On my “day off” [link] I had organised to meet with a Mr. Jeremy, a representative of “Diaspora Lanka” in Sri Lanka. He had worked in Mannar for a fair few weeks now, and I was really excited to pick his brain. We were meeting at eight in the morning at a “Choice” cafe, and, being kind of nervous, I may have arrived there at about half past seven. But, the couple of sugars with a spot of tea that I had did me energy levels wonders, and by the time Mr. Jeremy and his lovely companion Ms Samanthi came along, I was buzzing like a bee!
The first thing we talked about (over a breakfast of some party hat shaped rotti) was LEADS (the NGO we were considering working with). Jeremy assuaged my worries about never having worked with them before by telling me that they have been operating for many years, especially in Mannar District, and that they were a really polished organisation with impeccable reporting (usually the biggest issue with an “on the ground” partner).
He told me a bit about the three villages in Manthai West district that it is proposed we work with:
- Pappamottai, a Christian majority fishing village;
- Then Udyian, a Hindu majority paddy farming village; and,
- Kandal, a Muslim majority village that had just recently resettled.
The way a LEADS project usually works is a continuous involvement with a village or group of villages for several years, focussing on their development. The three stages are:
- Do a small pilot project to get the confidence of the local government authorities and the communities;
- Do a set of workshops (Participatory Rural Appraisals – “PRA’s”) to find out, exactly, the needs of the villagers; and,
- Continuous support to allow the development of the village in the areas highlighted by the PRA’s.
So, the “Step 1.” project for these villages, apparently, was the building of a new road between these three villages. The villagers will work on this road, together, and it will foster trade and communal relationships between these parties – a sort of “road of reconciliation.” There had been some tension and jealousy between these villages because of their different levels of development, and, it is hoped, that this road, and the working together, will help pull down these barriers and improve relations between these villages.
The “Step 2.” of our project would be the PRA’s. Usually, these would happen directly after the pilot project, but, here, Jeremy asked them to delay the PRA’s until a volunteer from Diaspora Lanka could be there to supervise the brainstorming, and inject some new ideas into the project – instead of the usual micro-businesses of weaving palm leaves, grinding chilli, etc, what about eco tourism? A volunteer named Andrea De Silva will be hopping over in March to supervise this.
Further, the government recently released its 20 year plan for the Mannar district, and it has some extremely exciting propositions (a railway to India, an expressway to the south and a railway to Trincomalee just to name a few) which will turn Mannar from a sleepy oft forgotten place into a little bit of a national hub. Jeremy and Diaspora Lanka wanted to make sure that the villagers in Mannar (rather than international businesses or Colombo hotel giants) will be able to grow from this. I offered to introduce Jeremy to “Culture Aangan” who could perhaps assist in the micro-hotel ideas that he had.
Secondly, we talked about the recent Mannar think-tank that he had run: “Mannar 2022” (complete with an awesome poster of a space-ship hovering over the causeway to Mannar). One of the ideas that the participants came up with include computerising the small to medium enterprise (“SME” – Sri Lanka really loves its TLA’s, doesn’t it?) sector, which I think is an amazing idea.
We continued talking about Mannar for a while, and then Samanthi (akka) told me about the idea she was working on in Sri Lanka – a high quality pre-school chain (created with the support of the Pre-School Teachers Association with over 300 members nationwide), that included education in English, and the ability to let the children play with and familiarise themselves with computers. In the evening (after the kids have gone home), the space would be used to train young adults, also in computers and English.
Having just read “Building a Social Business” by Mohammed Yunus, I introduced Samanthi to a few of the ideas in the book, most importantly, the idea of cross subsidisation. If Samanthi’s preschools were of a high enough quality, she could charge rich students to come to the school, and this would subsidise the costs to the poorer students. This model isn’t new, in fact, the preschool my sister works in, in the forest outside of Berlin, runs a similar program. I still recommended that the preschools charge a little to the poor students – this way the parents don’t feel like the recipients of charity, and the parents will have higher expectations of the school.
By this time, we had long ago finished our breakfast, our tea and our second tea (or coffee, I am not sure, they both just taste like sugar) and our bananas (that come at the end of every meal here – “Vallai Pallam” in Tamil). We were starting to feel bad about stealing a table from this busy restaurant, so off we headed.
A brief adventure
So, a quick hop to the OfERR office to collect my lenses and to show my colleagues a little bit about what I do, and we were off to explore Mannar fort. A little bit of background – this beautiful old Dutch fort was a High Security Zone, having been used in the war. Every time Jeremy had tried to explore, he had been shooed off by the army.
This time, though, we had Samanthi with us (a fluent speaker of Sinhalese – the language that the majority of the armed forces speak) and she asked an officer who told us the fort was now totally open. So we went exploring. We saw donkeys (of course!) we saw the cutest puppies in the world running about, we climbed ramparts and took photos of the amazing view. This fort will definitely be a tourist attraction in modern Mannar – and we were excited to show our local friends this beautiful place for the first time!
