Entreprenuers / Farmers

Ayesha and Nalin Perera: Living Like Locals

Daisy has trouble with her table manners – she can’t seem to resist putting her feet into her food. Scolding her affectionately, Ayesha Perera urges the pregnant cow to step out of her feeding trough. Luckily, we’ve all been introduced already – Daisy, Molly, Elsa, Goldie and Preeti have just celebrated their second birthdays at Tamarind Gardens, the farm that Ayesha and her husband Nalin Perera run. Though the animals are feasting on bales of lush green grass, Tamarind Gardens itself is in the throes of a drought. Yesterday marked the end of a seven day stretch with no water for the Pereras and the little village outside their property – a deeply ironic state of affairs, considering that just a few feet from the cow shed lie the deep blue waters of the Victoria Reservoir.

Daisy, Molly, Elsa and Goldie. Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

“You wouldn’t think that you’re coming 4km down the road from Pallekele, where they have the sprinklers on and everything is green and lush,” Ayesha says, explaining that until the rains come in September, Digana will stay dry and hot. According to Nalin the Mahaweli Authority only permits water to be siphoned from the reservoir if it’s for the benefit of a lot more people. Currently that translates into access only for those upmarket establishments in the area who are able to obtain such permissions from the Authority.

Still, even if they can’t draw from it, the reservoir is at least an integral part of the stunning view from Tamarind Gardens’ 4 chalets. Ayesha and Nalin hope to welcome guests who would like to ‘live like locals’ and give back to the community that hosts them. From the men working on the construction site to the women that will come in to cook for their guests, everyone is from around here. Much of the food will be grown on the organic farm itself and will be supplemented by produce from the neighbouring village. Local craftsman will have a chance to introduce foreigners to their art. For many, this will be a new and hopefully steady source of income.

When Ayesha and Nalin purchased the property over 10 years ago, there wasn’t running water or electricity and the mobile signal was faint. “When we first came here, all we saw was the view,” Nalin says. At 10 acres, the land was much bigger than they had expected to be able to afford. They were only able to maintain it because they had found a “most loyal” Estate Manager in Jayantha Ratnayake. “Jayantha has not only endured all the hardships of living here, but also almost single-handedly supervised all our operations here whilst we were overseas,” says Ayesha, expressing her gratitude.

At that time, the two were living and working in the UK where after 10 years with the Civil Service, Nalin operated his own refrigeration business. Ayesha had gone from the Deaf and Blind School in Ratmalana to the Benefits Agency in London. Having lived abroad for 35 years, Nalin says “deep down I always felt that it was home here, rather than in England. When I married Ayesha, I promised I would bring her back.”

Nalin and Ayesha

“We actually purchased this land as a commitment that we would return,” says Ayesha. Even as a little girl, she knew she wanted to have a farm. Growing up on a tea plantation, she remembers people coming from all around to buy the vegetables and flowers her mother grew. “She even sold bees honey. So, I was quite keen – that was the kind of life I wanted.”  Now people do the same for Ayesha, and the farm fresh eggs are in great demand. They have a small 24 egg incubator, and their most recent batch of hatchlings have been the most successful so far – 19 out of 24 hatched. They’ve had successful experiments with growing coffee, vegetables and herbs and think the chalky soil will support a fine harvest of grapes someday.

These successes are heartening, but there’s no escaping how tough life is here. This isn’t something they’re trying to hide from their guests. As far as Nalin is concerned, “engagement with the community is the principle thing. It’s not just to come to Sri Lanka and think of it as a beach holiday or a cultural holiday – there’s more to culture than that. It’s how people live, and this will give them an insight into reality. Nothing is put on here, it is how it is. It’s a hard life for many of the villagers here.”

This month, they had running water for only five days and have had to pay an additional fee to the Water Board so that a bowser could deliver some water to the farm. Not everyone can afford this, and some 500 local families are in need of tanks to store their water. Arpico offered their support with a special discount and so far Ayesha and Nalin have managed to raise enough funds to purchase 50 tanks. We visit Asoka Padmakanthi, who is the happy owner of new tank. Standing outside her house, her children clutching her leg, she says that they used to rely on tar barrels. These would often corrode and develop holes, things would fall in as well, and the dirty water made them all ill. With her husband abroad and her mother in law to support, times have been tough but the tanks help them store clean water for days at a time.

They’re hoping as well that the local authorities will finally get around to repairing the long promised road. An estimated 10,000 people living in the area rely on it and during last year’s Local Government Elections a board was erected in the area promising that the Aluthwatte Road would be constructed by January 2012. “There’s nothing yet,” Ayesha says ruefully, lamenting that vehicles are constantly in the garage and residents must pay more to travel or transport anything in these areas. The bad roads also contribute to the water problem as the pipes are constantly in need of repair.

Ayesha explains that many of the people in the area were displaced when the Victoria Dam was first built and the Mahaweli River flooded out their old homes. Now the Government has given them a deed and a plot of land, but earning a living in this barren place can seem almost impossible. “They all feel that they need to go abroad, and that there are greener pastures, which may not always be the case,” she says. “They come back with very sad stories.” Now, Tamarind Gardens might give a few of them reason to stay home.

A view of the Victoria Reservoir from the farm

Ananda Jayatillaka has been working with the couple as their basun. He believes the project is a good thing for the people in the village. No one has ever done something like this here before, he tells The Sunday Times, and the villagers are willing to help because they know it would benefit them in the long run. For Nalin and Ayesha this litany of problems, while discouraging, isn’t enough reason to leave. “For us, it’s about bringing Digana to the forefront and really allowing it to develop,” says Ayesha. “We are determined to turn it around.”

For more info email ayesha@tamarindgardens.com or visit www.tamarindgardens.com

Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 26 August, 2012. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by M.A Pushpa Kumara.

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