A Natural Leader

Priyangani is the eldest daughter of a Tsunami-affected family in the fishing village of Telwatta in Galle District. The family’s life before the 2004 Tsunami was a constant struggle, but no matter how stretched the meager family resources were, the parents ensured that all four children finished their schooling. Priyangani’s father worked as a fisherman, though he was finding it harder to work with his deteriorating eyesight. Her mother earned a small income from making coir rope, and her children always helped her with this income-generating activity. One sister had a government job, and another was employed at a local garment factory. In the early morning of the 26th December 2004, their lives changed in a moment. Their home was destroyed, their belongings were swept away, and more tragically, one of Priyangani’s sisters died in the angry waves.

Priyangani’s family was traumatized and reeling from the loss of life and destruction in their community. Relief and development agencies started arriving in the area, gradually starting the reconstruction process of the battered coastline. More and more workers started to arrive, and an idea crossed Priyangani’s mind. The utter devastation of the area meant that there were no outlets to sell tea, snacks, food, betel and other basic necessities. This was an opportunity for her family to start a new life. Priyangani was an active member of Prajashakti Sahabagithwa Sanwardena Padanama Hikkaduwa, a local NGO that formed part of the Galle District Consortium. As part of the NGO’s Tsunami assistance programme, with SLCDF support and Local Capacity and Community Restoration Project funds, Priyangani received a loan of Rs. 5,000 to start a small village canteen. The family started serving tea, breakfast, lunch and sold items like betel. The business flourished with the increasing number of workers in the area, and soon provided a monthly income of approximately Rs. 20,000. When another INGO offered the family a new house built of cement blocks, they shifted the canteen to their new home and expanded operations by supplying other small-scale businesses with products and goods. The family named the new shop in memory of the daughter who perished and the sign board today reads Shyama Stores.

Priyangani attributes the success of the family’s venture to the knowledge and skills she acquired from participating in three-day entrepreneurship development training programme conducted by the NGO Management Development Centre (NGOMDC) supported by SLCDF. In the months following the Tsunami, Priyangani started to mobilize Tsunami-affected women in her village to join a CBO. She enjoyed this new leadership role, and liked listening to the problems voiced by the community women, while suggesting solutions to help them out of poverty. Within a short period of time, she had 60 women mobilized in the CBO. Priyangani decided to visit the neighbouring village of Metiwala, where she repeated her prowess by successfully mobilizing 60 women for community development work.

Priyangani has a special ability to connect with people and has been very successful in mobilizing her CBO members to actively participate in community initiatives that build social capital. Over the past few years, she has received further training as a district-level trainer for NGOMDC and the Galle District Consortium. In addition to entrepreneurship development training, she has also taken courses in participatory planning and accounts management. She says that these programmes and subsequent trainer-of-trainer (TOT) sessions have expanded her horizons and encouraged her to offer herself as a resource for women in her village and surrounding communities.

Priyangani acknowledges that she has changed a lot as a person since the 2004 tsunami. Whereas once she was more sheltered and family-oriented, she now feels honoured to be in a position to serve the larger community around her. She still helps her family with their store, but now that they are in a better financial position, she has more time to assist her local community with guidance, training, insight and friendship. When asked what qualities she observed in her first training session with the NGOMDC trainers, she quipped, “commitment, honesty, and open dialogue.” Remarkably, the same qualities she first noticed are the ones she seeks to emulate – at least according to the positive feedback that gets passed around the Galle district praising Priyangani’s leadership qualities.