Manuri Pabasari Manike Waleboda began her engagements with media and communication as a child artist of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, taking part in the eminent Lama Pitiya children’s program. Today, she has close to two decades of experience working in various media platforms. In this interview, she talks about her childhood that was shaped by her work in radio, her passion for volunteerism, her interests in research, and her research-based publications.
You have had a long-term involvement with media, communication, and volunteerism. You began your journey in radio, as a child artist. How did you get an interest to work in this field?
I joined SLBC in 1998. I was eight years old back then. It was not particularly planned as such. My father is an announcer at SLBC. I went with him one day to SLBC, as school was dismissed early. When I sat down, the producer of the program asked me what happened at school. I happened to give a comprehensive account of why school was closed early that day. He asked me if I would like to relate this story to the microphone. I eagerly said yes. The story I related to the microphone was broadcast on Lama Pitiya that day. With that, I was then asked to join radio dramas like Mal Suwanda. I was quite little then.
The radio is a very enchanting place. Even today it is so. I have worked in about seven media institutions so far. But I feel very much at home when I go to SLBC. More than just doing a program, during that time, I was eager to go there because of the team of children who were involved in the program. Radio drama was also a very special experience to me. We did not think that we were inside a studio and in recording. We continued to talk as if we were playing. That is how I joined the radio.
How did you go on to get more substantially involved in radio as a child artist?
In 2000, there was an audition to select child artists for SLBC. There were around 2000 applications for that. While my father was an announcer, he insisted that I do not even use his surname in the application to ensure I was selected through a fair and competitive process, similar to everyone else. He did not even accompany me to the interview. When the results came, I had passed. My father told me that I could be happy about this because it was my own achievement. That is how I joined radio officially.
After 2003, I did more work as a child artist. We had responsibilities. I organised the Monday program of the Lama Pitiya. I was a leader and supervised others who were working with me. While we did have some training at the beginning, we mostly learned on the job.
I also remember that we had the Susara Lama Samajaya, a children’s club, of which I was very much a part. The radio had a different culture. We addressed our seniors as nanda (aunt) and mama (uncle). We were encouraged to initiate our own concepts. Before we go into the program, we read a lot. We collect newspapers and articles, which we bring with us to Lama Pitiya to share over the program. It was a very beautiful experience.
This seems like a very different childhood from that of today’s children in Sri Lanka who are raised within a tuition culture?
We did not have a tuition culture back then. As soon as I finished school, I used to go to Lama Pitiya. We found enjoyment and knowledge there, outside of what we learnt in school.
In 1998, I remember I was paid 75 rupees for my services rendered as a child artist. It was a big sum then. I felt independent. As a child, I felt like I was contributing and doing something valuable through my work as a radio artist and an announcer.
While working at SLBC, I was also part of an initiative where we had the Sarasavi Saviya children’s club in my residential area. I live in Kalapuraya, an artists’ housing scheme. This meant that it was full of children of various artists. We organised many activities through this club like musical shows and dansal programs for underprivileged children. We did not have any ethno-religious divisions among us. We celebrated all festivals, such as new year, Vesak, Christmas, and Easter.
I was also involved in many well-known children’s radio programs like Mal Suwanda, Guvanviduli Ranga Madala, and the Handa Mama program. I spent most of my school holidays playing with other child artists at SLBC and doing radio programs. We were given a basic script but there was a lot of space to generate our genuine ideas.
During this time, the Vidura children’s radio was incepted. I remember doing a New Year program then. I felt like instead of celebrating the New Year at home like other children I was doing something special for them by bringing in a radio program about the New Year.
During 2004/05, I got the opportunity to join Lakhanda radio. This was the time of the conflict. But among Sinhala and Tamil children, we did not have any issues. We tried to give this message that we were all alike. We also discussed about children’s issues, such as child labour and child abuse.
