Archives For LEADs

I am not sure what exactly the doctor gave me, but it is magic. I ate breakfast! I got out of bed without the world pirouetting around me! I feel like a new man!

And, just in time, it is eight in the morning and the people from LEADS are rapping on my door, together with the night-steward of the guesthouse. I open the door, still a bit weary eyed and they burst in behind me, enthusiastically. Breakfast was served (toast, toasted over a naked fire, and sugar tea – breakfast of champions) and eaten in a hurry. 7 tablets swished down with tea and I was ready to go.

The Colonel

Our first stop was to the Army base. Apparently we were meant to stop here the day before, but we had gotten away with it. I had thought that we didn’t need Ministry of Defence (“Emmohdee”) clearance to get anywhere, but apparently we have to let the army know when we got to Malayalapuram.

We head to the Army camp down a horrid road, thankfully, in our four-wheel-drive super-truck/ute thing. We are greeted at the door by a stern looking soldier, who calls over a stern looking leftenant, who offers us a seat and lets us stew for a little. To cool the mood, I ask the leftenant about himself, a thirty year old man from Kandy with two children, who had served in the army for thirteen years – since he was seventeen. I saw the recruits do a morning march, and may have been told off a little for taking photos of their marching (but without heart – they liked me already).

Then the leftenant looked at me sternly, as if to say I told you so, and told us to come with him into the base.
A slightly menacing glint in his eyes – “The Colonel would like to see you.”

We walk past the marching, assembled recruits, past a mess hall, a kitchen and some barracks and get to an office in a stand alone building, a Brigade Standard fluttering in front of the door. Before I had a chance to peek in, the leftenant steps past the doorframe.

A transformation, in a blink: his feet stamp violently, he slaps his hand to his cap in a stiff salute, his back jerks so straight that it looks like it is about to snap. He freezes for a second.

I wonder what I am meant to do. Before I can think it through, I kind of awkwardly hobble through the door, and nod my head, accidentally gangster-like. The Colonel ignores the leftenant, and giggles at my attempt at measured politeness. The rest of the party walks in to the room (the LEADS administrative officer and the Kilinochchi head of projects). Suddenly, a buzz of soldiers. Chairs appear. The soldiers are gone again. The Colonel smiles.

To my surprise, we begin casually chatting. We crack open a few (ginger) beers. We talk about Malayalapuram. We talk about the villagers, what they do and how they live. We talk about what people were doing to help the village: the Fathers’ packaging centre, the housing projects and the other plans. We talked about the Colonel’s personal project – his friends and him pooled together some money to buy an offset printer, a paper-cutter and an industrial binder – he built a notebook factory employing thirty villagers in his village.

As he put it in a follow-up email, though, “it is not a big one. Just like a baby.” He seemed to have taken real pride in his work in developing the town. I didn’t dare ask him details about his work before he became so interested in development.

After our conversation, we swapped “visiting cards” and I was off to meet Shyamika and her sister (from Empower, a Sydney based charity), who had apparently just been picked up by the LEADS monster-truck. The Colonel came out with me to greet them, and somewhat suavely blamed me for their not having a glass of ginger beer, “he [me, Yochi, Yohanan as the Sri Lankans call me] didn’t tell me you girls were coming, so he drank your cooldrink.”

Malayalapuram and Kilinochchi Town with the Sydney Sisters

After saying goodbye to the Colonel and the awkward leftenant (saying goodbye always seems to take a while in Sri Lanka, just a few minutes longer than what would ordinarily be comfortable) we jumped into the super-truck, and off we were to lunch.

The sisters deftly plucked at their food with their hands like locals. I shovelled away at my plain rice (because of my sickness) with a spoon. I still look like a fool when eating with my hands, I think I should just give up on it. We sipped KIK Cola, Necto and other bubbly sugar drinks (not half as sweet as the tea here though) and when lunch was over, we were off.

A bumpy road, a seriously bumpy road (it felt like I was in a paint mixer). I commented that the road felt like it was made by the devil. For some reason, the LEADS staff found this hilarious and burst out laughing – not quite sure why, but whatever, a good audience is a good audience.

Our first stop was the WRDS/RDS building. A building that, like many in the surrounding area, used to be grand. Now, its walls were riddled with holes, small ones from bullets, larger ones from shells. The back walls had collapsed, the roof replaced with Indian Government Aid provided tin. The presidents of the WRDS and RDS were husband and wife, and they were a little annoyed at their inability to serve their constituencies. Where, before, they had a flourishing agricultural co-op, and a savings club. Now, the had a broken building.

Next, we visited some houses of the villagers, each of them offering us a seat. Those families without a seat stood outside with us and offered us their bench. We visited a few woman-headed households. In one of the families, the mother’s husband died in the war, the twenty year old daughter, with a toddler child, was now a widower, forced to work hard day-labour to make ends meet. We visited the home of a land-mine victim, who’s leg had been amputated as a result of her injury, leaving her unable to make an income.

