Thursday, February 28, 2008

We traveled back to Colombo today, taking the shorter inland route that passed through a mountainous area. During the nearly six-hour trip, we observed an elephant walking down the road with its owner. Although modern equipment is primarily used for working purposes these days, there are still some Sri Lankans who prefer to use elephants.

We entered the city just as the schools were letting out for the day, and the traffic was like nothing I’d ever seen. Most of the roads are narrow with just one lane on each side. But, cars, tuk tuks (which are small, covered three-wheeled vehicles with a driver and room for passengers) and pedestrians skillfully maneuvered around each other in a chaotic and unorganized manner. Somehow this system seems to work – and with no obvious road rage. There is definitely a rhythm to the horn honking. Here, it is not a gesture of anger, as it is in the United States. Instead it is a way of warning, thanking and/or informing other drivers. It’s interesting, but at times unnerving to be a passenger in one of these cars!

The military presence is evident throughout the country. At one point, we passed what appeared to be a military base, but it was actually, a well-guarded water filtration plant. Security there was especially tight since threats to poison the water had been made by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebel group.

We met with our staff in Colombo for a bit and enjoyed a tea party, a regular ritual that’s served daily during mid-morning and mid-afternoon along with a variety of cakes and fresh fruits. I was told if you simply order tea, you will get tea with milk. If you don’t want milk, you should ask for “plain tea.”

We passed many tea plantations on our way to Colombo. Tea was first introduced to Sri Lanka in 1867 by a Scotsman, James Taylor, when he planted the first tea field near Kandy. Now tea is among the main agricultural outputs as well as one of the country’s top exports.

The popularity of tea was undoubtedly encouraged by the long presence of the British, who came to Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was known for a long time, in the late 1700s. The country, which adopted the name Sri Lanka in 1972, was granted its independence in 1948. Sri Lanka recently celebrated its independence day, and many cars still proudly display the national flag on the front.

The final meeting with our CCF staff gave Anne an opportunity to present her impressions of the country and the programs CCF is conducting in Sri Lanka. Anne highlighted specific programs, including the school drop-out program and the Child Advisory Team initiative. Anne also pointed out the impressive protective web formed by the community and government supporting the well-being of children in Sri Lanka.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Sri Lanka's tropical scenery is reflected by the abundant growth of colorful hibiscus and other exotic plants. Even though we are now in the dry region of the country, everything appears lush and green. A large variety of bananas grow here, and we are constantly being given different ones to try. None of them are nearly as big as the traditional bananas consumed in the United States. Many are only four inches long. Some are very thick. And they all have a different taste – some sweet, some sour and some with little or no taste at all.
We visited a program this morning in Hambantota for children who had dropped out of school. Ranging in age from 7 to 16 years, many left school because they were being bullied. One boy, now 13, lost his right leg in an accident. He hasn’t gone to school since the tsunami because he was being teased. This program is helping the children integrate back into schools – and staff at the formal schools are supporting this effort.

We visited the home of 15-year-old Jayanthimala, a student from this program. Jayanthimala, the oldest of five kids, dropped out of school because of family problems.

Jayanthimala aspires to stay in school and get an education to become a police officer. Although her family is happy she is back in school, the teachers told us that many parents and caregivers are upset their children are attending as they would prefer to have them work around the house and engage in employment.

Jayanthimala’s house is a one-room thatched hut, no bigger than 12 feet by 12 feet in which she and three siblings live. The walls are sparsely decorated with posters and there is no furniture, only a bike that belonged to one of her brothers. The rent for the house is $4.90 per month.

The tsunami continues to have an effect on this region. People are still recovering from its destruction. While visiting a new library that was built by Un Enfant Tar La Main (a member of the ChildFund Alliance), we could see a Food City store nearby. It had opened the day of the tsunami. That day – Dec. 26, 2004 – was an auspicious day, believed to be lucky. The opening was planned for that day in order to bring in a lot of business. Everyone who worked at the store was killed.

I can hear the waves crashing from inside my hotel room. I thought it would bother me while I slept, but I was OK. You can’t help but think how close you are to the sea that took so many lives. Yet every day as we visit the programs, we are reminded of the resiliency of the Sri Lankan people as they move forward and rebuild their lives.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

While traveling to program areas in Kudawella, we saw a group of people gathered around a tree staring down at the ground. Anne quickly spotted the snake they were all watching and asked to stop the car. This was not just any snake, it was a 12-foot python! Obviously, it had recently dined as there were bulges throughout its long, thick body. It had been caught across the road – and tied with a blue rope to a tree. Men, women and school children alike gathered around to see it.

