Saints of the
New Millennium
Faith stories of ordinary Catholics in Asia

Sri Lankan Catholic fisher folk keep up faith, traditions

'God helps us. He is our only hope,' says Marian Liyanage despite poor catches and an unpredictable economic future
Marian Liyanage, a Catholic woman living in the Sri Lankan city of Negombo, works in her kitchen ahead of the 2023 Christmas season.

Marian Liyanage, a Catholic woman living in the Sri Lankan city of Negombo, works in her kitchen ahead of the 2023 Christmas season. (Photo: supplied) 

By Quintus Colombage

The hymns played on a loudspeaker at a nearby church wake up Marian and Saman Liyanage around 5 a.m. in their coastal fishing village, nestled in the picturesque Negombo lagoon in Sri Lanka.

After a quick prayer sitting on the bed, 51-year-old Marian rushes to the kitchen to prepare food for her four children and husband. Saman also gets ready to venture out on a day-long fishing trip in the Indian Ocean.

Marian carries his packed lunch as she accompanies him to the shore. On their way, both stop before a Marian grotto in front of the Our Lady of Good Voyage Church to pray in silence.

"I pray for my husband. When he is at sea, who will help him except God? For us, everything is God," Marian says.

No fisherman goes to sea without seeking God's protection.

“Faith is dear to us as much as the air we breathe when we work alone between the blue sky and the vast ocean," she says while waiting for him to board his fiberglass country boat.

Fisherwomen are seen selling fish in a church-run fish market in Negombo in December 2023. (Photo: Quintus Colombage / UCA News)

Close-knit community

Negombo, known locally as “Little Rome” because of its numerous Catholic institutions and large population, is some 40 kilometers north of the national capital Colombo.

The Portuguese, who made Negombo their center in the 1500s, baptized most of its sea-faring clans into Catholicism and controlled the area until the Dutch took over in 1646.

Negombo, covering some 64 square kilometers, now has some 150,000 people, an estimated 65 percent of them Catholics. The town is dotted with century-old churches, statues, and crosses by roadsides.

There are 33 churches to serve the Catholic community. Additionally, there are three Hindu temples, nine mosques, and three Buddhist temples, reflecting the diverse religious landscape of the region.

The Liyanage family's Pitipana village has some 3,000 inhabitants and 90 percent of them are Catholics. The remaining are Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. For generations, they have depended on fishing and related activities for a living.

In the close-knit community, fishing is teamwork. A minimum of three people are required on the small boats fitted with an outboard diesel-powered engine.

The women eagerly wait for the men to return to the shore in the evening. If they are late, the women, who are well aware of the unpredictability of the tropical sea, are quick to offer special prayers to a saint or the Virgin Mary for their safe return.

Once the catch of the day is hauled back, the women take over. They collect the fish, sort them, and take them to Negombo’s fish market, which is the second largest in the country.

Fish stalls are seen in Negombo's church-owned fish market in December 2023. (Photo: Quintus Colombage / UCA News)

‘Sea like unpredictable life’

Nestled at the northern end of the Negombo lagoon, the market comes alive early morning and remains so till late evening, having to deal with the catch of the 65,000-strong fishing community in the region.

Marian heads to the market with other women on a vehicle jointly hired by them. They soon merge into the vibrancy of the fish market. From a distance, one can hear the noisy exchanges and negotiations among auctioneers, buyers, and sellers.

“Just like the sea, our catch and income are also unpredictable,” Marian says.

A good catch could yield 6,000 rupees (some US$18), but at times, we get not even one-quarter of that,” she says.

The weekly fishing income of some US$100 needs to be shared among three families, after saving at least US$80 for fuel, maintenance of the boat, and fishing nets.

“What is left to feed the family? You calculate and see,” Marian says in exasperation.

Traditional in faith

Whatever happiness or disappointment she has had at the market, once back home Marian takes a bath and joins the family to recite the rosary at around 7 p.m. They then have dinner together before going to bed.

