I wake up (as is becoming way too common) before the sun rises, before the chickens caw and before the multi-denominational morning prayers fill the air. I realise I have no cash to pay the hotel for my night’s stay. I check my wallet. Deep Breath. I check again. Deep Breath. No Visa Card. Oh Crap!
I have a meeting at 8:30 with the Colonel. Big army man, totally bald, punctual, I imagine.
I literally jog to the last place I used it (thanks Commonwealth Netbank) – an ATM. But the shop is closed. Oy vey! I know this will be an hour on the phone … lucky I have my spare green-card (key-card? its the maestro one – but no online purchases for me).
The Colonel [redux]
I get back to the hotel and jump into a trishaw. It starts monsooning. The trishaw struggles up hills and slips and slides like a mad japanese drifter. Twice I have to get out in the rain and help the driver shove it back on to the road.
We make it to the base just in time – I jog to the front, up a hill that the little tuktuk that could just couldn’t – and I hear from a soldier at the front:
“The Colonel is being expecting you” – this would have been a little more creepy but for the fragmented English and that the Colonel had made plans with me to show me his “like a baby” notebook factory.
Apparently, even though he was waiting for me, he wasn’t in too much of a hurry – as usual, I was left to stew in his office, staring at all the intelligence on the wall (was it really smart to put a civilian in a room with Army strength maps, Officer names and ranks plastered on the wall and all the rest?) left to browse the wall before he rocked up.
I heard a motorcycle stop outside the door with a choke and a metallic gargle. I heard the stomp of boots outside, and I knew it must be my old friend the leftennant saluting with all his might at the Colonel. I stood up and faced the door as he strolled in with a smile.
He downed a cup of tea (sugar-milk-sugar-with-a-spot-of-tea — the Sri Lankan staple) and offered me an Elephant House Ginger Beer (an “Eegeebee”), which I totally accepted (one of the best ginger beers ever). Literally a minute after he arrived, and after he had somehow handled 5 phone calls on his two mobiles and his semi-mobile sat-phone, he said:
“Ok. Now we go.”
Immediately, a van screeched to a halt outside, its doors rolling open. Before I could blink in surprise, the Colonel was already sitting in the van, chatting on his sat-phone, ushering me in.
A 10-15 minute drive later, we arrived at a small cluster of buildings on the outskirts of Malayalapuram, the village that we were looking to work with. There, the Army was looking to set up a sort of micro-industry centre for the town. Already up and running, as of the day before, was the notebook factory, proudly producing Malayalapuram branded notebooks, with an interfaith (apparently) hero on the front (a sort of Sri Lankan Shakespeare, I guess). Still to come was a thong shop (the shoes) and manufacturing facility, and, perhaps, more.
The notebook factory was temporarily housed in a preschool, which the army leased from the community when it wasn’t filled with bubbies. Their permanent building was built, it just required a roof (which the Colonel was looking to external donors to pay for, anyone interested?).
Walking in, it seemed like an odd scene, reminiscent of the old East German propaganda murals. The women of the village, literally working right alongside the soldiers, kids in their arms. The women were sewing together spines and gluing on covers, the army men were using their strength to pull shut the manual cutting mechanism. It was an absurd scene, but I guess, also hopeful: god knows Sri Lanka could use a little trust between the Tamil community and the SLA.
After a brief hard-sell (do you have money for the roof? no. But I will ask people, I promise) we were back off to Kilinochchi town. On the way, the Colonel and Father Praba chatted on the phone, and I was dropped off at Father Praba’s church/orphanage/asylum/home.
Father Praba – a man with seemingly infinite energy and heart
Father Praba opened the gate in a loose-fitting purple polo-shirt, slacks, and leather sandals. He was young, like he could have just finished university. To be honest, I didn’t actually think that it was him.
Embarrassingly, after he showed me a room (where I totally should have stayed, it was beautiful! – next time) I asked him when Father Praba was coming. He laughed and told me in a minute, then walked out of the room, and back in, and introduced himself. Thank god he had a sense of humour.
After our official meeting, we walked around the grounds, and he showed me what he did in town.
I saw the girls’ home he took charge of, for the many orphan girls of Kilinochchi.
I saw the massive kitchen on the compound for the poor.
I saw the Creche and Preschool.