In the afternoon, we attended an English course. With the longtime Britsh presence in Sri Lanka, English emerged as one of the official languages. Although it is widely spoken in the country still today, it is no longer an official language -- Sinhalese and Tamil are now the country’s languages. Many billboards and signs throughout the country display all three languages.

The girls in this course are no longer in regular school, but wanted to learn English in order to find jobs. They said they believed it was an international language which they needed in their lives. The class is predominantly girls, ranging in age from 16 to 25. A group of girls gathered around Anne (pictured to the left) to practice their English skills. She engaged them in easy questions.

One by one, she asked their names and other simple questions. What was their age? Favorite color? Did they have siblings? They answered, sometimes quickly, often requiring a bit of thought first as the class began just six weeks ago. Purnika likes rap music. Ayesha likes to read the newspaper, particularly stories about her homeland.

They also wanted to know Anne's favorite color (green); if she liked this country (love it); favorite food (shrimp); and what she thought about the country (it is so hot, but beautiful).

The girls wanted to know if Charles Davy, CCF’s Asia Regional Vice President could sing. He claimed he was told not to sing, but asked if they could. They eagerly agreed to this and then sang, “My Heart will Go On,” the Celine Dion song from the movie “Titanic.” I couldn’t help but wonder why they chose that song to sing. But they delivered it well. Thankfully, they didn’t ask us to return the favor and sing to them!

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Monday, February 25, 2008

One of our visits today was to a preschool in Galle, which is funded by CCF’s ChildFund Alliance partner, Taiwan Fund for Children and Families.

A group of young children gathered near the doorway ready to bust out at any minute. They reached their arms out with paper chain necklaces they had made for Anne (pictured above) and I as gifts – not unlike the paper chains children sometimes make for Christmas trees in the United States.

The school is for ages 2 ½ to 4 ½. Beautiful murals created by a local artist depicted animals and colorful flowers. Not unlike preschools in the United States, the walls were filled with artwork created by these children. The children, all from tsunami-affected families, anxiously sat around their small, blue wooden tables.

One young boy, who was sitting near a window, couldn’t contain his excitement. He quickly ran to greet us with a hello and a high-five. And then he ran back to his chair. Wondering if he was in trouble and therefore separated, I inquired about him. It turns out he actually wanted to be near his grandmother, who was standing just outside the open window. It was essentially an open-air school and the mothers and other caregivers gathered around to watch the guests visiting their children.

This same boy later sought me out so he could tell me his name. After returning to his seat he found me again and asked me to take his photo. Digital cameras have the same response from young children globally – they all want their photos taken, and they all want to see it. This boy was no different. Finally, he found me once more and gave me a leaf. (Presenting beetle leaves to welcome guests is a sign of respect in Sri Lanka.)

One mother, Manori, told the story of her daughter Gagani who was born just two days before the tsunami. Manori was returning home with her newborn and fled to a temple which was built on high ground. It is the same place where the preschool, is located.

The school had a wonderful playground built from many local materials including coconut shells attached to the rope for climbing, and recycled tires used in a variety of ways. It was a beautiful and inexpensive use of local resources. I think American schools could learn something from this practice. Not only did it save money, but what an environmentally friendly way to use materials! But... coconuts are a little tougher to find in the continental states.

Speaking of coconuts, today was the second time we were served coconuts -- drinking the milk straight out of the coconut itself. They simply take a large knife, hack out a hole in the top and insert a straw. I don’t find them to have much flavor and what they do have, is not all that appealing. There’s no way I could ever finish one as they are huge – at least one liter! And, you have to use two hands to hold them, which makes it really hard to take notes. And I am, after all, here to work!

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

We headed out of Colombo along the Indian Ocean to start visiting CCF’s programs in the southern region. CCF has worked in Sri Lanka since 1985 and assists more than 750,000 children and their family members. We didn’t begin work in the southern region until after the tsunami. CCF responded quickly to the disaster and made our presence known. Many of the programs in this area target children who lost one or both parents in the tsunami.

