When Radhika Hettiarachchi asked Sri Lankan mothers from North and East for their stories, she knew what she would hear would go beyond them; that their stories would stretch to encompass their children and their husbands, their mothers and fathers, their homes, their work and even their communities. “When you ask a woman about her story, rarely does she say ‘me, me, me’,” says Radhika. “It’s beautiful,” she adds, explaining that she found that mothers had generous memories, and kept records for their whole family.
A freelance developmental practitioner, Radhika first became interested in the project while out in the field doing consultancy work for different NGOs. “You can get so caught up that sometimes you miss out on how each person you talk to has a story that goes beyond the project,” she says. The stories she’s collected are powerful, authentic accounts from families that have sent their sons off to war and lost fathers to the gun, families that still live with death and displacement and disability.
These are also accounts of children born, homes remade and peace reclaimed. Pointing out that some of these women had lived through the unimaginable; Radhika says it was their strength, grace and above all their ability to still hope for a better future that touched her so deeply. “I just wanted to record it so that I could share it with other people,” she says. “I started doing a few and it grew from that.”
Today Radhika has 220 ‘Herstories’ from women in the South (Moneragala and Kurunegala) and North (Vavuniya, Mullaitivu and Killinochchi). 60 of these will make up a travelling exhibition that will visit Colombo, Ampara and Galle, while all the stories will be logged into an archive available online and will be available in Sinhala, English and Tamil. You’ll find them on www.herstories.org.
The stories come in a variety of formats: some through hand-written letters recounting women’s personal histories, experiences and hopes (letters addressed to their old pen pals to their children and even to Radhika herself); some are in the form of photo essays taken by Sharni Jayawardena; some are short videos filmed by November Productions and edited by Radhika; some use mapping and visual story-telling exercises. The last provide a lovely, visual way of navigating a life. ‘Trees of Life’ filled out by the women themselves are built around this concept: “The ground is today, the roots their personal history, the bark their life experiences, the branches their hopes, the fruits good things in themselves or their lives, the leaves people that are important to them,” explains Radhika.
Radhika sees the women’s oral histories as adding to the compendium of the Sri Lankan culture of oral tradition and storytelling and hopes they will contribute to reconcilliation and the preservation of history from through the ‘voices of those that lived it.’ Putting the exhibition together was a challenge that involved many site visits. They approached the women through the local organisations that were working with them, but the women clearly felt most at ease in their homes.
They were surprisingly eager to talk: “People really wanted to leave something of themselves behind for the future and the idea that their words were going to be somewhere for ever, was wonderful for them,” says Radhika. Interestingly, when asked ‘What are the good things in your life?’ many women responded by identifying their own strength and perseverance.
‘Herstories’ will be on in Colombo on April 6 and 7 at the Harold Peiris Gallery, Lionel Wendt, in Ampara from April 20-21 at the Christa Illam Hall, Kalmunai and in Galle on April 27 -28 at an as yet undecided venue. Collaborators on the project include the organisation Viluthu, Sharni Jayawardena and November Productions. Find them online by visiting www.herstoryarchive.org and on Facebook by searching for ‘Herstories Archives’.
Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on March 31, 2013. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Radhika.