Two Hungarians wanting to be Sri Lankans


by Dharshanie Ratnawalli

I want to introduce two Hungarians living in Sri Lanka. "My favourite sport? When my wife is sleeping at night, I go out and hang out with beautiful Sri Lankan girls in the jungle," That is Tamás Smidt, a 62-year old retired engineer, a Buddhist and a Mahayanist Dhamma teacher.

"Don’t write that," says and Zsuzsanna Smidt, laughing it off with the easy assurance of a wife who is 19 years younger than her husband.

We are in a large luxury bus, moving smoothly towards the Parliament. "So did they enjoy it?" I ask, not referring to Lankan girls in the jungle - figments of Tamás’ sense of humour – but to the children accompanied by their parents, being taken on a sightseeing tour of Colombo by this Hungarian couple, who have settled down in their village, Dalawella in Unawatuna and turned into energetic benefactors. They have donated to temples, looked after indigent, female-headed households, sponsored local festivals, rebuilt people’s houses destroyed by rains, taken the village kids on trips to places they have never been to - which incredibly include Colombo - and now wants to officially turn Dalawella into their personal CSR project by setting up a formal foundation.

Tamás and Zsuzsanna Smidt first came to Sri Lanka as tourists. After Tamás retired they travelled around the world, looking for a place to settle down and pursue an alternate lifestyle. They found a beautiful nook where they could live in a sunny clime, in simplicity and authenticity, gradually getting closer to the deeper truths of Buddhism. Its address was Dalawella, Unawatuna, Sri Lanka.

They bought and settled down in a small house with a small garden, of normal Sri Lankan design, without any architectural aspirations. The house has become somewhat Europeanised now because Tamás is an engineer and they need a house where their friends from Hungary can stay in comfort. From the first they lived with the community, merging into the life of the village, and that’s how the need to help became a necessity, instead of just an item in an ‘extra things that would be nice to do’ list.

"We have the chance to help. We have the money for it. Everyone needs the basic things. Until they have, how can they enjoy life? We have everything, not big things, but we can eat every day, we can have clothes, and we can go home to Hungary. If we see that they don’t have slippers, if they can’t go to school because they don’t have uniforms, if we only see that they suffer, how can we live with them? If they are hungry, we suffer. We’d like to give them all they need but we have to teach them how to earn their living," says Zsuzsanna.

According to Tamás and Zsuzsanna, some of the people in Dalawella have never been to Colombo. "But there’s the express way and everything. So can’t they come?" I ask sceptically.

"There’s one family in the bus," Zsuzsanna explains gently, "the mother has five kids, but no father. And they have no money at all, because she doesn’t work, because she can’t. They don’t even have money for school. We help them and they have some relatives who help and one boy, a big one is working, but it’s not enough. So they can’t travel they can’t pay for the bus"

Zsuzsanna’s family, herself, Tamás and their daughter - who went to St. Thomas’ Girls School, an international school in Galle and since has gone back to Hungary after finishing school - has taken the poorest family in the village under their wing. K. D. Ranjanie and her five children are regularly given rice, oil, vegetables, sugar, milk powder and tea, supplemented by cookies, cakes and gifts on all festival days. Sometimes their utility bills are paid while the children are provided school uniforms and all the school supplies as well as clothes and slippers.

"Unawatuna is not so poor because of tourism. But it has very poor areas. Our village Dalawella is not very developed. We have the ability to help. That’s why we decided to make a foundation. If we set up something like that we can get more money from Hungary," Zsuzsanna explains.

What will the foundation do? Will it just dole out money or will it set up projects to generate employment and may be even scholarships for the children?

"First we want to help. But Unawatuna is very close to us. So first we have plans to make a tourist village. We have a wood carver, we have a temple, we have people who can make roti and may be coconut sambol to serve to the tourists. Every house can be given a job in the tourist village and they can show the tourists how to do this job. "

Every 25 December, Tamás dresses up as Santa. This is the second part of their plan, making a strong connection between Hungary and Sri Lanka.

"Hungary has no consulate or embassy here. We are not consuls or ambassadors but maybe we can do something to make Sri Lankans know more about Hungary. I think Hungary and SL are somewhat similar. We organize exhibitions, movies - we have a projector – and Hungarian cultural shows. Whenever I make a Hungarian dish, I share it, teach them how to make it, tell them about our habits, festivals, history. We try to learn all the Sri Lankan habits, history, geography, and especially the language. Already we speak a little Sinhala.

Zsuzsanna has already translated a heavy tome on Sri Lankan history from English to Hungarian. When she is next in Hungary, she hopes to find a publisher for it.

Living in an area of Unawatuna, don’t they sometimes get bothered by people who seek to fleece tourists? Zsuzsanna makes it clear that they are tourists no longer, but established residents of five years standing.

"We live inside the village, not on the beachside. It’s very calm and people are kind. Now we are members of the village. Next door to us is the Buddhist temple."

This is the Siri Sumanaramaya of Dalewella, the chief incumbent of which is Pasgoda Thera.

"My friend the Thera is making a new class room for the Dhamma school. And we made a donation, desks table, a globe. When construction is finished, we will provide an English teacher for the children. They can speak some English but can’t read or write it. The local school does not teach English. Only the tuition classes do and they don’t have money for that. And I don’t think they know how important learning English is," Tamás tells me.

They have founded a sports club in Dalawella with all the accessories, volleyballs, net, cricket uniforms, t shirts, plus some back packs sent by their friends in Hungary. They also invited Pasgoda Thera on this trip to Colombo which started at Gall Face, and covered Gangaramaya, National Museum, Parliament, Independence Square, though the thera could not take part.

"Our temple is under construction now," explains Tamás who has been the donor of two columns for the temple entrance, decorated with ‘dhamma-chakra’.

We are going to Kataragama next trip, Zsuzsanna tells me. Tamás and Zsuzsanna have been all over Europe, India, the Buddhist Asia –Tibet, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Muslim Asia. Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy were obvious destinations given Zsuzsanna’s history book translating endeavours. They have also been to the Martin Wickramasinghe museum to know about the village people with whom they lives are so intertwined now. They are stakeholders; giving back to the community they operate in. Such corporate lingo is not quite how they’d put it, having been government employees, but that’s what they are dong. Let’s wish them well.


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