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Sunday, June 23, 2024

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‘I Aspire to Inspire Before I Expire.’ | Dr Anne Perera written by Gavithri Yatigammana

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Today, I have an exceptional guest here beside me. She was a food and nutrition consultant, author of three publications, and an active member amongst the Sri Lankan community plus several voluntary organisations. She lived and travelled in several countries and is a global citizen. In addition, she likes to write poetry and picture stories. She is none other than Dr Anne Dolores Perera.

Thank you for coming to my home to do this interview.

It’s our pleasure! Thank you for inviting us over, Aunty Anne. To many of us are here. You are known as Aunty Anne. Can we call you like that?

Yes, many people call me Aunty Anne and back home, I was also called Anne Akka, Archie and Aunty. All of them at different ages also call me ‘A.A.’.

Then, Aunty, we will start with your childhood and what was it like, and where did you grow up in Sri Lanka?

I came from Moratuwa. As a child, I went to primary school at the Moratuwa convent of Our Lady of Victories. I did my Ordinary Level at the Moratuwa Convent. Then went to Bamblapitiya, Holy Family Convent.

After Advanced Level, where did you study?

I studied at the University of Peradeniya because I did agriculture for my first degree.

After Peradeniya…?

After being an assistant lecturer for one year, I got a scholarship from Food and Agricultural Organisation (F.A.O.) to do a master’s degree in food technology in India. Then I developed an interest in food technology. There was no food technology in Sri Lanka at that time. Now, many universities offer them, and some of those students come here to do their PhDs. The Food and Agricultural Organisation centre was based in a very beautiful Maharaja’s palace in India. It was called the International Food Technology Training Centre. There were students from all South Asian countries. They took one student from each state of India and two students from each country for the programme. I was one of them, and there was another one who went, and he’s now my husband, Conrad; Professor Conrad Perera.

What happened after Masters?

I got another scholarship to go to America to do a PhD. Therefore, I went from India directly to the U.S.A. and got a Fulbright travel grant which I declined because there were conditions attached to that. Anyway, Conrad went to Africa: Mozambique and worked there as a technical manager for a credible oil company. Then both of us did our PhDs at Oregon State University.

How long were your PhD studies?

Five years from 1972 to 1977.

After the U.S.A., what was your next plan?

When we were in the U.S.A., we had the opportunity to stay there. At that time, Brazil was looking for professors. Conrad’s background fitted very well. He wrote to them and asked whether they were interested in him because he did food science and technology as his PhD major with a minor in microbiology. Along with that, he also sent my application.

I did food and nutrition as my major, with food science as a minor subject. But we thought that we should not compete for the same job and from there we went to Brazil. In Brazil, the State University of Londrina, located in the Parana state, offered jobs to both of us. I was six months pregnant when we left the U.S.A, and our son was born in Brazil.

You are a global citizen, and you have lived and travelled in several countries. How many countries have you lived in?

Until now, I have lived in seven countries, starting with Sri Lanka, India, U.SA, Brazil, and then moved to New Zealand in 1980- 81. Then, about 20 years later, we got an opportunity to go to Singapore in 2010. I also went to Tanzania.

Aunty Anne, what brought you to New Zealand?

Well, when we were in Brazil, we were wondering where we would settle down.

We could have stayed in Brazil, especially having a Brazilian born son; we automatically could have become Brazilian citizens. But we didn’t feel that; that’s where we wanted to live the rest of our lives. Another problem was that the language was Portuguese, and we had to learn it. Also,  I had to lecture in Portuguese.

What was immigration like back then when you moved to New Zealand?

When the company was interested in hiring Conrad as the technical manager, they had to advertise three times to show that there wasn’t a person qualified to take that job.

He was trying to replace a person, a Dutch technical manager who was retired. So that’s how the opportunity came. Then, when they knew that I was also qualified in food and nutrition, they were keen to employ me.

Was it easier for you to adapt to the New Zealand environment?

Yeah, more accessible than going to Brazil, where there was a language barrier and cultural differences. In 1981. We enjoyed our stay in Masterton, which is a rural place in New Zealand.

