Urban public housing in Sri Lanka: a childhood’s view


Summit Flats Colombo

Summit flats Colombo Sri Lanka

This swath of brick apartment blocks along Kappetipola mawatha was built for the 1976 non-aligned conference. According to Varuna de Silva’s paper “Creating Quality Neighbourhoods in Low-cost Public Housing in Sri Lanka” the intention was to pass on the blocks to middle income government servants after the brief initial use of housing journalists attending the conference (p5). Google has the paper cached if you are not in the mood to poke around a PDF file. These days (and I think since the late 1980s) the flats have mainly houses armed services staff. The entrances to Kappetipola mawatha are now closed with check points and I doubt you could just wonder in.

This geoblog post (for better or for worse) is turning to a meander down memory lane because a majority of my pre-teenage life was spent there. When we moved in, rents were cheap, the flats were practically new and walking distance from the “good” Colombo schools. Or so mmy parents tell me. The other families seemed to have kids within 5 years of my age.

The “flats” themselves were strung along the lush green of Kappetipola mawatha in “blocks” that consisted of 4 or more 4 story buildings. Between each block are colonial era houses – whose spacious gardens the blocks occupy. The dominant character of the place in my memory were the huge trees the watched over us. You could hear their rustling yet benign gossip when the wind picked up. Despite all the changes its a relief to see that the trees are still there.

My human neighbours made quite a cast of characters. There were single parents, young business types, mid-level government engineers and a young police inspector whose wife taught us English. Quite a few doctors back from the obligatory stint in the boonies. A guy that owned a garage who was perpetually performing open heart surgery on ancient cars late at night under powerful oversized table lamps. He had twins whom we referred to as Iran and Iraq. Above us, a junior MP from the “outstations”. His sons were older to me but they were dangerous fun to hang out with. And of course the block drunk (a clerk in some government department) who serenaded everyone with LOUD slurry renditions of “Rung Kooduwe Damala..” at sunset.

I remember the fads. The earliest I remember was collecting Siamese fighters (cheaply bought at some market) and Guppies. Mine got stolen and its an understatement to say I was distraught. There were endless long bouts of hora-police (cops and robbers for non Sri Lankans though). But the big one (which lasted the longest) were the bikes. It seemed that all the kids got their bikes around the same time. For a while everyone was nervously pottering about on training wheels with a tired parent just home from work holding up the bike. After a few weeks of that the pathways became dangerous eddies of screaming kids speeding madly on their cycles.

When people started buying cars make shift garages started popping up. Thankfully there was plenty of space between the building. Inevitably most people on the ground floor apartments added permanent extensions. No idea how legal that was (or is).

Flats that bought the first TVs became the block cinemas will everyone got their own. I was too young to understand most of the programs accept Sesame Street and later Electric Company (with Morgan Freeman as “Easy Reader”). I think both programs helped a generation of kid \(including me) learn English. My parents rationed my TV viewing to strictly kid’s programming on weekdays (essentially a daily dose of Sesame Street or Electric Company). The biggest treat was the program featuring the mask guy with silver guns and white horse and red Indian side kick who called him “kimosabi”

Weekends meant soccer or cricket or “tap” rugger. There were enough kids for several teams in both sports. Usually we trespassed onto the Sirimavo Bandaranayake Vidyalaya grounds for some “proper” playing space. On some Sundays, under the supervision of an adult, there would be an afternoon foray around Colombo on our bikes.

The seasons were marked by the gigantic trees that shaded the blocks. They would cover the area like snow with their green seed and later bright yellow flowers. Those sturdy giants rose well over 6-7 stories. I don’t ever recall the block having problems with falling branches. We plotted for years of building tree houses in the high thick branches but nothing came of that.

During the new year festivities (the one in April) plates of sweets would criss-cross the block. Thaipongal was similarly festive. Vesak meant lantern mania. Bamboo, paper, paste and string stockpiled in industrial quantities. The construction usually began right after the new year festivities. Minor issues like not being Buddhist didn’t get in the way of the fun or friendship. The December holidays meant a real block party. A few time there was a HUGE (1 story high) Christmas tree hauled in from somewhere. It took a week to decorate.

In the dark July of 83 I remember delivering groceries and other supplies for my best friend’s family who didn’t leave the block for a while. But that’s a grim note. Don’t want to end on one but too late – I already have. After all, this is Siri Lung ka no?

Google Earth and Wikimapia locations

There’s a post on Google Earth forum with an KZM file that will get you to the immediate area. its supposed to be forSirimavo Bandaranaike Vidyalaya but the location is a bit off. However it gets you to area in the image above.

Finally the wikimapia location

Other geo blog posts are in the Geoblog archive

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10 thoughts on “Urban public housing in Sri Lanka: a childhood’s view

  1. That’s a long trip down memory lane.

    Iraq and Iran? I can imagine why….But still, why not something like India and Pakistan?
    Were they playing with chemical weapons?

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  2. As kids, this area was part of our ‘Colombo playground’. Bikes galore and the biggest treat was a 15 cent (yes 0.15 cent) Elephant House Ice Palam in traingular packaging. Sigh…and thank you.

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  3. Did someone say “Ice Palam???” now you are kicking me down memory lane.

    Really is it not avalable anymore? Elephant House was a giant household name….things change tooo fast!

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  4. Dominic and Johann:
    aaah Ice Palam. A word I haven’t heard that word in a while. One memory of those things was the sort of ice burn I got on what ever finger I was using to prevent the thing from sliding out of the triangular packing (yes the green and while Elephant house packaging). But it was worth it 😉

    R i do tend to meander a lot 😉 And now I got these comment dragging me down memory lane even further.

    The Iran and Iraq thing was I think because they both had similar sounding names beginning with “Ir” or “hir”. At the time our weapons didn’t go beyond those wood cut guns for Hora-police. Eventually everyone upgraded to those plastic ones with the lights and flit wheels that set off sparks.

    The kid on mmy block didn’t have much R & D in those day machan 😉 ….

    Glad I wrote something that people found positive 😉

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  5. Well you know 🙂

    Sometimes it feels like “alice through the looking glass”. Who would have ever thought then what would be in store.

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