Collaboration in Sri Lanka

Serendib – from whence comes the word serendipity – is the ancient Arab name for Sri Lanka.

By Jeanne Marecek

Volume 19, No. 1: January-February 2008

by Jeanne Marecek, PhD, Swarthmore College

Serendib – from whence comes the word serendipity – is the ancient Arab name for Sri Lanka.  Serendipity has marked my many sojourns in Sri Lanka. My first stay on this Indian Ocean island was as a Fulbright scholar in 1988. My assignment was to introduce psychology to the University of Peradeniya, the flagship campus of university system, located near the old dynastic capital Kandy. As chance would have it, my arrival coincided with the violent uprising of a leftist insurgency. Militant students repeatedly called strikes; the government, desperate to gain control, sent in the army. Ghoulish killings and disappearances ensued. For the duration of my stay, the campus remained off limits. 

For the nation, this was a reign of terror; for me, it brought unanticipated opportunities as well. The Institute for Fundamental Studies invited me to organize a seminar in gender studies. The International Centre for Ethnic Studies welcomed me to its social science seminars. I convened a reading group in my home for university lecturers interested in clinical psychology. Officials at the Asia Foundation connected me with Sally Hulugalle, an indefatigable advocate for the “forgotten women” incarcerated in the country’s antediluvian mental hospital.  Enduring friendships and collaborations grew out of these serendipitous connections.

At the time of my arrival in 1988, Sri Lanka was caught up in a mystifying spiral of suicides. Most victims were teenagers and young adults from rural families. Most poisoned themselves with pesticides. Rural hospitals brimmed with self-harm patients, straining the country’s limited medical resources. Adequate care was difficult to come by and the case fatality ratio was high. Indeed, by 1995, Sri Lanka held the world record for suicide deaths. With no psychologists in the country, no support for behavioral research, and the university system in disarray, there were no systematic studies of this epidemic. Suicides were commonly regarded as foolish behavior. Overworked and angry, doctors and nurses scolded victims and sometimes punished them by denying them beds and medical care or forcing them to clean toilets. The popular press was rife with lurid accounts and farfetched speculations.

The spiral of rural suicide intrigued me and suited my intellectual commitments perfectly. From the time I earned a joint degree in social and clinical psychology, I have been committed to situating psychological suffering in its social and relational contexts. From 1988 till now, I have lived intermittently in Sri Lanka and studied many aspects of rural suicide: interpersonal processes, social ecology, culture-specific emotion practices, the re-integration of self-harm survivors in their social networks, and prevention and intervention. In rural Sri Lanka, suicide and self-harm are seldom connected to depression or other psychiatric conditions. For the most part, they are unpremeditated. Sparked by family conflicts, they are fueled by anger, shame, and a wish for revenge. Such suicides could be termed “dialogue suicides” -- communicative acts that assert powerful moral claims about a wrongdoer. In village society, norms of hierarchy, respect, and deference demand that individuals refrain from speaking against with others of higher status. Suicide serves silently to point a finger of blame. Consider, for example, Biso, a young wife deserted by her husband, who swallowed a lethal dose of insecticide as she lay with her baby on the road outside the house of her husband’s paramour.

By studying the social and cultural dimensions of suicide, I have had a window i nto culture-specific identities and emotions. For example, envy (Sinhala: irishiyava) plays a prominent role in everyday life in Sri Lanka. Envy is often invoked to explain unexpected illnesses, accidents, business reversals, and other forms of harm. I have begun to explore how worry about arousing others’ envy shapes people’s self-presentation and patterns of interpersonal interaction. Envy is hyper-cognized in many societies besides Sri Lanka; however, in Sri Lanka, discourses about envy have a Buddhist spin. Shame (Sinhala: lajja) is another prominent feature of everyday life. Lajja refers to a spectrum of feelings from bashfulness, modesty, and shame to acute humiliation. Lajja is valued as a positive emotion and assiduously cultivated in children. Of particular interest to me is the tie-in between shame and the stringent norms of sexual propriety that confront young unmarried women.

Working in Sri Lanka has taught me many things about our discipline. I have come to believe that the first step in studying a culture other than one’s own must be to empty your head.  In my early work, I was often sidetracked by North American truisms about suicide that had no validity in rural South Asia.  After emptying my head, the second step was to empty my brief case. Working alongside Sri Lankan colleagues and students revealed how the culture of North America saturates standardized measuring instruments, diagnostic scales, and conventional research procedures. My Sri Lankan colleagues further pointed out that many aspects of our research ethics reflect American individualism and culture-specific preoccupations with autonomy, privacy, and equality. To them, these were not only alien but also morally untenable. As an outsider attempting to peer into another culture, I came to rely on the methods of anthropology and qualitative psychology: semi-structured interviews, open-ended questions, inductive analyses, and what Clifford Geertz has called “deep hanging out.”  I was lucky to have colleagues, research assistants, language teachers, and students who patiently and painstakingly taught me to see things that I had not been able to see and to hear things in new ways. There are too many such individuals to name, but I am especially grateful to Chamindra Weerackody, Chandanie Senadheera, Lakshmi Ratnayeke, Shanez Fernando, and Michael Fernando.

Since my first sojourn, I have dreamed of a cadre of local teachers, researchers, and practitioners of psychology in Sri Lanka. Over the years, I have lectured in medical faculties and sociology departments, as well as to psychosocial workers; I have supervised MA theses and dissertations. I have scrounged books, videos, and software from colleagues on our side of the world for colleagues and libraries in Sri Lanka.  With funds from the Ford Foundation, the ILO, and the American Institute for Lankan Studies, a group of us have organized training programs and grant competitions.  In 2004, psychologists from Penn’s Solomon Asch Center (Gordon Bermant, Jim Kalat, Rick McCauley, Paul Rozin, and I) conducted a month-long training institute for lecturers from several Sri Lankan universities. The number of people with psychology training, though still miniscule, has grown. With the need for psychologists as acute as ever, the birth of a university department may finally be at hand.