Image via Sri Lanka Brief

Having been in the Washington D.C. area for a fair amount of time and having read a few of the really good contributions to the most recent Groundviews series, I got to thinking – about initially trying to understand the country and getting acquainted with this website. In a way, we’ll be going from Columbia University to Wayfarer’s Inn on Rosmead Place to Omanthai to Jaffna. There’ll be time for the byroads of Kilinochchi and the Eastern province too. We’ll spend fleeting moments all over Colombo. We won’t really spend any time on the beaches because I wouldn’t know what I’m talking about.

In 2010, I remember sitting in a dull classroom at Columbia. I’d signed on with a small group of people to do a consultancy project with a Colombo-based grant-making organization. This was an integral part of the academic program and it would require travel to the island. Students rank preferences for projects and then are assigned in a somewhat opaque fashion.

To be clear, working on Egypt was my first choice. Sri Lanka was my second. For better or worse, being assigned to a Sri Lanka-related project in 2010 ended up changing, reshaping and redirecting the past six years of my life. That was the moment that led to all the other moments. That was a choice that didn’t seem all that consequential at the time. In retrospect, it was a big deal. And it’s humbling for me to say that because it’s humbling to acknowledge that life can be that unpredictable, that one’s situation can be that precarious, that you never really know what’s going to happen.

And so back to our group at Columbia in 2010.

The team was full of interesting, impressive people. Towards the end of that first meeting, we were talking about staying apprised of current events. Since our academic supervisor for the project was Sri Lankan, we just put the question to her directly.

“What should we be reading?”

“What are some good sites to check out?”

I don’t remember precisely what was conveyed, but it was clear that Groundviews was an important site. And really, that’s where things started to get interesting.

If you’re new to the scene, or even relatively new, Groundviews, isn’t the easiest site to navigate. It’s not a website that has training wheels. There is no version for people who are not relatively familiar or deeply immersed in Sri Lankan affairs.

I really like and respect that.

So, there is a fairly steep Groundviews learning curve. Just as there is a steep Sri Lanka learning curve. And so, I was doing the reading as much as I could. And I did the consultancy project; we presented our findings publicly at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs shortly before our graduation in 2011. And I remember thinking that I really enjoyed the project and that Sri Lanka was an incredibly complicated and fascinating place.

Then I went job searching.

Someone in Washington or New York would hire me, of course. Yet that didn’t happen. And I’m not a patient person and I didn’t wait around that long. There was a chance to go back to Sri Lanka, a unique opportunity, and I took it.

I moved to Sri Lanka in August of 2011. That’s when I really started to appreciate Groundviews. In 2012, I appreciated the site even more. And then in 2013 and 2014 things got dark. There was Groundviews and there was gossip. There was Dharisha Bastians too. Of course, there were other journalists doing good work. However, when it came to really speaking out, plenty of the content on Groundviews and many of Dharisha’s pieces truly stood out. That I remember vividly.

There was also me hiding at checkpoints and pretending that I didn’t exist in the North. There was an almost constant reminder that I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t welcome. And, the space for dissent was shrinking somewhat quickly. I had friends and colleagues who were worried about what might come next.

I had the privilege of contributing a short piece to the Groundviews series that dealt with the end of the war, “Five Years On.” It was a brief and emotional article that compelled me to really think (again) about my time in the country. Those reflections were another reminder that some of the most important human rights work is neither glamorous nor fully appreciated. In fact, some of the most impressive people I know don’t have public profiles. And indirectly, yet certainly, Groundviews has played a role here as well. On the one hand, the site caters to a more sophisticated, English-speaking audience. On the other, it’s a platform to tell stories, share and debate fervently. It’s a wholehearted embrace of pluralism. It helps ensure that crucial perspectives are taken into consideration, that a range of significant voices are part of the discussion.

It’s easy to wonder if the journey is more important than the destination. It’s easy to wonder why life isn’t a little bit easier to understand, or why the signals aren’t a bit clearer. But again, there are no training wheels; there’s only thinking and doing and acting and making mistakes and learning.

So, when you move to a new country, find the news or opinion outlets that matter. Stay out of your comfort zone. Be aware of how much you don’t know. Let the local discussion be your lodestar. Read until your eyes hurt. Learn by listening – and don’t ever stop listening.

There is so much to learn.