This initial experience and exposure that I had at SLBC was very valuable to continue with my journey. In particular, I worked as a relief announcer at SLBC in 2013 and went on to hold a marketing executive post there the following year. I have also worked with Upali Newspapers as a freelance writer. In 2014, we initiated the hamuwa feature in the Vidusara newspaper, following the stories of Sri Lankan scientists. Our intention was to motivate school children by highlighting the stories of the lives of scientists in our country, focusing on how they overcame various issues to become great innovators. I have also worked in the Pathikada political program and as a news anchor with Sirasa TV.
You also have an extensive track record in various volunteering activities. Could you elaborate on some of the work you have done in volunteerism?
I did my A/Levels in 2009. I did many extra curricular activities in school. Through this work, I got an opportunity to join the Sarvodaya organisation. Many of us who took leadership roles in organising extra curricular activities in school were asked to volunteer for their work. In particular, they asked for the help of Girl Guides. And I being a Girl Guide was able to join them.
The United Religions Initiative (URI), and international organisation, did a lot of peacebuilding activities with Sarvodaya then. There was a peacebuilding program in Kaluthara, which Sinhala and Tamil students attended. I volunteered for this program and continued to work with Sarvodaya as a volunteer. I took part in a program that was organised by the Global Network for Religions of Children (GNRC) and Sarvodaya. We went to different places in Sri Lanka with this program. We travelled to areas like Vavuniya and Tincomalee. We carried out a leadership development program in these areas.
In Vavuniya I faced this problem. I could not speak Tamil. The Tamil children did not know how to speak Sinhala. So, we had to communicate in English. Despite our issues to communicate, we were able to connect with each other. They had arranged a meal for us at a special table and all these children from Vavuniya were sitting on the floor, eating from banana leaves. So, we also sat with them on the floor. We had no differences and we were able to unite. This was a very special experience to me. My exposure to team work at SLBC really helped me in programs like these. I was able to apply that knowledge.
Through this work, in 2010, I received an opportunity to travel to Japan to talk about issues facing children in Sri Lanka. This was soon after completing my A/Levels. In that program, there were participants representing every continent. We had a team of about 30 children from different countries, speaking different languages. I had an opportunity to meet with many inspiring children and it opened my eyes about serious issues that children were facing all over the world. For instance, I met this child from South Africa who was self-taught. He had studied on his own from reading paper articles that he found daily. He was attending university then. I then got an opportunity to address the gathering at a special occasion affiliated with the program and later participate in a program that was conducted for a gathering of about 12,000 people. I was able to become part of this huge young adult network.
I had also volunteered on many occasions for teaching. This started with me teaching the subject of Logic to several students from my school who had failed the A/Level exam. I did this free-of-charge at my home. I am happy to say that one of them passed into university and others obtained good results. I also volunteered at my own school as well in some schools in the villages.
Some of my work also include working with the PAFFREL organisation, as a university delegate, where we contributed our ideas to prepare a publication for good political culture that was published as “MARCH 12th”. This publication was handed to the President and Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. My work also expands across organisations such as Transparency International, covering women’s experiences of corruption in the public service. I was also involved with voluntary projects as part of the H3 Foundation.
In university, we started a new culture of criticizing current media issues and we invited specialists to speak on these issues as well. Approximately 500 university students participated at this event. I am very happy about this work that I have done as a volunteer.
What kind of training and skills that engaging with volunteerism helped you to gain?
When we do volunteer work we are genuinely committed to that cause. The most important things I feel is the satisfaction of having done something good. For instance, when I undertook the task of teaching the students who failed A/Levels, it was very intense and challenging. But when I saw the end result I had a great satisfaction. I think we get the opportunity to expand our own knowledge bases because even for volunteering we need to read and broaden our minds about what we are doing.
We learn to strategize and look at things through different dimensions. And my volunteer work with children was particularly inspiring to me. Even very recently, I did some work with children who were affected by the Meethotamulla incident. So, the preparation that goes into voluntary work and the satisfaction you get from doing something good contribute to expanding our capacities very much.
