Citizens Initiative wanted to achieve a number of things during this visit (we realise in retrospect that we were a little ambitious!) but here is some background on the prep we did beforehand: we wanted to start running recreational workshops for the children as soon as possible, so we contacted the Sri Lanka Cricket Board, who run workshops for children in rural areas for recruiting purposes, to see if they would assist CI in running a preliminary sports workshop for both villages. We managed to get in touch with Mr Ravindra Pushpakumara, who used to be on the national cricket team and now runs cricket workshops and does recruitment for regional cricket teams in rural northern villages. We also contacted a programme that does a similar thing for netball and volleyball. This way we can both run bridge-building workshops for children of these rural jungle villages, and if they have talent, ensure they are spotted and are allowed to make use of their talents. However, the people who do netball and volleyball didn’t get back to us in time for the first visit.
Apart from these programmes for the youth, we also contacted a local paper-maker (he makes paper organically out of elephant dung!) to see if he would do a workshop for these two villages, and although he agreed to come with us, unfortunately at the very last minute his father fell ill and he couldn’t join us. We also contacted Sarvodaya, a Sri Lankan organisation that focuses on helping village communities to achieve self-reliance in a number of ways (www.sarvodaya.org), and two of their volunteers agreed to do an assessment of the villages and a preliminary workshop on cottage industries for the two villages as well. So perhaps it was just as well that the paper maker couldn’t actually make it as we had quite a packed weekend.
We left at 4am (as we always do for these journeys) and we hoped to reach Chiraddikulam by 11am, our usual arrival time. However, we had rented a mini-coach instead of the van we normally hire because so many people were supposed to come with us (two members of CI, me, two other volunteers, two people from Sarvodaya, Mr Pushpakumara, and the paper-maker). Also, the paper-maker had said he would have various things like suitcases and basins so we thought we’d need a lot of room, and didn’t know till the night before that he wouldn’t actually be able to come! We also didn’t realise that driving such a big vehicle along the really bad jungle roads of the north would slow us down quite as much as it did – we arrived in Chiraddikulam around 2pm. After this I don’t think we will be trying to do quite so many things per weekend, although each trip is expensive so we try to make each one worth the cost, so to speak.
We started our visit in Chiraddikulam with a short programme run by the Sarvodaya volunteers for the adults in the village on self-sufficiency, trying to explain the need to work for a living. One volunteer asked the villagers, “Would you be happy if we just gave you money?” And of course the villagers responded eagerly, “Yes, we would!” And so the goal of the programme was to gently explain to them why they were mistaken. I realised why trilingualism is such a useful skill, because one of the volunteers was essentially useless because of his inability to speak Tamil. I resolved I would pull out my Tamil book (I learned basic Tamil in school, and also took a course after I had left school in conversational Tamil) and brush up. It’s a little sad, really, since technically I should be able to have a decent conversation in Tamil but because I live amongst communities of people who speak either Sinhala or English I quickly forgot the Tamil I learned. I can recognise phrases and words, though, and if I were to make an effort to re-learn Tamil and converse with the villagers even if it is a bit of a struggle, I should be able to converse with them relatively soon, since the language structure is not too different from Sinhala. I digressed a little with my personal observations, but I noticed that the Sarvodaya workshop was not as successful as I might have hoped, because the villagers did not seem very responsive. In their defence, however, they had been waiting for us from 10am, so by 2pm they must have been tired, restless and hungry. Again, this was a lesson in both renting big vehicles and trying to pack the day with too many programmes.
We decided to break for lunch and then come back to do the sports workshop for the children. This went a little better, but the children were clearly very shy and retiring and it was quite difficult to get them to get into the spirit of the game. We opened the workshop with a general overview on cricketing stances, and it felt strange to me to think these children had no familiarity with the game. I’m not that big a sports fan, but cricket in Sri Lanka is like soccer in other developing countries, and of course I know the names of the cricketers on our national team and the idiosyncrasies of the star player in the way they bat and bowl and field. And like most normal Sri Lankans, I’ve played a lot of cricket myself as a child. To think these children had rarely, if ever, played a game of cricket before was a strange and unsettling feeling, especially having seen village children playing cricket all the time in other parts of the country. To give you some background, this particular village has been under LTTE control for the entire duration of the war, and I honestly don’t know what that was like, except that it seems to have had a very eerie effect on the villagers that I didn’t quite pick up on last time that I was there. I do know that some of the villagers have given up their sons and daughters to be cadres and suicide bombers – “How do you say no to a man with a gun?”, as the village headman candidly told one of the members of Citizens Initiative. I am just beginning to notice how very abnormal their lives were, from the way the children aren’t as spontaneous and ready to play as I would expect children to be. I hope they had fun during the workshop, though, and they certainly seemed to loosen up a bit during the game.
We then sorted out a few issues in the village. Citizens Initiative, being a young organisation, is still learning from mistakes when helping these villages. (Digression: personally, I am a fan of initiatives like microfinance and microcredit – having read about Muhammad Yunus’ work in neighbouring Bangladesh – and I do wish I had become involved in initiatives in Princeton so that I would know more about it.) So the problem was that last June Citizens Initiative presented a sewing machine to one of the women in the village, and the agreement was that she would teach other village women also to sew. I think that didn’t work out too well, though, and subsequently other women in the village interested in sewing are also expecting to be just presented with a sewing machine, so there is a little bit of a problem with that. I think in the next village, Citizens Initiative will be less philanthropic, and devise ways to enable the villagers to pay for the things themselves, which I think is good for two reasons – we all know that it is difficult to truly feel ownership of something unless we ourselves put in a decent effort to acquire or procure it, so paying for something, even over a long period of time and in small amounts, will help the villagers to truly value what they have obtained. It will also be helpful for future initiatives in future villages, so that CI won’t always be scrambling for funding. The other issue that needed to be sorted out was the question of pre-school supplies and the teacher’s salary. Again, the first village is expecting us to present them with all kind of school supplies, but Citizens Initiative spoke to the lady who is acting as teacher, and told her that what she needs to do is ask the parents of the village to give a small amount per term, which would then be used both to purchase school supplies and go towards her own stipend. One thing that is making it difficult for the village to move forward, especially on matter such as these, is their complete inability to do anything unless they are ordered to do it (and I do mean ordered, not asked politely), which is a rather terrible reflection of the effect that being under LTTE control has had on these people. The village has now been overseen by a small army unit for about a year now, and even they have commented uncomfortably on the village’s complete dependence on them. If this salary/supplies issue doesn’t make any progress by the next time we visit, they might have to make some sort of announcement or something like that, but it’s unsettling to think about the village’s lack of initiative.
I also realise now that there is one more issue that did not exist last year. Last year we used to spend the night in the officers’ mess of the army unit overseeing the village, which was both cheap and convenient (we brought in supplies and these were cooked by the army cook), and allowed Citizens Initiative to work in the village till almost sundown on Saturday to compensate for coming in at 11am, and begin work again quite early on Sunday before leaving for the capital after lunch. While Major Nilupul, who we stayed with last year, is just as amenable as ever, a certain other higher-ranking officer in his unit has expressed his view that it is not safe for a group of civilians who are mostly women to stay over with the army unit. This means that we have had to stay at cheap rest houses in Vavuniya, the nearest big town which is about two hours away. This is an unavoidable but unpleasant cost, especially since there were eight of us for dinner and bed this time, and it also wastes a great deal of time. I realise I will have to budget for this time, travel and cost factor in the future.