What was the Sri Lankan community like back in 1981?

There was an organisation called New Zealand Sri Lankan Friendship Society, in Wellington. We used to go to Wellington for functions. Conrad was the representative of Wairarapa at that time. In this way, we were in Masterton for five years. Then, we came to Auckland in 1985 because they offered Conrad a job at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) which, after 1992, was converted into the Crown Research Institute. He got a job at Mount Albert, where he worked for quite some time, and I came along from Masterton, where I was working for Hansel’s as a food and nutrition specialist and also, they had the franchise for ‘Weight Watchers’. I had to wait for the brand manager and then came over to Auckland. I applied for a job at Vottie Food Company and joined them as their research and development manager for the frozen food division in 1986.

There are so many Sri Lankan associations now. Were you involved in any of them back then? And are you currently?

Around 1983, there was a need to form a Sri Lankan association. During the height of the problems in Sri Lanka, there were many accusations from one side against the country. We wanted another organisation to combat those arguments and create an environment conducive for the Sinhalese majority. The United Sri Lanka Association was formed during that time, and Dr Ube Dias was the one who started. Also, there was a branch of USLA in Auckland.

Late1980s, Amitha Weerakoon became the president, and he invited me to join the committee. In the 1990s, I became the president of USLA after his term.

So, what made you decide to do psychology?

I think everyone needs a little bit of psychology to survive in the world, and I didn’t have an opportunity. I used to read a lot about personality and all that; it was interesting to me. When I went to Singapore in the year 2000, I was working there. During that time, I came across this evening class in Lee Community College and decided to do their introductory three-day course. Immediately, I got interested, and signed up for a part-time diploma course. 

You wrote the book, ‘Thank You for Being My Father’ about your stepfather?

Yes, ‘Thank you for being my father’ was triggered by a dream I had when we lived in Masterton. I knew my stepfather had some illnesses. My mother was looking after him, and I knew that I would have to go there to help my mother say goodbye to him one day. But I didn’t know when.

Around that time, I had a dream. In my dream, I was back in Sri Lanka in my home, and I told my stepfather, ‘thank you for being my father’. He said, ‘I haven’t given you anything. Take this’ (showed her hand, in the video), and he just did like this with his right hand, and I looked what was there to see a refrigerator. I asked how could I take a fridge to New Zealand and then I woke up and I felt that that was a message for me to go to Sri Lanka because it was probably the end and I checked the travel and ticket, I mean if I had to go in a rush, well I didn’t have much time.

 He passed away. My sister-in-law rang and said, ‘you know your Papa died.’ I called him Papa, and my father Thaththa, whom I never knew because he passed away when I was six months. Then this stepfather was my father. I wanted to say to him, ‘thank you.’ But, I didn’t get a chance to say it in person, other than in my dream. I went to his funeral and came home with a heavy heart because when my mother got married, I wasn’t that very nice to him. I thought over the years we made up, and he was the best person who could have entered our lives. Finally, I started writing more to get over my grief. What got written was my life story.

When I was at the university, my stepfather gave me his life story written in Sinhala Kavi, written in papers, and told me one day to make that available to the next generation. Now I didn’t know how to make this, what to do with this. But I carried it like a treasure from Sri Lanka to India to the U.S.A., Brazil and came to New Zealand and from New Zealand, we went to Singapore and came back. All the time, I had this with me, and when I was thinking of ‘thank you for being my father’, I thought, ‘ah, this will be a good platform to introduce this Sinhala Kavi as well’. But then I was wondering how I am going to get it typed.

I asked a few friends here who directed me to Lankaramaya, the Buddhist temple in Auckland, and met the chief incumbent (Nayaka Hamuduruwo). I knew him earlier. He said, ‘yes, we can do that,’ and passed it onto one of the younger Hamudhuruwos, Rev. Chandrawimala. He did a great job. So, in my book, there’s a single section of this Kavi. I was very relieved that I have done that; at least the book is available for people. 

Apart from that, you have published two other books. What are those?