Sunday’s church service
Jeremy’s friend, Mr. Kamal, his father was the leader of a church, so we went to catch the tail end of the service – cute kids singing gospel, amazing! We met all of these great people, from fishermen to holy men, and without fail everyone asked me where I was from and asked for a photo (Danny, you could totally live here).
A great adventure
Now it was time for our great adventure north, with the boys (about 6 Tamil men aged between 20-30), who were our “tour guides.” One of them was a crazy climber, the other a black Tom Cruise, the other the eloquent Mr. Kamal, the other 2 awesome blokes who didn’t speak much English, and the young Driver.
We went to see Mannar’s 500 year old Baobab tree, jumped over the fence and hugged the thing for a photo (as you do). Then the police got angry at us (I guess we aren’t meant to jump over fences), but they just gave us a stern few words in Sinhalese, translated to a stern few words in English by the wonderful Samanthi.
Then we went to see Mannar’s great church, St Lucien’s, which was being painted by the congregation after the Sunday service. Had a quick explore, took some long-exposure shots to try and grab the mood of the place.
On the way to Thalaimannar, our first stop was the Catholic village of Pesale, with its enormous church. The courtyard was filled with Pilgrims eating their lunches, so we cracked open some mangos (some intensely sour, some honey sweet) and joined them. Then I looked closely at the walls of the church – they were still pockmarked with bullet holes from the war. A sobering thought, since only a moment ago we were laughing over some mangos.
Our next stop was a beautiful beach – right past the navy base. Probably not the best idea to choose that beach. We were stopped at a checkpoint, where the soldier asked us all where we were from and made us wait for a good twenty minuted whilst he got authorisation from an officer to let us pass. Apparently, the water off the beach where we were lunching was the set of a great sea battle.
On the beach (after beating black Tom Cruise in an arm wrestle – giving me the right to call him Tangatchi, “little sister”), we ate our lunch packets sitting on the roots of mangrove trees (or, in the case of our crazy climber friend, on some of the upper branches). It was a scene straight out of paradise – palm trees, beautiful beach and crystal waters. The only problem was the polluted shoreline. But, this might not be Sri Lanka’s fault! We studied one of the shampoo bottles that we found, it was written solely in Hindi – it must have crossed the sea from India!
We got to Thalaimannar town, where I introduced Samanthi to Ms. Beauty, one of the ladies who went to our gender violence program the day before. We left her alone for an interview, with Kamal staying on as a translator, and we headed to the village’s church. I still don’t understand how such a poor village can have such a beautiful church, and, apparently, with no foreign funding for it.
When we were there, I took photos of my young mates flying, which they loved, and have been bugging me to put on facebook ever since (I will, I promise! I just need some internets!).
Whilst at the Church, I heard the stories about these boys. They were only high-school educated because they were displaced in the war. They had tried to set up a communal learning program in 2008, but then the war intensified and half of the boys disappeared, either as casualties or through conscription at gunpoint. They tried again and again, each time they were stymied by their funding partners.
I tried to teach them a little bit about the social business model, whereby they wouldn’t have to rely on funding partners any more, they would be able to rely on themselves. In the short time I had, I wasn’t quite able to communicate the idea, so I set up a meeting for when I get back to Mannar – hopefully I will be able to explain to them that they can be self-sufficient.
At this point, I thought we had reached the end of our adventure – we had reached Thalaimannar. But, apparently, this was only the village, and we still had to see the wharf. A short drive later and we were on the beach, helping fisherman pull their boats up to shore and taking photos of women doing the background work – fixing nets, gutting and beheading the fish, setting the fish out in the sun for drying, or in the ice-buckets for transport to Colombo town.
We also met some scientists from Kandy measuring the water quality in the ocean and inland. Apparently, the tsunami had a great affect on the quality of the water in the water-table.
By this time, the sun was setting, so it was time to travel home. An hour in the van, watching the sun set over the palm trees, and we were there! By the way, this was not just an ordinary hour’s drive, this was a drive furnished with multilingual camp-style driving songs, from the painfully Australian “Waltzing Matilda” and “What you gonna do with the drunken sailor” to the Israeli song, “Kol Haulam Kuloh” and some tamil songs about the moon apparently. We didn’t understand what we were singing along to, but we had singing, clapping, rhythm being kept using the van as a drum – a truly multicultural, and truly bonding experience.
A normal person would have gone to sleep – but I hosted Mr Cruise, Mr Kamal and Mr Jeremy at OfERR, and gave them a quick lesson in social networking, with a focus on blogs and Facebook fan-pages. Check out Mr Jeremy’s new blog at http://diasporalanka.wordpress.com.
An hour later I collapsed on my bed, scared that I had to wake up at 4:30 in the morning the next day to catch the long bus to Kilinochchi, and pack *shudder*.
For more photos, see my flickr album.