In my university break (July 2011) I went to Sri Lanka. With the help of Palmera Projects I was able to volunteer my time with a local charitable organisation called OfERR (Ceylon). During my stay in Sri Lanka, I volunteered in the head office in Colombo, where I applied wrote a report on how the charity might use social media to increase exposure and interact more with interested persons. Then, my sister came to visit from Germany, and we toured around the country, visiting Trincomalee, Jaffna, Sigiriya and Kandy, taking in as much of the country as possible. After my sister left, I went to the Trincomalee field office to get as much information about the projects there as possible, focusing on the rice mill, which Palmera is currently seeking to replicate in Mannar. Finally, I made it to Mannar to see the site of the proposed rice mill, and met the people from the village (including the priest, the government officer and the potential beneficiaries of the project).
Meeting Mr. Chandrahasan, working on OfERR’s web-presence in their Sri Lanka Head-Office
Before my trip, I had read “The Cage” by Gordon Weiss to get a little bit of context about the country I was coming to. To say that the book was eye-opening, as well as horrific, is an understatement. I came to Sri Lanka expecting desolation and hopelessness. What I found was something else entirely.
Hours after I arrived in Colombo, definitely before I checked in to the hotel, I was able to meet with Mr. Chandrahasan, the son of a major Tamil politician, the founder of OfERR and quite possible one of the most inspirational people I have ever met. Within minutes, he had interviewed me and ascertained my skills (photography, economics, general nerdiness) and had told me what I can do to help. He reminded me that the reality in The Cage was real, but what the displaced persons were doing now was searching for hope, not pity, and that it was our job to empower them and to allow them to grow, to recover. This was to be a recurring theme in my trip, a hopefulness beyond anything I had ever seen.
I spent the rest of the week working with the head-office trying to work out how the charity worked (it seemed more like a family than any other type of organisation), figuring out how the Trincomalee rice mill was going, and how progress is going on the Mannar rice mill. Further, I wrote a little report about how OfERR could use the web to their advantage (I am pleased to say that my recommendations are being implemented, with OfERR already having a Twitter and a Flickr account to help show the world what they do).
My sister’s visit
Travelling around Sri Lanka: to Trincomalee, Jaffna, Sigiriya and Kandy
Although my trip was mostly a volunteering trip, I did traipse around the country as a tourist with my sister: snorkelling in Trincomalee, climbing Sigiriya rock, exploring markets and temples in Kandy and playing with baby elephants in a cute temple we found in Colombo.
We did go one place where tourists don’t usually go: Jaffna. After a 10 hour bus ride (not a coach, a dodgy, doors/windows open crowded bus) and a 20 something minute interview with the Ministry of Defense (I think the captain was just practicing his English, he was chatting to me about the fruit he grew in his garden whilst the bus was waiting) we made it to Jaffna. Awesome food! There is this stuff called “cool” which is this delicious and spicy seafood concoction which I definitely recommend. We went to the giant, magnificent and colourful temple. But the most special thing we did, in my opinion, was visit Mr Chandrahasan’s father’s home. After thirty years, his land was returned to his family, and now the land was being rebuilt. It was very inspiring.
Trincomalee with OfERR (Ceylon)
After my sister left, I went back to Trincomalee to more closely look at the projects that OfERR was involved with. I saw livelihood projects like the Batik Dyeing Centre which employed young girls who would otherwise have no jobs. I saw a weaving vocational training program. I saw so many projects that everywhere I looked I saw smiles, and hope. I saw schools that were filled with smiling children, I saw OfERR’s documentation program get documents to displaced persons, to allow them to work legally and to get their children educated.
Sadly, I also saw some IDP (internally displaced persons) camps, specifically, four camps in the area south of Trincomalee. This camps were filled with people struggling to find employment, and reliant on WFP food handouts. There were people my age, there, there were people younger.
One of the most inspirational things I saw on my trip, however, was the rice mill in Trincomalee and the attached savings clubs. With OfERR’s help (in Trincomalee, and with Palmera’s help in Mannar) a rice mill was established, and was run by women — mostly widows. The mill reduced costs for those who made money through paddy cultivation, saved time for people in the community (who would otherwise have to carry rice to a town almost 10 km away, and spend the day milling their rice) and provide a source of income for the women in the community (both for charging for milling, and from selling the husk and bran by-products of the milling process).
In the first year, the mill broke even, by the second year, because of decreasing repair costs they made a profit. This profit was enough for them to purchase a rice flour grinder, a chilli grinder and packaging equipment: all of which add value and revenue to the milling facility, and all of which are a testament to the entrepreneurial spirit of the women who run the mill.
The women all had home gardens. Within two years of moving back into the land they had been displaced from, each family had a lush garden which provided them with enough food for the year. Each family had cows, chickens and goats, where two years ago there were only 8 cows in the whole village (of more than 40 families). The savings clubs (where each woman saves 20-100 rupees a month) allowed the families to take out loans to buy paddy seed, to rent paddy land, to buy sewing machines and to supplement their livelihood through entrauprenership: the empowerment that Mr. Chandrahasan spoke of was evident: this was definitely a model to be emulated.
Meeting the villagers and prospective benificiaries of the Palmera rice-mill project
A massive bus journey over bumpy non-roads, and a couple of checkpoints later, I was in Mannar. The villages surrounding this city were only recently resettled, and the conditions were much worse than in Trincomalee. Young people complained of only being able to work 4-6 days a month, there was no electricity or running water, this area was in need.
Again, Sri Lanka managed to surprise me: where I expected these conditions to bear down on the spirit of the affected persons, and where I expected these conditions to compromise the quality of life of the people, especially the children, I was wrong. The people there were optimistic. The children were schooled (there was even pre schooling facilities). When I spoke to the villagers about the rice mill, they showed the same entrepreneurial spark: they spoke of ideas for the future: grinding herbs, storing paddy and chilling milk. It was absolutely inspiring to be sitting on the floor in front of the church with people with such hope. For the first time in years, they had there land back, and they were all so hopeful for the future.
I would like to thank Palmera Projects and OfERR (Ceylon) for the most wonderful opportunity. I hope to be back in Sri Lanka as soon as possible to continue my work (December!). For more photos, check out my two Flickr sets from my trip: Part 1 and Part 2.