And volunteerism requires multi-tasking because you do volunteerism while doing other things. I was doing my degree while I was also volunteering. So, we learn to manage things better. Apart from it obviously contributing to our leadership skills, volunteerism also allows you to grow your soft skills like listening. In particular, when working with children listening is a skill we need to develop very much.
You also learn a lot about team work because the whole concept of volunteerism is built on team work. And we learn to tolerate differences and respect different views when we work as teams. We become flexible and we learn to identify our own flaws.
You also have a background in research-based work. Your publication on Facebook and romantic relationships came out in 2013. Could you elaborate on this research and its findings?
I have a First Class Honours Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Kelaniya (2010-14). At university, I got exposure to research and developed an interest for doing research-based work. In my second year, there was an opportunity to conduct several researches of our choice. During this time, Facebook had become a phenomenal social activity in our everyday lives. Many of the older generation interpreted Facebook as a bad thing. We conducted a survey and many respondents saw Facebook as a distraction. But I don’t necessarily see it like that. We can mobilise a huge community around Facebook. But people were not really aware on this back then.
The focus of my research was on relationships and love affairs. I met many people who had initiated relationships through Facebook. At the same time, after some people initiate relationships they demand for each other’s passwords. They were constantly doubting each other’s use of Facebook. Someone I knew had been insisted to deactivate the account after initiating a relationship. I could not comprehend this and realised that a research needs to be done to further investigate this phenomenon. So, I did a research on the topic of Facebook and romantic relationships.
Firstly, I asked 10 questions to find out about the respondents’ basic knowledge on Facebook. Secondly, I asked questions focusing on the amount of their friends and chatting trends. Thirdly, questions that could deter how Facebook is shaping romantic relationships. I analysed 100 respondents. I also followed up prominent stories with interviews. What I found was that it is not because of the direct result of Facebook that relationships fail. It is just one medium that lends to such issues, which are manifestations of broader problems. My professors then encouraged me to publish my research, as a book. So, I published it as a book in 2013. I have to particularly thank Godage Publishers for coming forward to publish this book.
What are some of the other work that you have done as a researcher?
With the book, my research interest developed a lot. I continued with several research projects. One of them was a group research on the primary education of children in families where the mother had migrated for labour.
Another research I conducted was on the contribution radio dramas make to people’s imaginaries. When I was doing radio drama I realised that it contributes immensely to shape our imagination. When we listen, we imagine. This research found that now because of the commercialisation and segmentation of radio drama, it disrupts the imagination of the listeners. The genre is used today only to sustain audience attention and sadly, not to develop the imagination of the audience. I then followed it up with another research on how radio contributes to development communication. I haven’t yet published these two latter projects but the manuscripts are ready.
After university, I got the opportunity to join UNAIDS. I was interested in broadening my knowledge on HIV issues. I first joined as an internee. I worked a lot with the LGBTIQ community. I was able to discuss the issues they faced as a community, in particular in relation to transgender persons. In Sri Lanka, we view such things in very stereotypical ways. But I don’t think we have a right to interfere with someone else’s freedom. These communities have to fight for their most basic rights because we deny them those rights.
Based on the exposure I had from doing research on social media, I am in the process of designing a research on sexual and reproductive health and rights that could be potentially developed into a PhD project.
I am now also working at the Sustainable Development and Wildlife Ministry. Our work concerns flora and fauna. With the kind of work that I do in relation to the environment and environmental issues with my current position, I am also thinking of developing a research that focuses on this area.
What are some of the future projects you hope to engage in?
At the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Wildlife, we are planning to work with a group of youth on environmental issues. Social media has a strong voice nowadays, which we cannot deny. So, we are looking at ways to integrate social media into the work that we do. This is particularly useful to tackle issues in wildlife crime. Everyone uses smart phones today. So, we must go hand in hand with the technology. For instance, if we see an animal in distress, we can use our mobile phones to photograph and report about such a matter. We got volunteers for our Wildlife Crime Prevention Unit from various parts of Sri Lanka who could be connected through the internet to look into environmental issues. So, we are hoping to work with a network of youth.
Date of Interview: 1 October 2017
Interviewer and main photo: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage