Forty Years of service and commitment to the United Nations in Colombo

by Ajith

He is Withanage Jayawardana Perera; we call him ‘Jaya’.

I have travelled many times in the office vehicle driven by him. On one such tour, we visited Rambukkana to write a media report on a medical clinic that had been set up following the 2016 landslide. The clinic was conducted by the Ministry of Health of Sabaragamuwa Province with the assistance of Family Planning Association and Sri Lanka Red Cross under the patronage of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

The landslide of Samasarakanda took more than 100 lives in May 2016, and I wanted to visit the refugee camp to investigate further and speak with the survivors of the area. However, it was quite a distance from the medical clinic.

“Shall we go there, Jaya?”, I asked.

Without hesitation, he agreed.

Jaya is always ready to go anywhere at any time. I still remember how he almost broke down when he saw the terrible landslide site and the depressing state of camps following the disaster.

On our way, he recalls many stories from his past.

He describes one incident with a former Assistant Representative of UNFPA, where they narrowly escaped an exchange of gunfire between the state military and rebels at Muttur, as they were returning from a camp visit. It was the year 2007, immediately after the war broke out and 17 aid workers of an international organization had already disappeared.    

Jaya was born on 4th July 1955 in Piliyandala, and he will retire on 31 July 2017 - because he has reached the maximum working age of 62. His career deserves special attention not only for his experiences but because he has worked for forty years in United Nations office in Sri Lanka. He might even be one of few who have been working at the UN for such a long time.

“After grade 8, I went to Colombo with my father. I first joined the personal staff of World Bank’s first Sri Lanka Country Director, David Thomas.  After that, I worked at the UN Information Centre and the United Nations Development Programme, as a minor employee.”

Jaya first joined UNFPA in 1978 as member of the personal staff of UNFPA's first Representative of Sri Lanka Dr. Majeed Khan.

 “I first worked as a minor employee but my ambition was to become a driver. After a brief assignment at the UN, as a messenger driver, I was able to get close to my ambition.”

Jaya obtained his driving license in a time when the country was in chaos. He now shows his driving license, with a lot of pride – the address reads: No. 203, Bullers Road, Colombo, the previous UN headquarters of Sri Lanka.

During his 19-year tenure as a driver at the UN, Jaya has driven vehicles to every part of the island.

“I enjoyed my work life. Although I had certain weaknesses, the chiefs considered them amicably,” Jaya says with gratitude.

This is not the end of the road for Jaya. He retires with a few plans up his sleeve.

 “I have been invited to work as a personal driver after retiring. I am also thinking of helping my only daughter start a business in handicrafts”.

I saved the best part for last.

Not only did Jaya spend most of his life with the UN, he also met the love of his love here. His wife K.A. Sumanawathi was employed at the UN Information Centre when they first met. She is now looking after Jaya’s beautiful house in Bokundara, in the outskirts of Colombo city maintaining a beautiful garden.

It is a well-known fact that the other drivers wait eagerly every afternoon until Jaya opens his packed lunch, so that they may have a taste of his delicious food, lovingly cooked by his wife.