Thursday, July 9, 2009

Village Heartbeat

The preschool children kept singing and marching barefoot in the ungodly heat. Every surface exposed to the sunlight looked bleached. My searing skin certainly felt bleached. The costumed kids, however, danced happily through a corridor of proud relatives (I hesitate to say parents...) as the procession wound from the school premises to the nearby temple and back again. The little troupers exhibited a resilience to the scorching sun that I severely lacked.

From Black Sand Journal
After taking photos of the Perahera (a Buddist-Sri Lankan cultural festival) for half an hour, the language barrier and high temperatures conspired to drive me crazy. I wanted to ask for names and ages, favorite colors and cricketers - what do you want to be when you grow up? But I couldn't. I smiled when the sun didn't compel my face to convulse with dissatisfaction. Essentially sulking as an adult, how on earth would I have handled the sweltering weather as a kid (with no football to distract me)? A tantrum of sorts, I suspect, followed by feigning heatstroke. Out of sixty-something preschoolers, I saw just one cry. I swear, kids today! - how I envy their temperament.

It is rural community like no other on this island - the literal English translation of its name is SugarTown. I volunteer for a local NGO that adopted this southern coastal region years before the tsunami occurred. It tried to improve the standard of living for impoverished villagers by providing children with educational material and their families with dry rations. On the day the tsunami hit, children from towns all along the southern shore were bused in to collect basic school supplies and backpacks. Those who could not run up to the temple were washed away by the waves. They say not a single family in town was spared losing a loved one. The trauma did not recede as easily as the tide. The harrowing search for bodies soon gave-way to the realization that by a whole generation of new orphans survived their dead parents.

From Black Sand Journal
Five years on, with the help of foreign and local donors alike, the NGO has rebuilt or restored over a thousand houses in the region. It established both a medical and dental clinic - services unavailable before the tsunami. English, computer and vocational training are offered to both kids and adults. The state-of-the-art sports center would sate any school in Colombo. Bryan Adams even donated a swimming pool. All that - housing, health care, education, recreation - free of charge.

Make no mistake - SugarTown is an entirely unique phenomenon. Rural stagnation is an epidemic in Sri Lanka's 12,ooo villages. Areas in the deep south are still struggling to recover from the tsunami after being left untouched by government relief. Though literacy in local languages is above 90%, the difference between realized potential and wasted talent is often a rudimentary knowledge of English that escapes most of the island's rural population. Even in areas where outside assistance is extremely pervasive, some of the renovated housing communities are slowly deteriorating into shanty towns. I saw young mothers cradle newborns in hollow door frames, using concrete bricks for chairs in otherwise unfurnished homes. Those villagers lucky enough to receive aid simply cannot earn enough money to maintain what they've been given. Even a child's free education comes with an opportunity cost to the poorest families. Reaching 10th grade is an achievement in itself, university for these children doesn't even register as a pipe-dream.

From Black Sand Journal
And this is what I've witnessed in the South - I cannot fathom the desolation in the war-ravaged North. The government makes it impossible to independently estimate the number of internally displaced people. The military conflict may be over, but there are countless other issues on the island that have gone unaddressed for decades. People keep referring to peace as a wonderful opportunity for this country to flourish, which I fear is a euphemism for rural development taking a backseat to commercial exploitation. In 15 years, I don't want Sri Lanka to be a land of hardened adults, who grew up in rowdy neighborhoods that discouraged them from dancing carefree down the street.

You can see the full album of my trip on my photography site.


Mike said...

I absolutly adore the middle picture. It's just brilliant

thebohemiangypsy said...

Beautiful pictures. Beautiful thoughts.

Makuluwo said...

Amazing pictures!

Roshana Vander Wall said...

It left me with a lot to think about. What I am most afraid of in the world is that it will never improve. There are willing people, but these are few and far between.