Edna Manel Nanayakkara – Truly Inspiring

I first met Edna Manel Fernando (as she was known then) in August 1963 when we co-led a group of young people in their joys and trials during an International work-camping in Sparkbrook, Birmingham England. Our joint physical labour revamped two old houses for an Irish and a Pakistani family, reducing the housing shortage in an immigrant area of poverty and racial prejudice. Manel was a Colombo Plan Scholar from Sri Lanka studying in Wales, while I was from Scotland studying Youth Leadership and Community Development in Edinburgh. I immediately recognised that Manel was energetic, well-organised and always supportive of the common good with her infectious laugh.

Manel with her husband Timothy, daughter Nelathi and son Thilal in the early 70’s

From then on, our lifetime friendship lasted for almost 60 years. My family was happy that Manel joined us for her Christmas vacation in 1963. Exactly a decade later during my Christmas vacation, December–January, 1973-74, her family welcomed me into their home. By then Manel was married to her beloved Timothy and had two small children, Nelathi and Thilal. They couldn’t have been kinder, introducing me to Sri Lanka’s beauty, history, landmarks, agriculture and culture, in a balance of activity and relaxation, including the place where Timothy and Manel had spent their honeymoon in Bandarawela. Manel, as the Field andTraining Secretary of the YWCA was able to show me firsthand how her outreach work with women’s groups was progressing. I was impressed.

Over the years, we shared joyful as well as sad times, for example when Manel spent months in London(1975-6), hoping for successful medical treatment for Timothy’s leukemia.

Unfortunately, that was not to be. Timothy died in 1980. Manel’s faith never wavered and she turned her attention to her children and to the YWCA in Sri Lanka, becoming its National Executive Director later on. I had been in the USA on the Cleveland International Programme for Teachers and Social Workers from April ‘67- December ’68 and was glad to be back in Scotland when Manel came to London during these difficult times.

I came to live in New York State, USA in January, 1978. We kept in touch by airmail and a few phone calls until there was another opportunity to meet—this time during the Easter vacation when Manel was studying for her Masters in Social Work (MSW) from 1986-88 at the University of Georgia in Atlanta and I was able to visit her there. She was as young in spirit as ever. Nelathi had already come to visit me in Woodstock, NY during her summer vacation from her course of studies in the Atlanta area prior to Manel’s arrival. Likewise, my niece Kath from Scotland connected much later with Manel and the family when she and a friend traveled to Sri Lanka in December, 2007.

In more recent years, contact has been via Skype and Whatsap video calls and Manel loved to reminisce about our very first Sparkbrook experience and she continued to invite me to visit Sri Lanka as recently as a few days before she passed on to be with her maker. It has now been one year since that day, and I’ve been so very thankful for this long and personal friendship that I have had with Manel. Her commitment to understand the best social work practices, expressed in all her work with women, and her enthusiasm for the mission of the YWCA has been truly inspiring.

Puja A. J. Thomson, author of Track Your Truth—Discover Your Authentic Self and other health and wellness publications, such as After Shock–From Cancer Diagnosis to Healing [email protected]