to a hindu, then turned to buddhism and vegetarianism among other paths in my search for truth. I keep an open mind, whether its ideologies or people.” says Gethsie.

As such, as a Tamil lady who speaks all three languages,Tamil, Sinhala and English,  she had no trouble gaining permission to move frequently into the war zone, keeping on neutral terms with both the Army and the LTTE in order to go about her work to serve the war-affected people directly.

It is for this work that she has now been awarded the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award. For nearly four decades she has been engaged in psycho-social healing, especially of women and children in conflict settings in various areas of Sri Lanka, but particularly the war zone.

Yet she says she had no sense of this mega destiny early in life. She was born in a tea estate in Nawalapitya to parents of Indian origin. “My father was the chief clerk on the estate and we had an idyllic childhood there, growing up in a bungalow with well-endowed facilities. Tragedy hit a little later. My mother passed away when I was 15, and my father nine years later, at which time I was the only earning member of our family. With an elder brother still in University and two younger sisters, I had just begun to earn as a teacher after completing my education at teachers’ training college.”

Her career started placidly enough as an English teacher. She took a break of some years to get married and raise her young family before joining St.Joseph’s College, Colombo in 1967, where her capacity to be a counselor was identified by the rector there. “I noticed some of the boys had psycho-social issues which impacted their behaviour and concentration in class, so I often stayed behind after school hours to talk to them and see what I could do for them. The rector Fr. Joseph Benedict who saw this recommended me to Rev Dr. Mervin Fernando who was then pioneering psycho-social services in Sri Lanka. I studied Basic Counselling from him at the Family Studies Services Institute in 1982 and from thereon became his protege.”

She reels off a list of her educational qualifications in psychotherapy and work experience in diverse areas of Sri Lanka as well as abroad in several countries from then on. Suffice it to say it is a very impressive list but beyond the scope of this article to encompass because it would take several pages to capture. She has lived a full and varied life ever since finding her vocation as a counselor nearly four decades ago. She has also written and published many of her findings in the psycho-social sphere in Sri Lanka, in order to share her knowledge, as well as to induct other therapists into her field.   

2013 Gethsie Shanmugam conducting session for Suriya Womens Development Centre

A regular complaint in Sri Lanka, made by those working in psychotherapy, is the lack of qualified and skilled personnel in magnitudes necessary to deal with the nationwide trauma the decades long conflict has caused. Gethsie however is not a complainer. She works instead to find creative solutions to overcome the lack of manpower in Sri Lankan psychotherapy – especially in areas that needs them the most.

“I had returned from Batticaloa to Colombo just before the tsunami of 2004. I got a call the day after the tsunami to come back. A large number of people were freshly traumatized by the massive natural disaster on top of the conflict they had been coping with. When I went back, the magnitude of the sheer scales of the  number of people affected overwhelmed me.”

She didn’t have the cadre of therapists necessary to counsel all the affected people, but their trauma was massive. What was she to do? “I thought for a while about what could be done to scale the numbers, and overcome our lack of trained personnel.  I then came up with the idea of ‘tea groups.’ Everyone drinks tea in Sri Lanka and the act of preparing it as well as sitting around drinking it in groups is itself a healing process. I told the counselors to get the community to make tea for these group settings every evening, along with kolukattais – a steamed sweet snack encased in dough. I asked for the Kolukattais specifically because kneading the dough to make it in batches necessary for the group would also be a healing process for the community. There is stress relief in doing routine things that you will later enjoy together, like Kolukattais and tea.  Later, while they enjoyed the fruits of their labour,  they could sit in a circle in each camp talking about what they had undergone, learning and healing from each other, listening and talking to each other. That was the first stage of their healing process, that I set in motion, in the absence of more sophisticated mechanisms at my disposal.”

Facilitating training in Vavuniya

Her experience in psychosocial care has been varied and diverse, beginning with counseling children in Colombo Schools, to mainstreaming street children, and engaging with war-affected children along with their parents. Her language as she explains all this, is one of humility and simplicity. She does not talk of healing the people as a one way process but a process which enriched her in a two-way system whereby she learned and grew as a person too.

“I always learn in these experiences but I especially learned from the Street children. The whole nation could learn from the Street children. They  were children of broken homes who ran away because they could not take it anymore. They bonded together on the streets and were fiercely loyal to each other. They all spoke Sinhala and Tamil simultaneously and when facilitated into schools by NGOs, demanded to learn English as a priority. The boys helped the girls to wear trousers and cut their hair – to prevent them from being sexually abused. Even as they slept on the streets, they would take care to have the girls safely in the middle while the boys slept on the perimeter. Their loyalty, integrity and hard work in the face of the continuous abuse they faced is unparalleled.”

Asked for one anecdote of a street child who influenced her, she tells the story of a young leader of a group of street children. He was 17, and as the eldest among them was a father figure to the others, working hard to ensure their food and sustainability.
“He had a Sinhalese name I recall, so I spoke to him in my halting Sinhala. After a while he switched to Tamil seeing that I was struggling. Amazed at his native fluency in Tamil, I asked him where he was from. Turned out he was from Mannar. He had woken up one day to see his village on fire. He had no idea what had happened to cause it but remembered his mother wailing. He simply walked away from the village in a daze, and then came upon a train. He got into the train, still in a daze, and ended up in Colombo. Aged just eight or nine, he had to live by his wits. Yet,with all the trauma he had undergone at his young age, he was extremely intelligent and industrious. He took great care of the band of street children he ended up with. He eventually married and settled down.”

She remembers a booklet she published on her work with street children titled ‘What’s inside?’

“I titled it thus, because the children functioning as outsiders from an early age were deeply curious of what was inside other people’s homes. What was inside the shops and buildings they were not welcome in? They were always trying to peep in. They had been thrown outside the system but still had zest for life. I learned so much from working with them.”
She quotes a poem that directly speaks to her of such children she has regularly worked with, beginning from those at St. Joseph’s College to the street children and the children in the war zone:

A Diamond In The Rough

A diamond in the rough,
is a diamond sure enough:
And before it ever sparkles,
it is made of diamond stuff;

But someone has to find it,
or it never will be found:
And someone has to grind it,
or it never will be ground;

In the hands of the master,
it is cut and burnished bright:
Then that diamond’s everlasting,
shinning out its purest light.

—- 1972 Bradley Ray Wardle —-




She fondly recalls children she worked with as ‘diamonds in the rough’ some of whom were eventually burnished bright – but as she is too well aware, she too was a diamond in the rough and was burnished by them in turn.

“Humans are valuable,” she says softly in parting. “This reconciliation process – it is taking too long. But we all have to do our part. We have to recognize the humanity in ourselves and in each other as something valuable, which needs to be healed; needs to be cherished. We were all affected. We all have to heal.”

Photos are all of Gethsie in the field, courtesy Sabrina Cader, Suriya Women’s Development Center and Ananda Galappatti.





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