This has been their daily routine for years “without fail,” Marian says.

“Sunday is dedicated to prayer and rest. We refrain from any physical labor except cooking and cleaning. Unless there is real urgency, no fisherman goes to sea on Sundays. The fish markets are also closed,” she explains.

On Sundays, the family goes for morning Mass at St. Mary’s Church dressed in their Sunday best.

Marian and her 19-year-old daughter Rusirimala wear a white or black veil in keeping with the dress code that existed before the Second Vatican Council, requiring women to cover their heads inside the church.

Her eldest son Chinthaka Fernando is 29. Malaka Fernando is 25 while the youngest son Rasmika Fernando is 17.

The two younger children are yet to complete their studies while the grownup sons help their parents in fishing activities while also looking out for jobs to supplement the family income.

Generational poverty, and the resultant lack of education, have left a majority of the fisher people without the required skills for jobs other than fishing and associated activities, Church sources say.

In this picture taken on March 24, 2022, fishing boats are anchored as they wait to buy diesel at a fishery harbour in Negombo. (Photo: AFP)

Economic crisis sharpens poverty

"My father has to cover all the expenses with the little income from fishing. But despite the hard work, the catch is sometimes very poor and there are days when we have to eat whatever little we have,” Rusirimala says.

During the May-August season, when the southwest ‘Yala’ monsoon hits the island, the sea gets rough and fishermen along the Negombo coast rarely venture out to sea.

It is particularly hazardous for people like Saman who operate small boats.

“During such difficult days, my father goes to the lagoon and casts his net to help feed the family with whatever he manages to catch," she says.

Changing climate conditions across the globe have resulted in unprecedented storms, depressions, and unseasonal rains across the South Asian region.

Some fishermen take up daily wage work when they cannot go fishing. However, the ongoing economic crisis in Sri Lanka that started in 2019 has made things worse for them.

“The life of fishermen is becoming more and more difficult with the rising cost of food and other essentials," Rusirimala says.

The 19-year-old says her family’s strong faith in God as their protector and provider has helped them through these hard times.

"We pray together as a family every day and that sustains us,” she says.

Rusirimala aspires to become a teacher and is hopeful of a bright future built on faith, education and perseverance.

Marian’s market tactics

Her parents are badly hit by the depleting fish stocks and the rising price of kerosene and diesel, which are used to power the boat's outboard engine.

"Sometimes, even after working eight hours and spending huge sums on fuel, the catch is poor. The shortage of fish has worsened our suffering," Marian says.

"Fishermen live in hope despite the never-ending debt crisis. It is unlikely we will ever get rid of debt,” she adds.

The cost of rice, vegetables, electricity, water, and medicine have surged beyond people's imagination.

"Each rupee counts. That’s why I myself take the fish to the market. I don’t want to pay for a middleman," she says.

When the catch is good for all, the prices fall. Marian then turns to the old trick of drying fish to fetch a good price during the monsoon season when fresh fish is scarce.

"In times when there’s nothing in the house, I sell some dry fish and manage to feed us," Marian says.

Most fisherwomen sell dry fish and other home cooked food to make an extra income.

In this picture taken on March 24, 2022, workers process salted fish at a harbour in Negombo. (Photo: AFP)

‘Hymns of hope’

The Church has stood behind poor Catholics during times of crisis, says Rusirimala.

Local parishes have helped build houses for those who lost everything in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The Church is also helping families who suffered due to the Easter Sunday bomb attacks in 2019.

A group of priests in Negombo has initiated an aid program to distribute essential items to impoverished families every month.

Marian believes that compared to other families in the village, they have “a happy and good life.”

“God helps us. He is our only hope,” she says on her way back home for evening prayers.

A Christian hymn played on a loudspeaker could be heard along the coast as if providing the Liyanage family with renewed hope — for a good night’s sleep and a new dawn.

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