Tuesday, 14 August 2012

our adventures in Batticoloa

Back in Kandy we were invited by the Kiwi volunteer Neil to join him & his bro visiting him from NZ to go with them to the Pinniwala Elephant Orphanage. Shortly after we arrived the elephants of all ages & sizes walked across the main street down to the river & we watched them enjoying the water & interacting with each other. Our driver & guide facilitated our getting up close to some of the elephants & I was so thrilled to feed bananas to an elephant whose trunk was soft & dextrous in taking the fruit. Standing next to the gentle giant was wonderful. We went to another part of the river to ride elephants – it was a bit daunting at first to be astride the massive back of Nona & to stay on while she walked but after a while we adjusted to her gait & learned to shift our weight from side to side as she walked. Down in the river Nona gave us a shower with water from her trunk plus a fair amount of river pebbles! It was a fantastic day & my new favourite animal is the elephant!!

The next day Amy & I conducted training with the staff from the Kandy centres about 20 people in all. Many of the children have experienced abuse that go to the centres and we were asked to run a session to help staff to respond to children who disclose abuse & to reinforce the importance of building the resilience of children. We were really pleased with the participation of the staff & we’ve subsequently spent time in the centres to offer further support & coaching for staff dealing with specific children.

Over the next couple of days we developed & prepared for the 4 day training program for new staff in the 5 centres in villages outside of Batticoloa, a major city on the east coast.  We headed off to Batti (as it is known) on Sunday & the journey took us over the Mahagangana mountain range with spectacular views across to the coast. The road has 18 tight curves on the way down - I reckon the Top Gear boys would love it! We stopped at a roadside stall to have king coconuts & fruit – most stalls are attempts by people to make a little extra money from the produce they grow in their gardens. I had to use the toilet & the woman took us around the back of the home where the cooking fire was outside as well as the squat toilet which is flushed with water from their well. We were trying to work out the system with the water for the toilet but they might have been thinking we were commenting about the conditions of their home as the oldest daughter told me ‘We are poor.’ Their simple lives require much toil; they frequently do not have enough nutritious food to eat let alone clothes to wear. We murmured our thanks humbled by our brief contact with them.

We passed a Hindu procession as we entered Batti which seemed to have a number of frenzied dancers leading a group of about 50 people. Pastor Dilshan told us it was still a feature of many Hindu processions for a man to submit himself to having a large hook inserted into his back & being suspended from a frame of poles during the procession. He said there is an underground sect of Buddhist Hindus who still perform human sacrifices; & that the Hindu practice of Kali, or revenge killing, is still practiced. I found it deeply disturbing. On the other extreme we passed a large church in Batti that had a HUGE television screen on the outside of the church showing the service inside the church to the many people watching outside. This is a multi-faith community! 

The next morning we met the trainees who have been selected as young community leaders to work with the children from each of the 5 villages where the after school centres will operate. The trainees were mostly young women who had recently finished their O & A-level studies with 2 older trainees, a young man & woman both in their mid-twenties with a little more work experience. The Salvation Army had been responsible for mobile health clinics to the villages after the war ended and as with many NGOs (non-government organisations) their post war work had finished at the end of July. The Salvos had approached Child Action Lanka (CAL) to consider taking on work with the communities and they had identified the 11 community leaders for CAL to consider using for the work. The 3 day training was therefore an opportunity for potential employees to get to know the organisation & the nature of the work they would be doing; and for CAL as the employer to assess the trainees & to offer employment if they were suitable.   

The first day of training went very well. Pastor Dilshan as one of the directors of CAL started with an inspiring vision & mission session about the work of CAL then Henri, a drama therapist lecturer, followed with an experiential drama therapy session focussing on working together & communication. After lunch Amy & I facilitated the workshopping session where we divided into 2 groups to involve the trainees in a discussion about the need of the communities. The training was supported by Prince & Reji who translated for each of us; however they were far more than translators because Prince brought his experience as the supervisor of one of the Kandy centres offering after school support to 6-12 year old children and Reji will be the manager of the Batti staff.

The weather in Batti was hot & very humid; and the training room at the Batti YMCA where we were staying was not air conditioned so we were all very sweaty & sticky by the end of the afternoon! We went to the local beach for a swim where the sweat of the day was washed away notwithstanding that we were required to wear clothes over our bathers so as not to offend locals with the nudity of our bathers.  The waves were quite strong at times & I realised too late I should have taken off my prescription sunglasses as a bigger wave dumped all of us & my sunglasses were gone! I could see how Batti would have been very vulnerable to the tsunami in 2004; in fact a huge concrete pergola structure has been left on the foreshore of the local beach as a reminder of the immense power of the water that had deposited it there.