I saw the facilities for the handicapped (who lived, ate and worked here).
I saw the farm where he grew everything the people on the compound (including his family) at (chickens too!).
I saw the first vineyard in all of Kilinochchi springing up from his yard.
I saw the only normal-looking cow in Sri Lanka (apparently donated by the dutch) which he milked for the children of the orphanage.
This was some of what he did in town.
His wonderful wife treated us to a delicious meal – white rice, fish curry and a freshly fried egg which we topped off with a mango from the trees outside. The place seemed a utopia, at least in the spiritual sense.
After lunch, waiting for the other members of BOLO (Brightness of Life Organisation) to arrive, we hung out in the church, which had distinctly Tamil architecture – no walls, a central shrine, it seemed identical to the hindu temples down the road. Whilst the kids played on the iPhone (AAAH Pah! a perennial favourite) Praba and I sat on the floor and leaned back on the pillars.
A parishioner came up to father and explained her hard times. A widow with children to feed. Praba, he told me later, being strapped for cash as well, gave her what he could (I think 300 rupees) in an envelope. He also pledged to loan her 3000 rupees if she were to start her own business – a food stall by the bus stand, perhaps? Praba told me that he was a little depressed in how seldom he could give these loans – some of the women just didn’t have a drive, he said.
The BOLO village
After the head of BOLO came back from work (he casts and paints cement planters, which he sells at a profit for less than five dollars each: paint is an extra dollar), we were off. Praba magically appeared in his Priestly Garb, and we sardined into a trishaw and were off.
The first stop was the village BOLO was working with (I couldn’t quite pick up the name: in Sri Lanka, if you ask someone to repeat something, they repeat it louder and faster – not the best for jotting names and notes). They had worked there for months, and Palmera’s nascent project with them (a series for the population educating them on proper poultry raising techniques) was to take place there. Our project would supplement a earlier project – the retrofitting of a preschool with solar lighting facilities to allow for evening tutelage for students from the region.
We met some families, all of them displaced, all of them recently resettled, some of them startlingly poor. The richer ones had chickens, the poorer ones survived on dry-food rations given out by the NGO’s and the “food stamps” given by the government. Hopefully, our poultry program will allow the town at least an additional source of protein (eggs, meat), and, perhaps even a source of income.
On the way back to the church, we saw that the evening school was filling up with children waiting in line to do homework alongside a tutor. I took photos of as many beneficiary children as I could – one of them, a darker girl, had haunting, sky blue eyes. Seeing these children so eager to learn showed me that Praba and BOLO had chosen a great tutor, and his successes in his “campus” showed me that he would be a great partner to work with.
The old Home for Boys
On the way back, Praba took me to Boys Home where he grew up, a massive complex of 6 or 7 buildings that everyone in town either went to, or knows of. Its previous magnificence is now reduced to a magnificence in memory, trees growing through the wreckage like a modern Angkor-Wat. The Chapel’s roof is gone, the hand-lettered motto underneath the crucifix “Ready to Serve” is pierced by shrapnel.
Oddly, the Mango and Coconut trees appeared untouched, Praba told me they were exactly as he remembers them.
“Living in this place was the time of my life” he said, slowly looking around the place he had called home for more than a decade. “There was never enough food, but when the teachers went to sleep, we jumped out of the window, crawled on the window ledge to reach the Mango tree, and we all feasted. The A level students would climb up the trees and cut coconuts down for all of us. We stayed away from the berries, they stained your hands and the teachers would always know.
“Every day we had to go to Chapel. At that time, I was still Hindu, but I didn’t mind.”
He leads me toward the dorm room where he spent his last few years doing his O levels and A levels. The wall were gone and half of the columns were bent in two. The stairs were broken in half. The top floor bent downwards like the building itself was in mourning. We scamper up the stairs, having to skip a few where they were missing.
Pointing to an alcove at the top of the stairs, he said “this is where I studied every night for my A levels, where no-one would disturb me”, pointing to the now missing left side of the building, he said, “this is where I slept”. Piercing the dorm with unnatural light, bullet-holes were scattered everywhere.
“Three times this school, this home was destroyed by air strikes” he told me, his voice breaking.
We venture back downstairs (carefully, as the stairs were creaking) and head to the main classroom. A family now squatted there, a disabled mother and her two children – the husband nowhere to be seen.