Before I left for Sri Lanka, I’d arranged to do some volunteer work for Ocean Stars Trust (OST). OST are a children’s charity, founded in 2005 to support underprivileged children, families and communities in Sri Lanka following the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.
I left Trinco and arrived in Batticaloa (Batti; where OST are based) following a rare comfortable bus journey. Diana and Kiru welcomed me with beaming smiles before taking me to my guesthouse, which was nestled among the windy, dusty backroads of Kallady. We talked through the plan for the next four days. I was to visit three ‘projects’ (a secondary school and two preschools) where I’d assist in lessons.
Visiting Navalady Namagal Vidyalayam
Monday and Tuesday were spent visiting Navalady Namagal Vidyalayam, a primary and secondary school linked with one from the UK – Calthorpe Park. The link was forged by OST.
The kids had already been in school an hour before I arrived at 9:30am on my first day. Walking through the school gates to the Head Teacher’s office, many kids had already clocked me. “Hello Mr, hello Mr!” they shouted with faces pressed against the window and hands waving excitedly.
After a milk tea, I was shown around the classrooms. The decor much like schools at home, except for the desks and chairs; they were either rusty, rickety and well past their sell by date, or sets of plastic patio furniture. The library was a collection of tired books, each with crumpled edges and pale yellow pages, once white.
Once the children had finished recess at 11am, I assisted Diana and Kiru in a double lesson in the school hall – a dark space home to dust and damaged chairs. The subject was PE, but not as I knew it. All we had were two footballs.
Part of the reason for my visit was to learn about the children’s backgrounds and for them to learn about mine. One by one, each child (aged 10-12 years old) candidly introduced themselves as they stood wearing their bleach stained clothes, fraying ties and buttonless shirts kept together with safety pins.
Three devastating trends followed in almost all intros: one parent, a dead sibling, living in a hostel (orphanage). Batti was hit hard by the tsunami, impacting many of the innocent children sat before me. Even without 2004’s tragedy, lots of the children were still hard done by: alcoholic parents, low family income… I was amazed at how many said their fathers were fisherman, carpenters or tailors. It was like I’d hopped back in a time machine.
Many of the children living in the hostels did so not because they had no parents, but because it was better and safer for them. I also learned they have 4am wake up calls and 9pm bed times, between which they must study and clean – a lot, among other tasks.
Coming up with an activity was a challenge. There’s only so much you can with two footballs and a group of 30 students, none of which were in PE kit and all had no grasp of English beyond greetings. It had to be fun, active, and it was important to involve all the children. Physicality was out of the question, as was anything that would mix two teams because we had no bibs or anything. I decided a fun, lively game would be a variation of ‘pass up and under’. I did worry it might be too elementary, but the smiles said otherwise. The children lapped it up, cheering their teammates on and totally immersing themselves in the competition.
We finished the lesson with some photos, with all of the children using the English word I heard the most: “selfie”.
After school, we grabbed some delicious lunch made my a friend of OST. Diana and Kiru then took me to Kallady Beach, the area destroyed by the tsunami.
The sandy stretch was quiet, but for the crashing waves – a haunting sound that means so much more here. It was an eerie place to be, with building foundations, monuments and a makeshift cemetery present to remind people of what happened here.
My second day started with the primary school children. I spent time in a couple of lessons, both of which gave me the warmest of welcomes. The shyly smiling children, neatly dressed like small professional office workers, held their hands together as they bowed to wish me “good morning”.
Each child had their stares of intrigue aimed toward the white man sat before them broken as they introduced themselves. The intros were far less heavier than Monday’s, with the children thankfully only able to stretch little further than their name and favourite foods. I wasn’t sure I could handle hearing six year olds tell me about lost siblings or lonely parents, despite knowing it to be true.
The stares of intrigue grew to looks of amazement as I told them I was travelling the world and that in England we had snow – somethings they could only imagine.
We enjoyed some colouring in before recess, during which I sunk another milk tea as student after student poked their head into the classroom to see me. More often than not, they ran off giggling after I said “hello” or “how are you?”.
It was back to the hall for the afternoon, where this time I had about 40 12-14 year olds to look after. Much like Monday, each child introduced themselves. Much like Monday, almost all of the children shed light on their tragic backgrounds. I even learned (via a teacher) that many of the boys had already been in trouble with the police, unsurprising given their turbulent home life.
I faced the same challenges as Monday when it came to knowing what activity to do. I thought a good old fashioned game of British Bulldog might do the trick in addressing the abundance of energy the boys had. The girls, the shyest I’ve met, were happy to sit and natter.
It took a few minutes to explain the rules via my translator that was Diana. However, once we got going the game was a thrill. The smiles became infectious. I was even happier when I learned the boys had never played it before; hopefully it’s something they’ll play themselves in the future.
After school, it was back for another delicious lunch before Kiru and Pooja took me around Batti town centre.
My first two days with OST were eye opening, sad, fun, interesting and intriguing. To have 10 year olds speak so frankly about their home hardships was initially hard to take. However, seeing their pearly whites shine as I we played games and I told them about home reminded me the kids were in good hands at school. It was a chance for the children to learn, have fun, be kids. Amazingly, many of the children’s parents still need convincing that school is worthwhile. As well as the standard curriculum, in which the children are taught nine subjects, I’m convinced a tie with a foreign school – thanks to OST – can only help in educating the parents, for their children benefit from visits from people like myself. Not to blow my trumpet, but I just hope my story of travelling the world inspires them to look beyond future careers of a fisherman – a reply I got a few times when I asked what they wanted to be.
In part two I’ll share how I got on at a preschool…