Henri started the second day of training with another experiential session focussing on the stages of child development & the nature of children’s play at each stage; Reji & I ran the next workshopping session focussing on identifying the trainees’ skills, talents & experience to create a skills inventory and Amy & I ran an active listening session at the end of the day. It was a good day overall although I thought I was going to melt in the afternoon session with rivers of perspiration coursing down my back!! We went to Pasikuda beach which is often referred to as ‘paradise bay’. The sea was as calm as the local beach had been rough yesterday and I offered to teach Prince & Reji some swimming basics to feel more comfortable in the water. I was so proud of Reji who bravely followed my coaching & was rewarded after about half an hour by being able to float on his back (my favourite thing) & gaze up at the beautiful sky where the setting sun was breathtaking.  In Sri Lanka culture (as  in Aboriginal culture) older women are known as aunties & I have found throughout my stay that people have responded to me as a trusted aunty – this fits really well for me because the aunty role has been one of the roles in my life that I’ve loved the most.

On the third morning I joined Pastor Dilshan, Amy & Henri for a walk on the beach; it was a beautiful morning stroll while the air was still fresh & not too warm. We watched the fishermen bring up the boats in time to the chants & rhythm of a man at the prow of each boat; we also watched several men hauling in large nets from the sea. It was a charming picture & afterwards we went to the local market to buy fruit which was busy & colourful. The main focus for the third day of training was working on the activities for the fun day tomorrow in one of the villages for 60 children. It was an excellent learning experience for Reji & his team of trainees who took the framework I presented & developed their own program using activities they know. We ended the training very tired but very pleased with how well the trainees had responded to all the input over the past 3 days. Henri explained to me that the Sri Lankan education system is mostly didactic teaching & rote learning where students are discouraged from thinking for themselves. It had therefore been quite a stretch for the trainees to be participating in the discussion based workshops and the drama therapy style teaching sessions but they had all risen to the challenge enthusiastically!

We headed down to the beach again & built a small cooking fire using small pieces of wood we had bought from the roadside as well as dried out palm leaves from trees on the beach. Dilshan cooked a thick piece of tuna steak to perfection on the blade of his small axe over the coals – it was delicious! Reji had also bought 2 roast chickens – Amy was ecstatic – the chicken was as good as we would have in Aust & she had never had a beach campfire before! We toasted marshmallows for dessert & had a singalong around the campfire with Reji proving to be an excellent singer of reggae type songs. It was a great night!

The next day we picked up the trainees en route to the school ground where the fun day was to be held & they sat in the back of the ute chattering away. When we arrived there were about 30 kids there & they were dispatched to go spread the word & by our revised starting time of 10am there were 90 kids! The school consisted of 2 large classrooms which have open walls with a couple of smaller office rooms, pink & blue toilet blocks & a separate kitchen where a couple of women prepared lunch for everyone. The buildings were in an L-shape around the school yard. The school like most of the buildings in the village had been built by NGOs but like most buildings they were poorly finished.  We had learned from the trainees that all but one of the villages were without electricity, and all villages relied on taking water from wells or from a hand pump. Most of the children weren’t wearing any kind of footwear (the norm is for people to wear thongs or slippers as they are known here) & this means they frequently cut their feet. The villages are very poor & alcohol is a big problem among men (women don’t drink alcohol) so families are surviving on whatever meagre income the mothers can make.

The fun day started with our introduction to the community as special guests. We were given beautiful fragrant flower leis & we were each asked to light a wick on a lamp which is part of the Hindu tradition on such occasions. Then the trainees got the program underway organising the whole group to sit outside the classrooms in the shade while they prepared the activities. They brought out a few children at a time to do each activity; at most 2 activities were running at a time so most of the kids were onlookers. We made minimal suggestions to Reji & the trainees & we were delighted with how everyone managed the event. After the break some of the trainees ran the local game of Elle which is similar to baseball while Amy headed up a team of face painters using paints we had brought from Oz. Getting through 90 kids (& quite a few adults too) was a big undertaking! There was a prize giving ceremony for first, second & third placegetters as well as lollies for every child. After the children had gone Dilshan presented each trainee with a certificate & offered them all positions with CAL!

We all piled into the ute, dropping the trainees at the intersections to their villages & saying our final farewells. After a quick shower back at the YMCA we set off for the 5 hour journey back to Kandy stopping briefly at a beautiful lake – while there we were visited by all the people living on the lake for seasonal fishing. They told us local wild elephants go to the lake around 6pm every day unfortunately we couldn’t wait!

Back in Kandy Amy has been making preparations to share her birthday tomorrow with 18 girls who live in the Haven Girls Home – there will be party games, face painting & an ice cream birthday cake! We’ll be spending the morning relaxing by the pool at one of the hotels & having drinks at The Royal (our local) in the evening. It should be a great day! We head to Colombo on Friday & I’m looking forward to seeing my friend Debra who is joining us for the last 2 weeks of our time in Sri Lanka. We’ve planned an awesome itinerary and I’m looking forward to playing tourist!

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