Throughout these visits though, hospitality was always shown. There was always a smile in the eyes of the families. This reminded me of a quote from the Cage:

“Despite the presence of death, fear and grief, life quickly assumed another kind of normality. ‘People still greeted each other in the morning with big smiles, and enquired after each other’s health, and told jokes,’” – Gordon Weiss at location 3763.

After the war, despite the poverty, the land-mines and the monsoon, this normality still existed: a hope.

After visiting some families, we hopped around for a quick sightseeing tour: seeing the controversial water-tower and the Government’s official memorial (the cuboid shattered by the artillery shell, a lotus growing out of it).

I had an amazing day with Shyami and her sister, and look forward to (hopefully) seeing them in Colombo!

Pictures to come

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The bus ride from Mannar town is what I am used to already: ridiculously early morning, followed by a confused inter-language checkout, followed by a touch of panic at the bus station trying to find the right bus, followed by and awesome nap before the bus starts moving.  Then, just as sleep closes in, the engine starts, shaking the earth and rumbling like a tiny thunderstorm under my feet.  The shriek of a Bollywood superstar follows a second later, mid-song, and I am as awake as I have ever been, adrenaline dancing through me.

My eyes open, and, after the first thing I see, I wish I had just kept them shut.  A huge man, maybe 150 kg’s sitting next to me, picking a scab.  It is like there’s a competition to find the creepiest person in the whole of Sri Lanka to sit next to me.  The bus lurches forward with a burp from the engine and a puff of black smoke appearing behind us.  I am at least looking forward to driving over the causeway from Mannar to the mainland, and then, it starts raining.

I am in the back left window seat, so water is coming in from the window next to me (which I try to close, but turns out to be totally shattered, so no closing this window) and from the door, jammed shut.  At least I have a seat.

I cover my bag (with my laptop and camera in it, each in waterproof pouches) in my jacket – just to be safe.  I get drenched, my stuff is fine.  The people in the aisle seats are giggling.

Only three short hours later, and I was in Vavuniya, for a frantic minute trying to get on to my next bus heading for Jaffna via Kilinochchi (where I have to jump off).  I find the bus, and (hooray) I have a two hour bus ride standing in the door frame of this bus, about 30 centimetres off the road.  To be fair, this did afford me an awesome view.

Kilinochchi Town

When you arrive in Kilinochchi (“Kili”) the first things you see are two war memorials: the first built by the army in 2010, a “cuboid” with an artillery shell embedded in it and a lotus blossoming out of the crater; and the second, the huge water tower, built with World Bank funding, toppled over, shattered.  The plaque on the steps of the water tower states that it was destroyed by the retreating LTTE (“Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam,” or the “Tamil Tigers” as they were popularly known) on their retreat.  “The Cage” by Gordon Weiss (who worked with the UN mission at the time of the end of the war) states that the tower was “felled by an air strike” [in chapter five of the book, location 2114/9224 for Kindle users out there].  Ask any two people what happened and there will be a different answer.

When I arrived, I was dropped off beside the monumental water tower, in the rain with my bags.  I ducked into a jewellery shop (or, as the locals call it, a “fancy” shop) to get out of the rain until I could hail a trishaw.  The owner looks at me hopefully, and I feel bad, so I take a look at his jewellery.  Sadly, I can’t pull off the elaborate (others might even call it gaudy) jewellery from the region.  I duck back into the rain and jump into the passing trishaw, to the driver’s surprise.

I finally get to the LEADS office, and meet with Mr Jeya and his team.  Without a second to lose, I am chewing through all the questions I have for him from Palmera Projects: mainly questions on the beneficiaries, the village, the other NGO’s working in the area, the Army and the PTF.  Flying through these questions without any snags and I am feeling good about Kili, and I am ready to go.

We head for a quick pit stop (chicken fried rice, Sri Lankan style with mango chutney and a KIK Cola – “Lankan to the last drop”) and we are off to Malayalapuram.  Now, I have become familiar with bad roads, but these roads were spine shattering: dirt roads with water channels running in parallel lines, each one throwing your head forward – you feel it in all of your body.  I think these roads were meant for walking, or are in dire need of repair, because they were a joke.

