‘Colors of Colombo’ gives voice to the voiceless.

A Web developer and a journalist walk into a juice bar. The book that they just published paints the city I grew up in, in stunning light.

Photo by Nazly Ahmed

If you’ve lived here, you’d know when to duck a ball flying in your direction from a raucous cricket match. (The clue is often a pair of Bata slippers making do for a wicket.) Or where to find isso vadas, or chinese rolls; where that bicycle-tube repair guy on Galle Road sits under a piece of plastic; or what time the knife sharpener and choon pan tuktuk might arrive. These ‘experts’ and entrepreneurs however, are easy to miss because they just blend into the cacophony that is Colombo. Sadly many of them are hidden in plain sight like faded wall posters. But no worries – Nazly Ahmed has them in his viewfinder. He pulls up on his motorbike and takes in the details with his trusty camera. Lucky us! 

Colours of Colombo is a glimpse into that other side of Colombo, the lives lived in the shadow of the luxury apartment towers, and by unkempt beaches. It may be too small-scale a book to qualify for a coffee-table piece (which is my only beef with the collection. Visual storytelling like this ought to be seen in large format.) But the colours that pour out of it let us pay attention to those slices of life that are left out of tourist brochures. Who else would focus on a road sweeper in Mattakkuliya surrounded by grit, casting an ominous shadow? Or the tuktuk driver taking a nap like a cartoon strip framed against a giant piece of graffiti? Or the saravita seller’s serene, weatherbeaten face? These lead characters are part of the daily docudrama played out across the 15 zip codes of a city I once called home. Sadly, many of them are in transit, or worse, anonymous. Their names don’t roll in with the credits. Nazly (the photo-hobbyist and web developer) and Kris Thomas (the writer) have taken pains to put many names to faces, giving voice to the voiceless, a secondary, magnanimous accomplishment.

Reading this book made me wistfully attempt to recall those who’ve remained nameless in my childhood. (Your list is probably as big as mine.) The vedamahathaya down Havelock Road who once reset my dislocated elbow; the smiling lady outside St. Peter’s College who sold us ambarella achcharu through the iron gates. The tuktuk driver who religiously showed up on Sunday mornings to take my mother to church. The rickshaw man who transported my cousin and I to school and back. The kiri-karaya from Sagara Road. Their legacy is not found in my photo album. But they were itinerant actors who were part of a city drama never forgotten. 

Nazly and Kris don’t just take us back in time. They freeze the frame. I was glad to see that they all but ignored the parts of Colombo that privileged folk –and Instagrammers – go after. The bars, the buffet tables, the coffee shops. Yes there are some waterfronts in shimmering light, but some beaches (like one in Bambalapitiya) are murky. Shanties stand out against a backdrop of affluence. The other waterfront (a once hyped floating market), they note, is abandoned. 

By an unhappy coincidence the book comes out in a time when Sri Lanka is facing its biggest crisis. Colombo, where all the machinations of the political economy are worked out, is experiencing power cuts. A lighting effect –and irony –any photographer would not miss. We could be optimistic and see Colors of Colombo as a glimmer amid the virus of poor governance.

Universities in Sri Lanka Explore Blogging

Guest post by – ​Indulekha Nanayakkara​

When I was invited to conduct a presentation on New Media for a group of students who are studying journalism at a local University, the University of Colombo, I was both flattered and overwhelmed at first.

Yes, it’s true that I’ve been reading a lot and working on social media for the past few years, taken every opportunity that came my way to get deeper into social media. However, the fact that I will be speaking to university students itself was in a way, overwhelming. I was expecting myself to be bombarded with questions after the presentation so I read up on extra areas as well.

At the beginning of the presentation I was curious to find out who was on what social networking sites. So I asked them to raise their hands. Facebook – almost everyone. Twitter – Just one girl and she said she wasn’t that active. Blogs – none.

To be honest, I was a little shocked to see the response with regard to Twitter and Blogging. The presentation being on the importance of blogging, in addition to social media; I had to change my stance a little bit and go slightly more basic.

