Profile Of A Heroine:
The 69-Year-Old Talaimannar Fisherwoman Breaking Social Boundaries
To support her family, Helen Jasitha Fernando took up fishing, even though she could not swim. Close to 70 now, Fernando will keep fishing – and for a worthy reason.
Every morning Helan Jasitha Fernando gets up at 2am and walks five kilometres from her home to her fishing hut. Dressed appropriately for fishing, she puts all her equipment into her canoe and uses her bamboo paddle to propel herself and her vessel around seven kilometres out to sea, off Talaimannar beach on the northern coast of Sri Lanka. There she joins the men who are already working, to catch prawns, shark, sardines and yellow fin tuna.
Fernando, who is 69, has been doing this job since three months after her husband died in 1999.
“I was born in Ulhitiyawa, Wennappuwa, and my husband was from Katuneriya,” she explains. “We married in 1968 but our families objected to our marriage. One day my husband went home and all of his clothes had been thrown out of the window and the door was locked to him. I went home and all my clothes had been burned. So in 1970 we came to Talaimannar with just the clothes on our backs,” Fernando tells her story; both Fernando and her husband are Sinhalese but they managed to make a new life among the Tamil people in the north of the island nation. “The sea here saved us! By 1990 we had two boats, 13 smaller boats, a cart and around a hundred nets. We also had a herd of goats.”
But then the civil war started and the couple and their family were forced to move. They had to leave everything behind and returned to Wennappuwa.
“We left there with nothing,” Fernando sighs, “and we went back with nothing.”
In 1999 Fernando’s husband passed away suddenly, leaving her to care for their six children alone; at the time her eldest son was 17 and youngest daughter 12. So despite the fact that she had never been fishing and did not know how to swim she took to sea in a boat her husband once used and went to catch food for her family.
“On my very first day I came home with a net filled with 600 rupees’ worth of fish,” Fernando says. “That was a lot of money in those days.”
Was she frightened?
Fernando says she had no choice. “There was nobody to give us any help, no relations to beg for aid,” she explains. “My husband’s rafter and my confidence were all I had left.”
Now everybody knows Fernando. And they don’t know her as Fernando but as “nonama” because a nona is an honourable, high born woman and she is also a mother. One local fisherman says he knew of nonama and that he knew she did things that not even the men could do. “She is a strong woman,” he exclaimed.
No man my age goes fishing the way I do and people love me for it.
When she first started fishing in her 50s, Fernando says other men at sea were always surprised to see her.
“Navy officers used to stop and ask me what I was doing out there,” Fernando says smiling. “I would always tell them I was just there to do my job. Young men used to tease me. But one time my rafter capsized and people came to save me.”
Fernando says she catches fish every day although sometimes it is LKR3,000 worth [around EUR18] and other days only LKR500 [around EUR3]. She says she is certainly no longer worried about going out to sea at night.
“What would I have to be afraid of. I have walked these sands for so long. I know the sea and I know everyone in this area. I can speak Sinhala and Tamil. No man my age goes fishing the way I do and people love me for it,” she explains.
Despite the fact that her six children are all adults now and have their own jobs, Fernando wants to keep working. She has a very particular reason for this. “I have a seventh child now,” she explains.
Around 13 years ago one of her co-workers died. On his deathbed he asked her to promise to take care of his new-born son. The baby’s mother also wanted this, so Fernando adopted the boy. He is the one who started calling her nonama, the name by which she is now known all around the beach.
And now Fernando continues to pay for the boy’s schooling and upkeep and as this courageous woman, who fights the tides and the weather daily, says: “I will not beg from anyone when I am still strong enough to earn our living. So I will continue to go fishing until he is old enough to earn his own money.”
Pictures By: Ajith Senevirathne
Video Courtesy : Hirutv.lk