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Nushelle de Silva: From independence to interdependence

Nushelle de Silva: From independence to interdependence

Reflections on Sri Lanka's Independence Day

Nushelle de Silva reflects on her nation's troubled history since independence in 1948, and how a growing community of Queen's Young Leaders helps her feel more optimistic about the future.

On 4th February each year, Sri Lanka celebrates another anniversary of its status as an independent nation.

There is cause for celebration. The island was a colony for half a millennium, first ruled by the Portuguese in 1517 until they surrendered the nation to the Dutch in 1638, succeeded in 1796 by the British.

When the island’s own citizens took their governance into their own hands in 1948, they found that they would forever be marked by the influence of their colonisers, whose legal systems, language, and even food seeped into the island vernacular. In fact, Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon – a name bequeathed by the British – well into the 1970s. And our tea, also introduced by the British, still bears that stamp.

Independence, then, is a day of confronting the contradictions of our present, fiercely rejoicing in our ‘freedom’ even as we sip our morning tea.

Independence

The word 'freedom' is loaded, for our journey as nation following 1948 has been rocky.

Early optimism in the 1950s soon gave way to economic crises and mounting debt, which fed into two Communist insurrections in the early 1970s and late 1980s. Poor decisions on managing the island’s multilingual populations sparked communal strife that culminated in the Sri Lankan Civil War in 1983 – a bloody and protracted conflict that ended only in 2009.

Displaced civilians on the road during the Sri Lankan Civil War

Displaced civilians on the road during the Sri Lankan civil war

It’s easy, then, for a young person like me to reflect each February on our losses rather than our gains. It’s easy to be pessimistic.

My generation grew up learning how to evacuate a classroom in the event of a bomb. Our parents would have to make the difficult early morning decision of whether to send us to school or heed rumour of a planned attack. The first school trip I was to take in the third grade was cancelled after an oil refinery explosion that left the sky orange and black for half a day.

And in all honesty, my experiences were trivial compared to those who have lost homes, whole families, and often a sense of belonging. There are many still trying to pick up the pieces, and many who no longer consider Sri Lanka home. Post-war optimism is often dampened by ugly incidents of racism, such as the recent ‘Sinha-le’ campaign that attempts to assert the superiority of the Sinhalese ethnic majority.

Interdependence

And yet this year is different. This year I reflect on the state of my homeland in the company of the Queen’s Young Leaders – a growing network of young people who hail from around the Commonwealth of Nations.

Many of them have experienced violence and trauma. Many can read the histories of their own countries in that of Sri Lanka. Many have been denied their rights because of who they are or how they were born. But these young people are fierce fighters of a different sort, channelling their frustrations and fears into social enterprises, volunteer organisations, and businesses that – quite often – provide young people with access to the very things they were denied.

Boys smiling doing drama together

Boys at a Building Bridges drama workshop, Sri Lanka

I feel a kinship to these young people, as I learn their stories one by one. I’m reminded of why I started Building Bridges – an arts initiative that uses theatre to create sustained dialogue between ethnically diverse young Sri Lankans. 

I remember my childhood brushes with racism at kindergarten in Sydney, and my subsequent fear of making friends. I remember moving to Sri Lanka, how taking part in a school play made me bloom with confidence, and the day I realised that my feeling of being at home on the island had so much to do with the fact that I am ethnically Sinhalese. I remember wanting, more than anything, to make sure the children of tomorrow’s Sri Lanka never feel that sharply enduring grief of not belonging.

Nushelle and the Building Bridges family

Nushelle with the Building Bridges family

And I’m not alone. As I share my hopes for my island with this group of young people – along with my feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty – and witness their own vulnerability in return, I am compelled to do two things.

Firstly, I am compelled to recognise and remember the larger histories of all nations of the Commonwealth (itself a fraught term), and feel the struggles of my fellow Queen’s Young Leaders pricking my consciousness. I take a moment to feel the weight of our collective pain – something I did not do when focusing so insularly on ‘my’ people.

Secondly, and more importantly, I am reminded that I am not alone. In my fellow Queen’s Young Leaders, I have a family who will cheer me on, and whom I promise to support in turn. I find that the word I want to describe 4th February is not independence, but ‘interdependence’. We are so much stronger together.

Here’s to a year of learning from, and leaning on, one another as we brave our deepest hurts to create all that is good.

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