The Indian Ocean becomes more beautiful as you travel south. It changes from a dark sapphire blue to a stunning turquoise blue that contrasts amazingly against the golden sand. At times it is hard to imagine that an ocean so breathtaking delivered death, despair and destruction on Dec. 26, 2004, when the tsunami hit.

We started the day by visiting a friendly cricket match. Cricket is somewhat of an obsession in this country. Sri Lanka is in the midst of cricket season, so cricket matches were taking place all over the country – formally and informally. This match was between two CCF Children’s Clubs. Cricket is one of many activities with psycho-social development elements that also helps bring communities together.

Charles Davy, CCF’s Asia Regional Vice President, (pictured to the left) couldn’t help himself and had to play. A native from England, he grew up playing the sport. At first hesitant because of the hot, humid temperatures, Davy strolled onto the field to the delight of the community gathered around to watch. Although it wasn’t the most successful performance, Davy did entertain. And he swore that it was much cooler on the field because it was catching a breeze.

Following the cricket match, we stopped at a memorial for a train that derailed during the tsunami. There were 1,270 passengers who died in addition to 249 villagers. The memorial boasts a graphic depiction of what happened that day when the train derailed near Galle. It showed bodies flung out of windows, across the tracks and without body parts. It was chilling to see a real account of what happened that day. You only had to glance around the memorial to see the same sea that caused that destruction.

As an organization, CCF strives to empower youth to become the future leaders in their communities. We saw this firsthand in Galle. Child Advisory Teams have been formed to give children a voice. These children not only have a voice, but raised their concerns to government officials – including the chairman of the National Child Protection Authority and representatives from the police force.

Anne (pictured in photo at the top) and Charles were greeted with traditional drums as two young girls preformed a traditional dance. They raised various flags while the Sri Lankan national anthem was sung. Anne was asked to raise the CCF flag, which got stuck midway going up.

“I’m so glad that wasn’t the Sri Lankan flag that got stuck,” she said with relief after performing the duty.

The drums and dancers then led the procession into the building.

The event was incredible. There were 52 children – ranging in age from 14 to 18 – they had endured so much and stood confidently in front of high-ranking officials -- it was inspiring. Almost all of the children lost at least one parent in the tsunami – some of them lost both parents. They were not shy about sharing their concerns of how drugs and alcohol were causing problems among the children in their communities. And they were not afraid to challenge their government and authority figures and offer their solutions to these problems.

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Jennifer Harter, CCF Public Relations Specialist, is in Sri Lanka with CCF President and CEO Anne Lynam Goddard conducting program reviews of CCF’s work.

When Anne Lynam Goddard, CCF’s President and CEO, decided she wanted to travel to Sri Lanka for a field visit, security was one of the early concerns.

On Jan. 16, a ceasefire agreement between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended. Norwegian monitors deployed to six different regions to oversee the implementation of the truce left. More than 150 civilians have been killed since then and more than 1,000 Tamil Tigers have been killed as well. Almost 50 government soldiers have lost their lives fighting in the northern region.

Originally, the agenda was to travel east to see CCF’s work in the Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps. But the security situation quickly changed that decision and sent us all to the southern region instead.

But we were reminded of the security instability on our first day in Colombo. Our flights all arrived in the early hours of the morning. Police and military stops were dotted along the one-hour drive from the airport to the hotel in Colombo. When we woke up around lunchtime, we learned of a bomb blast that occurred about five miles south of the hotel – on the same road. The bomb exploded on a public bus, but the bus conductor spotted it and cleared the people off the bus. This saved lives and no one was killed.

It did, however, alter our lunch plans. We were to eat in the same area as the bomb blast, but decided against it as there was some chaos in that area. Despite this, there seemed to be a calm in the city – just the normal business of a nation’s capital.

This situation is representative of the types of environments in which CCF engages. Not only are we fighting the battle against poverty, but we must monitor the fighting that is often taking place in these countries. Security is always the utmost concern and always taken into consideration before sending staff to engage with the population.

But the heat isn’t just in the conflict – this country is hot! The highs are expected to be around 90 and lows in the upper 70s! As I was told by one staff member, it’s perpetually summer here!

When I arrived at the airport at 4:45 a.m., it was very busy. But that wasn’t all that shocking as most international flights arrive and depart in the early hours of the morning. But as we traveled down the road to Colombo, the activity didn’t subside. People and vehicles filled the streets and there were even children playing on a playground (and yes, it was still dark).

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