As a young man, Nimal Martinus rose swiftly through the ranks at a prosperous tea plantation in Sri Lanka’s highlands, managing more than 1,000 workers as the big farm’s second in command.
One day, as he supervised workers carrying bundles of delicate, freshly picked tea leaves, one of them dropped his precious load, a terrible error in the proud, quality-obsessed world of Ceylon tea production. Martinus quickly prodded him in the back with a stick, reprimanding the man for his mistake.
In obvious distress, the man stared silently at his boss for a long time. Then he spoke words Martinus will never forget.
“Do you treat me like this because I am poor?”
Martinus stared back, speechless, appalled. That night, the words of the worker rattled around and around his brain in an endless loop, tormenting him. After a sleepless night, he quit his job, vowing to do something that would help people.
The workers’ words not only changed Martinus’ life, but subsequently the lives of thousands from South America to Southeast Asia.
In the three decades since, he has taught bush people in Cali, Colombia, how to use radio transmissions to pressure the government for help; worked to eradicate prostitution and opiate addiction in India’s Golden Triangle; helped remote villages in Gambia create their own television station to draw media attention to their problems; and helped reduce school dropouts and human trafficking in Bangladesh and Nepal. He helped small, destitute tea farmers in Sri Lanka escape poverty by processing and selling their own tea, skirting the middlemen who usually consumed the profits.
Now, instead of chasing the good life, he was changing the lives of the poor, showing them how to take things into their own hands and build a better future for themselves and their children.
But it didn’t happen overnight. And it was never easy.
After resigning his plum plantation job, Martinus went to India to study sociology and management. He wanted to learn how to teach people to alter their own lives and pull themselves out of poverty. He traveled the world trying to understand issues related to poverty and developed a loose but effective system to mobilize and transform villages.
“We create participatory methodologies,” Martinus said. “For me, development is nothing but getting people to think consciously, critically, so that they will be able to find solutions rather than waiting for outside advice.”
Martinus’ deceptively simple self-help philosophy is based largely on the belief that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to poverty. It varies according to the circumstances people face.
He has pursued his crusade by himself as well as with groups such as the World Bank, the Strømme Foundation, Save the Children, Worldview International, the United Nations and UNESCO, always with one purpose: to help people in struggling communities identify weaknesses and strengths and come up with their own personalized solutions that come from within. What he doesn’t do is what the vast majority of well-meaning foreign charities and foundations do: force solutions from his own culture on the local culture.
His secret: he spends no less than five, and as many as 10 years living in the communities he helps mobilize.
“You have to learn by doing, there is no shortcut for that,” Martinus, 60, said. “You must first listen to people and understand how they live. Go to people, live with them, eat what they have, and start where you are.”
One of the first places Martinus put this theory to the test was in his home country of Sri Lanka, on the south coast where he was born. He decided to look at the challenges, problems and potential of impoverished fishing communities, which are notoriously isolated and unsophisticated.
“I spent five to six years working with the fishermen, learning about them, going in the boats and canoes, throwing the nets, but also trying to understand their perceptions and how they perceive life,” Martinus said. “I think that was the
biggest experience I ever had in my life, because there was so much poverty and misery and so many challenges.”
By living alongside fishermen in Ngambo, Martinus earned their trust. They had been poor so long that they had lost hope they could ever do better. Over time, he was able to pinpoint why they could not make any money. The main issue, he said, was a lack of educational motivation coupled with a societal distrust of banks. Martinus helped them create education programs for the youth as well as a banking system run by the fishermen, for the fishermen. The banks handed out loans that helped the fishermen buy better equipment.
“Changing their mindsets to become self-helpful was my mission. I wanted to show people that they have the capacity, the resources, but first they need to change the way that they think,” Martinus said.
He was able to persuade the women of the village first. The men, many of whom spent their off hours in heavy drinking, were reluctant but jumped on board when they saw the women making money.
“We were not united in the beginning,” says Paliyagataye Nilmini, one of the female village leaders. “We were competing against each other for survival, but we realized that was a foolish thing. We realized as a small group we could help each other and come together as a powerhouse in the village.”
Before they banded together, Martinus said, the fishermen were exploited by boat owners and unaware of their basic rights.
By coming together and pooling their resources, the community was able to conquer many of Ngambo’s problems as well as improve the schooling of their children. They were also able to move past a big cultural barrier: getting this traditionally male-dominated society to accept women in leadership roles.
“I started building self-confidence after meeting these women’s groups, listening with them, working with them. I realized that I have a future,” says P. Pigawathi Silva, another of the female village leaders.
It is the same with the small tea farmers Martinus helped organize in and around Baduraliya, further south along the coast. There, you can see it in the eyes of the
women, hear it in their voices. Flush with success, they are full of confidence, proud of what they have done, ready for whatever is next. After all, they have each other.
Renuka Jayasingha, 47, recalled how organization helped her children. Their tiny school had only two teachers and five classes. “So our children could not get an education.”
In the old days, they would have thrown up their hands in helplessness.
No more. “We had 90 members so we got together and went to the local education authorities. But they were reluctant. They would hide. They did not want to face us,” she said.
The group knew just what to do. They organized a demonstration and paraded with signs in front of the officials’ offices. Here came the TV cameras. They got national media coverage.
“Within one week we got seven teachers and now it is functioning very well,” she said, a triumphant gleam in her eye. “The strength came from this program, from the group.”
Now, there is a whole network of villages plugged into the group.
“Now people saw that they were gaining power and had strength,” Martinus said.
The power of the group also put money in their pockets. The small tea farmers had long been “exploited by people who did not give them a proper price,” Martinus said. Before, they were poor and marginalized and easily intimidated. Many of the women had little or no schooling and didn’t read or write. Now, they were negotiating with factory owners, direct-marketing their own tea “and making a good profit.”
Martinus plans to spend a semester teaching at the University of Mississippi. But not just teaching. He would like to explore the Mississippi Delta to see if he could make a difference in the lives of poverty-stricken families who have depended on welfare for three or four generations.
This single-minded devotion to the elimination of rural poverty around the world started with one life-changing interaction at a tea plantation. Those simple words –
“Do you treat me like this because I am poor?” – changed one man and gave him a lifelong mission.
Martinus is quick to point out that he didn’t do this by himself.
“I am a social worker, I am a facilitator, I am an educator, I am a leader that will stand behind and beside, not always in the front,” he said. “But more than anything else, I have passion, and I understand people in the same way that I understand myself.”