How to Explain Sri Lanka to a Kiwi

Posted on February 14, 2013

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Take Australia, confiscate most of its wealth, dip everyone in chocolate and then put the land mass through Winzip.

But it’s actually much more than that, and comparing Sri Lanka, one of the world’s oldest nation states, to one that didn’t exist 200 years ago is just not right. It is much, much more complex.

I don’t normally consider being in Sri Lanka anything to write about. Firstly, unlike other expat families, ours make no attempt to travel around (even though we were born and mostly raised in Sri Lanka, there’s a lot of places that are must visits for foreigners and locals alike, which myself and my brother never went to) but instead spend most of our time visiting family or tending to our properties and other assets (what little we have left here). Nothing wrong there, but it just doesn’t make for an interesting blog article.

To be honest, neither does the village gossip (seriously, after certain people passed away, there has been a marked decrease in the theft of bananas in the village where my paternal grandparents live).

Secondly, well, this is my home. No matter where I go in the world, this will always be my home. I might be a New Zealander, or an Australian or whatever, but I will always be a Sri Lankan, and a Sinhalese. It’s more than a stamp on the passport; it’s my identity and my heritage. No matter what happens, this is my country and a place where I can always call my own, where no one will stop me in the street and say “go back to your own country” or point out that his lighter skin colour makes him superior to me (if not for any other reason I’d probably be lighter than him). So it’s bloody boring as I don’t find being here much of a novelty. But hey I owe the motherland a few words.

I’m very opinionated and extremely so when it comes to politics. But I will try my best to not yap on about corruption, human rights, democracy or anything else that is politics, to avoid being labelled a traitor striving to tarnish the nation’s image by someone who would happily pay a toll to use an expressway that he is already paying for (for both construction and upkeep of) with his taxes and who has no problem with the fact that it cost a few times more than it should.

But I will say this: He doesn’t belong to the Sri Lanka that I love, that I admire and that I am proud of. However, along with a few he has called traitors in the past in return for a pat on the back from above, few things that no one, let alone he would ever even notice or appreciate, does.

One year, a couple of months and a few days ago (November 2011), I went with my Aunt to a celebration at her school. After 34 years in the national teaching service, she was retiring, and this was a felicitation/ farewell ceremony/party organised by the staff and students at her school (where she taught for over 11 years) for her. The School is the Wavella Parakrama Kanishta Vidyalaya (Wavella Parakrama is a name, possibly of a patron, Kanishta Vidyalaya means junior highschool). It’s not a rich school, or in a rich area. It’s just outside a small village called Bokkawala, which is a satellite of Poojapitiya, a small crossroads town about 5km away, where I grew up. A few busses a day connect Bokkawala with the rest of the country via Poojapitya, but they don’t travel beyond the village shops and there is thus a 2 – 3km walk from there up a narrow road to the school as many people don’t own a vehicle around there.

Most people in the area are poor farmers and small businessmen, and typically Kandyan in their innocence and communality (and other few things which I will not mention, given I’m also Kandyan). The kids especially don’t have any money but each year level that my Aunt taught (she taught maths and science to grades 6 – 10), collectively raised money to buy her a souvenir to show their appreciation. The teaching staff too got her a present (an interesting looking Chandelier that took me about an hour to put together the next day). The Ceremony consisted of a function in the school’s main hall (about 5 m wide, probably 20 m long with a small stage at one end – it doubles as a classroom during normal hours), attended by all the students, staff including the principal, one old girl called Lakshmi who really appreciated my Aunt, two parents, myself and a dog who joined us at the stage for most of the event.

There were speeches by the Principal and some of the staff, to recognise her work at the school and talk about her career, and her in general. They spoke of how good she was to work with and how dedicated she was to helping students learn and her colleagues teach, how friendly and approachable she was and how she made a special effort to make new teachers feel at home and help them develop. Some students then spoke about her, and a couple of the little girls, sang poems that they wrote about her. This was pretty cute. The old girl Lakshmi then spoke about what a good teacher my Aunt was, and how she used to pay for poor kids to go on field trips when they couldn’t afford the fare, and how she even opened a bank account for one really poor student and put part of her salary in it every month without anyone knowing. My Aunty also made a speech, trying to hold back tears, to appreciate the effort everyone was making to thank her for her service. She really didn’t like that the kids were spending money to buy her presents.

After the formalities we had a nice lunch, cooked together by the staff, which was held in the Chemistry lab. The lunch was awesome, and this is when I got my first glimpse of the conditions at the school. It was a far cry from the schools I attended, both quite elite, in Sri Lanka and New Zealand. This little lab room was for every science discipline, it had no fume cupboards and only one light. No benches with gas outlets for burners, there were only one or two, if not none, of each piece of equipment. No classroom had windows that could be closed (a window is just a void covering most of the wall area, with a wire mesh to prevent a large animal like a dog, or a cow, but not anything smaller, like say a small cat from poking it’s head in.

Some walls of the buildings were cracked, and some parts of the roof a building was in bad shape. There were a few dogs chilling around and mosquitoes were plenty. I didn’t even want to know about the toilets. I definitely cannot remember any computers either. I know that this is nowhere near the poorest schools in the subcontinent. For an example I think that there were enough desks and chairs and no one had to sit on the floor or outside (as long as they were well behaved of course). However, it is much less than most people (if any) who would read this will take for granted or consider a minimum.  It was amazing given I know of a few very successful professionals that came from that school. The hard work that kids put in, and their dedication to the school and their respect for and relationship with the teachers were inspirational (over here teachers treat students like their own children, and their dedication shows this).

So what is my point? For all our failings and all our problems, and poverty, there is success and character that comes out of all that with some hard work and lots of community support. This was a reason for me to be proud of who I am (not ashamed or embarrassed, as it may seem I should be). Image

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