11/27/2013, 00.00
SRI LANKA
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Christian Gypsy wants to use his faith in God to stop discrimination

by Melani Manel Perera
Shanthakumara, 21, is married and living in the settled community of Kudagama. With great willpower and love for Christ, he got an education and opened a store which employs other young people. His goal is to help fellow Gypsies empower themselves "without losing our culture and traditions."

Colombo (AsiaNews) - Erannaage Shanthakumara Jayarathna, a 21-year-old Christian Gypsy, wants to a change a social system that discriminates against his community, helping it to grow along with the rest of the country, without sacrificing its traditional culture and values.

The young man lives in Kudagama, a Gypsy village in Anuradhapura District (Northern Central Province), of some 300 families. Like him, almost all residents are Christians, members of the Assembly of God Church.

Despite his young age, Shanthakumara is already married with a woman from his own community. In accordance with tradition, on their wedding day, the couple received a hunting dog, a snake with its box, a monkey and a donkey as wedding presents.

Each gift has a specific meaning (and use) because gypsies are nomadic. The dog provides protection and helps find food; the snake and the monkey are part of magic shows and dance, allowing their masters to earn money; the donkey is the means of transport par excellence.

In his village, Shanthakumara is one of the few guys with an education. "After going to school, I took a course for electricians in Galgamuwa. That's where I learnt how to fix radios, televisions and other stuff. I also attended photography class".

With this training, he opened his own electronics store, SK Studio and Electronics, and with it he earns a living, employing two other men.

"In my family," he explained, "prayer is very important and we devote ourselves to it at least an hour a day." But "all graces and accomplishments in my life . . . I owe them all to God's blessings. I am really happy with my life, my family and my friends. What I do is not just for me but also for our community."

His biggest dream, he said, "is to help young people like me to build their lives and face society holding our heads high. In Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese majority discriminates against us saying that we belong to the lowest caste . . . . When our parents travel, presenting shows with snake charmers or dancing monkeys, they are always insulted. Sometimes, they are even attacked."

"I want to change this sad system," Shanthakumara said, "but I also want our parents and our community to protect our heritage and our values, not as professions, but as an integral part of our culture and our tradition."

The first group of Gypsies arrived in Sri Lanka from southern India. In fact, they still speak Telugu, which is spoken mainly in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

As one might expect, the first communities travelled. Eventually, some settled down, establishing the villages of Kudagama, Andarabedda, Kalawewea, Aligambe and Sirivallipuram.

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