At 83, she’s not ready to quit

Gethsie Shanmugam who has won the 2017 Ramon Magsaysay award for her counselling work among war-affected people over the years, talks to Kaveesha Fernando

She has been named a 2017 winner of the Ramon Magsaysay award, but Gethsie (Gnanatheepam) Shanmugam does not understand what the fuss is all about. “So you are interested in this old lady?” she laughingly asks. Having worked as a psychosocial counsellor for children, youth and women, especially those affected by war and disaster, today she has been recognised by this award which is regarded by many as Asia’s Nobel Peace Prize. She will receive her award on August 31 in Manila.

The Ramon Magsaysay Award “celebrates greatness of spirit and transformative leadership in Asia”. The award is in memory of Ramon del Fierro Magsaysay, the seventh President of the Republic of the Philippines who commanded the admiration of the people with his progressive policies which developed the nation. The award has been given to over 300 men, women and organisations over the past 50 years for selfless service to society. Only ten people from Sri Lanka have won the award including the late Pandit Amaradeva and Ediriwira Sarachchandra. The last award to a Sri Lankan in 2008 was to Ananda Galappatti, a medical anthropologist and psychosocial support practitioner working in the field of mental health.

In honouring Mrs. Shanmugam the board of trustees recognizes “her compassion and courage in working under extreme conditions to rebuild war-scarred lives, her tireless efforts over four decades in building Sri Lanka’s capacity for psychosocial support, and her deep, inspiring humanity in caring for women and children, war’s most vulnerable victims”.

The prize will not change too many things for her, says this 83-year-old mother of two and grandmother of three who seems in no hurry to retire. Now she does not travel out of Colombo for too long because her husband feels lonely when she is away. “I don’t think it will change me as a person – I want to leave something which someone else will take up…,” she says expressing her desire to further her work through the recognition she has received. The publicity the award has generated has her a little wary. “People told me to run from the interviews but where can I run to? I cannot do that, so I will answer the questions as best I can,” she says.

Born in Dolosbage, Nawalapitiya in 1934 (her father was the chief clerk on Craighead tea estate and her mother died when she was 15), Gethsie studied at Mowbray College, Kandy till she was 17 and began her career as a pupil teacher there in 1951.  After a six-year hiatus during which she married Muthuvelu Shanmugam and had two children, she joined St. Joseph’s College in 1967 and then began her training in counselling shortly after under Fr. Mervyn Fernando at Aquinas College and later the Family Studies and Services Institute. It was the then Vice Rector of St Joseph’s College Fr. Joseph Benedict who had identified her capacity for helping others. Says Mrs. Shanmugam, “He must have seen that I had feeling for children… I think there was something in me that they had noticed…  I would stay after school and talk to the children and I took special interest in the naughty ones so he thought I must be properly trained to counsel them.”

With two school periods a week to teach life education and counsel students, her counselling career began. She went on to work with many organisations including Save the Children Norway (also known as Redd Barna, where she started working in war-torn areas following training she received there) and later as a consultant to organisations such as the Eastern Self-Reliant Community-Awakening Organisation, Foundation for International Training, Basic Needs Sri Lanka and the World Health Organization where she currently works as a resource person. She has also followed many training programmes overseas in countries such as India, Cambodia, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

Winning this award, Mrs. Shanmugam says was completely unexpected.  When two people from the selection team came to interview her armed with cameras and questions which took hours to answer, all she knew was that they were interested in her work and wanted  to know more. “They just said they heard about me and they wanted to meet me,” she explains. Learning that she was short-listed just before the winners were announced, she was asked to keep that information confidential. She was conducting a programme in Vavuniya when the news came through a video message from the organizers. A simple celebration with ice cream and cake with all those there was all that took place after the event. She returned home and went back to her usual routine, save for meeting the media and returning the many congratulatory calls from her daughters and other friends and family.

Looking at her now, winner of the Ramon Magsaysay award, one may discount the challenges she has faced in her work. However, she is the first to admit that it has not been easy. From reassuring a family who she says sometimes felt that they were neglected due to the sheer volume of work she did (although they, along with her friends were always very supportive), to navigating suspicion from both sides of the war as she travelled to and fro from government controlled areas to LTTE controlled areas, (reassuring them time and time again that she was a bonafide volunteer), to witnessing the blood and suffering from the long war, she has seen much trauma.

It only strengthened her determination  to help.“We all have the resources we need to overcome problems and we are all resilient. All I do is help people discover their potential to overcome their problems and trauma and tap into the resources they already have within themselves, that’s all,” she says with humility.  Having worked steadily for several decades with no need for recognition or commendation, the number of projects and initiatives she has done are many, from her work with students  at St. Joseph’s College to counselling war-affected children and women.

She remains deeply invested in their lives, relating with pride how the secretary of a youth group she has worked with went from a shy girl who could not read a speech out loud to a confident young woman who recently graduated from university.  “We cannot write her exams for her but we can be there for her,” she says. She has worked with street children in Colombo and also trained over 80 school teachers in the aftermath of the tsunami. She has also worked closely with war widows whom she refers to as ‘Ammas’ .

With all of the experience which she has had working with people who have been marginalised, traumatised or hurt in some way, the main message which Mrs. Shanmugam offers people on coping with issues is self- awareness and non-violence — being in the present moment and living together in harmony. “Look at us – we are such a small island and we face so many disasters. We have mountains falling and the sea coming in and drowning us and yet we are still fighting with each other. We should get together and fight against such disasters and help each other rather than fighting among ourselves,” she says firmly.

The last Sri Lankan awardee of the Ramon Magsaysay award Ananda Galappatti, describing her as the nicest person he knows, expressed his happiness on her achievement. “She is someone who would make her work sound less important than it really is and she is not one to seek publicity or promote herself so I feel extremely pleased that her quiet and dedicated work is being recognized through this award,” he says. He explains that her work with developmental psychologist Professor Karsten Hundeide and child psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Jareg is particularly noteworthy as she has applied the methodology based on Mediated Learning Experiences which she learnt from Professor Hundeide and developed a model for kinship fostering of orphaned or separated children in conflict areas that she developed with Dr. Jareg — which protected them from threat of institutionalisation or recruitment by armed groups.

Apart from laying particular emphasis on the fact that she could not have done it without the many people who have helped her and supported her (including Ananda Galappatti who has helped her navigate electronic media, especially in the wake of the excitement regarding the award), the only message which Mrs. Shanmugam really wants to give lies in Rabindranath Tagore’s  poem ‘Gitanjali’ which inspires her. “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; where knowledge is free; where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls; where words come out from the depth of truth; where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection; where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit; where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action— Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake!”

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