Those are nutrition books. One is called ‘Nutrition 2000’. How this came about is: During one of the technical meetings, Professor Cliff Desmond Jone was starting the New Zealand Nutrition Foundation and asked me whether I could be the editor of that. They were based in Auckland, and I was in Masterton. But I still accepted that challenge. It was a voluntary position. I said I know about nutrition. But I didn’t understand nutrition in New Zealand. If you feed me with the information, I will put the newsletters together and be the editor. Over the years, I collected a lot of information relevant to New Zealand nutrition: nutrition guidelines. That book was based on that. I wrote it while I was in Masterton, and I was going to call it ‘Nutrition for New Zealanders.’

In the late 1980s, he wanted me to write a nutrition policy for what is. I thought at that time; I had this valuable document sitting there to be humanised. How do I do this? And I knew some food writers and dieticians in Auckland. One named Pip Duncan had published books. So, I asked, ‘Pip, would you like to work with me to humanise my document.’

She said, ‘yes.’ I have also been thinking of writing something on nutrition. So, therefore,  I asked, ‘let’s work together?’ That was published by Longman Paul and launched in 1994. Still, they wanted to call it ‘Nutrition 2000’ more like a futuristic, and it’s a very easy to read, easy-to-understand and straightforward book for the average consumer.

Then, let’s talk about your other publication. It’s called ‘Hot Potatoes Crew Bananas.’ What an interesting name?

When Conrad was offered a job at the National University of Singapore in 2000, the New Zealand high commissioner in Singapore told me, ‘now, if you’re looking for a job, there is a food company that imports a lot of milk powder from New Zealand.  They will be interested in hiring you.’ So I contacted the company, which was called Fraser and Neve. They had milk and soya bean and a whole lot of products. Then I joined their team as a ‘nutritionist and scientific and regulatory affairs manager’.

During that time, they asked me to go and promote their food products in shopping malls and various other companies, giving talks on nutrition. I used the book ‘Nutrition 2000’ to give my talks. Everyone was interested in getting a copy of the book. By that time, it had gone out of print. All copies were sold out. Then, I approached Longman Paul publisher in Singapore and asked, ‘you know, is there a way that I could get another print? They said, ‘if you want to do a print, you will have to update it.’ I thought I don’t want to be updating and people see it. At that time, Singapore National Publisher (SNP) approached me and asked, ‘why don’t you write another book?’. That’s how the next one came about. I didn’t want to write the same thing.

The book is on the goodness of fruits and vegetables called photochemical, which means the body’s benefits. 

What are some of your highlights in Tanzania?

I was teaching the people community and the trainers in Tanzania. I managed to get many pictures of the training programs and put them into picture documents, and those served as teaching tools later. I was looking for a professional organisation for me to join, like in New Zealand. So, I started one called Tanzania Institute of Food Science and Technology, same s New Zealand and Singapore. I was able to connect the Tanzania one to IU First that happened in Brazil. So, I went back to Brazil after thirty-odd years, and this time our son, who was born in Brazil, also went with me that happened in 2012 after I completed my two years in Tanzania. 

Are you planning to publish a poetry book?

I like to, but I have to discipline myself and do it just like the other three books. I want to do those poems more like Kavi and connect them to the dream I mentioned earlier.  I should write precisely how he wrote his poems in English. The book he gave me is a gift of writing. I have a website called www.anneperera.co.nz, if anyone is interested in knowing more about my poetry.

Aunty, do you have a life motto that you follow?

‘I aspire to inspire before I expire’. It’s my motto, which means before I die, I want to share my knowledge with as many people as possible. 

What message do you want to give out to the younger generation that is watching you right now?

I like to emphasise that as human beings, we have three aspects: Body, Soul and Spirit. Therefore, we must have a good balance among those three aspects to succeed in life.

On behalf of SriLankaNZ, we’d like to thank you, Dr Anne Perera, for sharing your life journey and being such an inspiration for us.

See the Full Video Interview here

“Aspire to inspire before I expire” Food Scientist, Nutritionist and a Volunteer Dr. Anne Perera. SrilankaNZ Newspaper Interview Conducted by Nishi De Silva Video and editing – Dulith Gunasekera.

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