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Volunteers' Stories

From IVS, the International Voluntary Service

Founded in 1931, IVS is a non-profit organisation that promotes peace and social justice through volunteering.

This article series will bring you stories from their volunteers about their inspirational experiences helping local communities in the UK and around the world.

Working in Muttur and Kandy, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka

Ganesha’s elephant head makes him easy to identify. Ganesha is widely revered as the remover of obstacles, the patron of arts and sciences and the source of intellect and wisdom. As the god of beginnings, he is honoured at the start of rituals and ceremonies. Ganesha is also invoked as patron of letters and learning during writing sessions.

Well, it’s been another full-on week – I’m working largely on my own, which isn’t a problem. My students are delightful, in fact, one gave me a jar of his mum’s homemade mango jam today – it was delicious.

It is sometimes easy to forget the vast cultural differences between the European west and southern Asia. Most western people come here to be cocooned by the holiday industry, seeing only the beautiful beaches and countryside. Rarely do they see the everyday lives of the ordinary Sri Lankans, never mind understanding the struggle that this can involve.

Conditions such as autism and learning difficulties are recognised in law. However, the practice can be wholly different from the fine words of legislation. 10.6% of school age children are classed as disabled, of these only 0.4% actually attend school.

The concept of schools for those with disabilities (look up Blue Rose, an SCI Sri Lanka beacon of excellence) just does not exist in the state sector. Provision is made within the mainstream and is usually wholly inadequate. Public acceptance of those with disabilities is also at a low level, to be fair the state recognises the inadequate nature of the general provision, but what it will do about it remains to be seen.

The Mutur Peace Centre provides education and care for those with learning difficulties; it is staffed by poorly paid but dedicated teachers and assistants. The problem tends to be that if facilities do not exist the carers tend to be women and girls, this then prevents them from attending education and training or obtaining paid work. Bearing in mind that I am writing this on March 8th – International Women’s Day – it would be nice if something could be done to correct this gender imbalance.

The Peace Centre is trying to raise funds to develop a facility to provide outreach for their programme with those having learning difficulties in the Mutur area. This would involve purchasing a tuk-tuk and increasing the paid staff.

Tuk-tuk, named for their ever-present noise as they weave around the streets of Sri Lanka.
Tuk-tuk, named for their ever-present noise
as they weave around the streets of Sri Lanka

The tuk-tuk would be second hand and would be used for outreach work and as a taxi in the outlying areas of Mutur, where there is no public transport. Even in the few places where the inadequate provision exists, there is always the problem of getting there. I am trying to help by writing a funding bid to the American Embassy in Colombo in hope of developing training and education for women carers. The deadline for this is April 14th.

I now have a daily schedule of groups of adults attending my English conversation classes. We pick a topic from a very wide range of subjects that I have downloaded from an excellent ESOL site; I ask the class to prepare and we have a lively debate in the next session. The problem, of course, is that some people are more confident and forthcoming than others. In order to overcome this, I have inherited a card game called ‘Apples are Apples’ from the volunteers before me. Thanks Anna and Judit from Andorra.

The game consists of two decks of cards – each card of one deck has a subject on it, the other deck has a range of phrases. The ‘judge’ picks the subject word and the players are dealt four cards each. So, the subject could be ‘cool’ – you have four cards with random phrases and words. You must put one, face down around the subject word; when everyone has done this, you turn the cards over and take turns explaining to the judge why your choice of phrase or word is the most relevant. The winner becomes the next judge.

The game is great for bringing out the quieter students, and we played half an hour past our official finishing time last night – that’s how much fun it is! I won one game by equating ‘cool’ with ‘shark’, don’t ask me how but we were all in stitches of laughter.

Working on my own this week until the 4 new volunteers arrive from Denmark sometime later next week; then I go over to Colombo on the night sleeper from Trincomalee. Everyone urges me to get the bus because the train takes ten hours for the 240-kilometre journey instead of six hours by road. I don’t care – it’s a train, I have a bed, the bed will move me at the modest speed of 24kph to Colombo, where I shall awake refreshed and ready for the day. Buses are a white-knuckle ride of inadequate suspension – apart from the suspense of wondering if you’ll arrive at all – dark roads which contain water buffalo and sometimes elephants and a driver who thinks he (it’s always he) is in a Ferrari.

Great if you’re young and time is of the essence – I’m old and prefer comfort, slow food and gentle transport whenever possible. After Colombo, I go to Kandy for an overnight stay at Blue Rose Special School.

Blue Rose Special School, Sri Lanka
Blue Rose Special School, Sri Lanka

Blue Rose is a beacon of enlightenment for those children and young people with disabilities in the Kandy area. I have a meeting with the Board of SCI Sri Lanka where we shall be looking at developing a Camphill Settlement. This will complement the provision by offering an alternative to that of no provision at all – or very little – for adults with additional support needs. If you are not familiar with the Camphill model, please check it out. With the expertise of IVS members, we can also become an information channel for our partner SCI organisation, using our existing relationship with Camphill to transfer expertise.

I am allowed some time off, so here are some photographs taken locally:

Maha Shivaratri – 24th February 2017
Maha Shivaratri – 24th February 2017

The Maha Shivaratri is a Hindu festival celebrated annually in honour of the god Shiva. There is a Shivaratri in every lunisolar month of the Hindu calendar, on the month’s 13th night/14th day, but once a year in late winter (February/March, or Phalguna) and before the arrival of spring, marks Maha Shivaratri which means “the Great Night of Shiva”.

It is a major festival in Hinduism, but one that is solemn and marks a remembrance of “overcoming darkness and ignorance” in life and the world. It is observed by remembering Shiva and chanting prayers, fasting, doing Yoga, and meditating on ethics and virtues such as self-restraint, honesty, non-injury to others and forgiveness. All of which sounds fairly cool to me.

Marble Beach
Marble Beach

Marble Beach is a local beauty spot popular with both residents and tourists – although it is often deserted, as in this shot. Presumably because this is not yet the high season, I can manage with 32°C though. The water is warm and there are no currents, combined with a gentle incline in the sea it is an ideal beach for my sort of swimming. You’ll be glad to know I had to go back for an evening class at 7.00pm.

Local bus – Indian built Leylands with little or no suspension. Still, for 30p for a one-and-a-half-hour journey into Trincomalee, who’s complaining? They are often packed to a capacity which would seem impossible at home – not to say illegal. But at one every 15 minutes, it’s still a better service than I get in Nantwich! And the passengers are a lot more willing to chat.

Grameen Bank, Trincomalee
Grameen Bank, Trincomalee

The Grameen Bank is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning microfinance organisation and community development bank founded in Bangladesh. It makes small loans to the impoverished without requiring collateral and has been particularly active in allowing women to become independent wage earners. A suitable picture for this day.

 

Visit the Laterlife Interest Index for more Volunteer Stories


If you are over 50 and want to volunteer with IVS please contact info@rtws.org
Our projects in 60 countries worldwide are open to volunteers of all ages and can be accessed here.

 

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