The response was mixed. Some had a sparkle in their eyes, while others had a blank expression. The majority were curious I guess. The back story here is that, out of the whole group of about thirty or so students that were present at the conference, five of them had been to the U.S. earlier this year for a one-and-a-half month long program called “Global Perspectives on Democracy – New Media” along with some students from India and Bangladesh. This was conducted at the University of Virginia. So, it was the same five students who organized the conference I was speaking at – “Youth Leadership Conference on New Media 2010”.

After the conference however, about seven or eight students stayed back and just chit-chatted with me. I tried my best to make them see the importance of blogging as a tool in citizen journalism, as well as the importance of networking through Twitter. As I was leaving, I promised them that I would follow up and help them to start a blog and I think it was an important start.

From what I gathered from the students that I met that day, they are keen on writing. But they are not quite sure where and how to begin. They also had a vague idea of creating a blog that would act as a bulletin board for the students.

This got me thinking. If the situation in universities is such, what about schools? I know for a fact that at least in international schools, the children know their way around chatting and facebook usage. But what about serious networking? Would they think of chatting with their potential future university lecturers or senior colleagues? Would they like to read blogs of students of their age but from various global communities? Do they know that they can collaborate with their friends on class projects once they go home, in order to complete them? And do they also know that they can do research and not necessarily surfing the web just for fun!

Apart from all of this, the good news is, that the students are geared to do their own blog. Once it is live, I hope to share it with your here.

To Tweet Or Not To Tweet?

Ah, that is the question, isn’t it? Especially for many people still wondering if there is any value in jamming conversations into 140 characters of less. I tend to tell people that just as sending post cards, or having non-stop IM chats with six different people throughout the day have different value for different people, so too Twitter.

But — huge BUT here — it’s time to consider Twitter as less of a marketing device, and more as a listening tube.

In the second of a 6-part webinar series I am conducting (check previous one) this one will be appropriately called To Tweet Or Not To Tweet.

Here is my co-presenter, Gary Campbell on the subject.


Passport to ‘Digital Citizenship’ Webinars next week

Really happy to announce a series of Web conferences that I will be starting next week for the U.S Embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Webinar on social media - US Embassy, Colombo Sri LankaThis follows a digital video conference I conducted last year for the U.S.E, in association with the US State Department.

These six workshops –Webinars– are designed to be more interactive; the majority of participants will be at one location in Colombo. They were selected based on their application and response to a survey on the state of social media in Sri Lanka.

We are covering the usual suspects: Blogs, social networking, micro-blogging, video sharing and social search.  The attendees are from diverse backgrounds: advertising, corporate communications, government, web-based businesses, management, universities, media and non-profits.

Presenters: To make these sessions more focused and relevant I have brought on board some top practitioners to co-present with me. They are:

Dan Wool, a corporate communications and PR consultant for APS, a large electric utility in Arizona. Dan co-founded one of the world’s top blogs on public relations, marketing and social media.

Steve England, Chief Technology Office of MobileSoft, an advocate of on-demand digital printing who advises large tech companies and international advertising agencies on interactive marketing.

Gary Campbell, a communications manager at Arizona State University, a former print journalist turned digital, who has led numerous university training sessions in social media.

I will also bring in a few ‘surprise’ guests who will pop-in with some real-world examples of how they are using a particular strategy in their communication!

My old hangout, American Center turns 60

Happy to learn, from the U.S. Embassy blog in Colombo, that the American Center is celebrating its 60th birthday.

In the eighties, the AC was a part of my growing up. I would ride my bike on Sunday afternoons and settle down in the Communications section of the library. This was where I would catch a week’s worth of pre-recorded ABC News with Peter Jennings. I am sure there are thousands of others to whom this was a portal into a variety of interests.

Happy Birthday, American Center! Read the American Center newsletter here.

So what would it have been like when the American Center opened in Colombo 60 years ago? 1949 was a curious year, with these landmark events: