Life on $3.50 a day

Maheshika Dilhani, proud in her school uniform.

Maheshika Dilhani, proud in her school uniform.

Maheshika Dihani, last saw her mother a week ago.

But she the 13 year-old eighth-grader in northern Sri Lanka won’t see her mother again for a long time.

In this part of Sri Lanka, 20 percent of mothers are absent, off working in the Middle East as housemaids. They return home to visit every two years. This absence of mothers creates big discipline and logistical problems in families, and the Sri Lankan government is rethinking the wisdom of allowing parents to leave the country. Sometimes the fathers are gone too.

And yet, in other ways children like Maheshika are the lucky ones.

Their families receive an average of $200 a month in remittances, and are economically better off than many of their neighbors.

Maheshika’s mother ran off at 14 with her father and Maheshika was born shortly after. The official marriage age is 18, but this happens fairly often in a place with few options—another woman told me she had married at 14 after her parents were killed in the war. Maheshiki’s father disappeared and is not part of her life. “I’ll never let my daughter become like me,” Maheshika’s mother said and “I now understand the importance of education.”

Maheshiki is cared for, with great diligence, by her grandmother, W. Podimanike.

Maheshika with her Room to Read advisor and others. Note her artwork on the wall.

Maheshika with her Room to Read advisor and others. Note her artwork on the wall.

Their small home is made of brick. Unlike the home we had just visited, they have a mosquito net, electricity, and a tank for safe drinking. Three dollars and fifty cents a day sounds like so little and it is—the cost of my Peet’s latte at home–and yet the grandmother is a great steward.

Although Maheshika is clearly a bright girl—she is now second academically in her class of 40 and the class captain—her mother’s absence made things hard for her and her attendance and performance had been poor. It improved when she became a Room to Read scholar in 2012 and received the additional helps—including life skills classes and academic tutoring—that comes along with that program.

All over the walls are bright pictures painted or drawn by Maheshika, whose goal is to become an art teacher. The grandmother, with her sewing machine by the door, and brightly colored rugs she makes and sells—for a little over a dollar—is clearly a good influence and steward.

They are surprisingly comfortable with a dozen foreign visitors, including Room to Read founder John Wood crowding the small home.

Wood asks her: “Do you think you might one day like to illustrate a book of your own?”

She dashes back to her study area…which takes up about 30% of the home…and returns with a bound bundle of paper, tied carefully with a ribbon.

It is, in fact, a children’s book that she has written and illustrated herself.

Everyone is admiring the book and her work, all of which is indeed quite wonderful.

But I can’t help looking at another picture: the one of Makeshika’s absent mother, displayed prominently in the living room.

Makeshika won’t see her again for nearly two years.

 

Room to Read founder John Wood admires a book that Maheshika has written and illustrated herself.

Room to Read founder John Wood admires a book that Maheshika has written and illustrated herself. photos by Charlie Ray

About Karen Ray

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