Malayalapuram

GS for Malayalapuram

GS for Malayalapuram

Our first stop was to the local GS (an appointed government official responsible for a village or two, here, Mr Chandrabalan, who had been GS for the past 5 years).  He produced for us the maps we had asked for – they were literally hand drawn, and to dubious scale.  They plotted the location of houses, temples, tanks and paddy fields, but left out the locations of wells and toilets (a mystery why).  However, the shoddiness of the maps was no representation of the GS, who was amazing, and knew absolutely everything about the village we were looking at, his Malayalapuram:

The government, official map of the area

The government, official map of the area

Including the paddy fields

Including the overlay showing paddy fields

  • 2000 persons;
  • 90 women headed households (40 of these female heads of households are less than 30 years old);
  • 70 toilets;
  • 1 well for 5 families, most incomplete and not suitable for drinking, but drunk form anyway;
  • Dry rations given by the WFP have been exhausted;
  • 400 persons in the village will start recieving 100 rupees a week (about .85 AUD) in food aid from the government:
    • Estimated cost of nutritional food for a month is 15 thousand SLR (about 130 AUD); and,
    • Recent Government Health Department study showed 60 malnourished children, and approximately 20 severely malnourished children;
  • There is some skilled labour – in the village of two thousand, there are:
    • 5 skilled masons;
    • 5 carpenters;
    • 3 skilled electricians; and,
    • 25 students training in computer works.
  • All of these persons got their training in Kilinochchi Town, there are 2-3 persons in training currently.

So, the GS knew his town back to front.  But what he knew wasn’t good news, this town really needed help.

A widow and her daughter in Malayalapuram

A widow and her daughter in Malayalapuram

We jumped back into the truck to meet some families.  The first few families I met were all women headed households: the first because of divorce; the second because her husband was incarcerated; the third because her husband passed in the war.  All these women had children less than 4 years old, and they were taking care of them themselves.  All of these women were less than thirty years old.  They worked day-labour for the rich Town land-owners, either as domestic help, or tending the massive paddy fields these persons owned.  Their children were dependant on health-department vitamin supplements for their micro-nutritional balance.  They worked all day, with their aunties or mothers taking care of their children, and then worked all evening in their home-garden, trying to grow some food, first to eat, and, then, if possible, to sell.

A better-than-average house in Malayalapuram

A better-than-average house in Malayalapuram

I asked a women here to show me her well.  She led me to a dug hole in the ground with milky white water in it, littered with tadpoles, twigs and garbage.

A home and the attached well in Malayalapuram

A home and the attached well in Malayalapuram

“Do you drink from this?” I ask her. “This, this is good clean water” she replies.

I am not sure what to think.

I ask her, “where is your toilet?” She points behind the house and says “Jungle”.

Afterwards, we met a few women in a spice-packing shop built by a priest (they call them “Christian Fathers” here).  Four young women were working: sitting on the floor, cross-legged, with piles of spices on one side of them, piles of plastic wrapping on the other side, a kerosene flame between them.  Each women packed a bag full of spices, then ran it across the flame to seal the bag.  Each women’s fingers were scorched, blackened.  But these women were the lucky ones, the employed ones.

A woman sealing a spice packet with a kerosene flame in Malayalapuram

A woman sealing a spice packet with a kerosene flame in Malayalapuram

By this time, I was beginning to feel ill, with that feeling where you are acutely aware of your bones when you know you are going  to have a fever imminently.  So we head home, to the “Hotel Sela” – a lovely little guesthouse with, I am not joking, a cement diorama in front of it of a Godzilla ripping the head off a chicken.  No idea why.  But, why not?

It is four in the afternoon when I collapse on to my bed in my “Ehh See” room (an air-conditioned room), not to wake up until the next day.

A hindu shrine to a local snake's nest

A hindu shrine to a local snake's nest

To see more photos – check out my flickr album!

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!

Breakfast

Jeremy!

Jeremy!

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:

  1. Do a small pilot project to get the confidence of the local government authorities and the communities;
  2. Do a set of workshops (Participatory Rural Appraisals – “PRA’s”) to find out, exactly, the needs of the villagers; and,
  3. 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.

Jeremy's Future of Mannar (Mannar 2022) advertisment

Jeremy's Future of Mannar (Mannar 2022) advertisment

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

A bunker at the entrance to Mannar Fort

A bunker at the entrance to Mannar Fort

A puppy in Mannar Fort

A puppy in Mannar Fort

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.

A poor donkey with a broken hoof

A poor donkey with a broken hoof

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

A child at church

A child at church

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).

Mr. Kamal - big fan of oatsandsugar.com

Mr. Kamal - big fan of oatsandsugar.com

A great adventure

Epic tree climber and I. Like a boss.

Epic tree climber and I. Like a boss.

Hugging the Baobab tree

Hugging the Baobab tree/Illicit Koombaya

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.

Church in Mannar

Church in Mannar

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.

Diaspora Lanka

Diaspora Lanka

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.

Let the battle begin

Let the battle begin

Victory-AUSSIEAUSSIEAUSSIE

Victory - AUSSIEAUSSIEAUSSIE

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!

On the way to Thalaimannar

On the way to Thalaimannar

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.

Beautiful hand-lettering on a church in Thalaimannar

Beautiful hand-lettering on a church in Thalaimannar

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!).

Buddha (2)

Buddha

Superman

Superman

Owch-Planking

Fail

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.

The ladies doing the fishing work

The ladies doing the fish-processing work

HEAVE (2)

HEAVE

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.

Scientists students analysing water-quality

Scientists students analysing water-quality

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.

Family photo

Family photo

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.