The first thing I noticed as I rode into Asgiriya stadium was the noise. The Thursday morning air was brimming with the cheers and chants of twenty newly formed squads, each desiring to outdo the other with the extent of their enthusiasm. Each team had developed their own unique variation of a slogan and felt no compunction about sharing about it with everyone within earshot. The stone-faced seriousness that characterized the student’s arrival had dissipated as fast as the light rain that briefly fell that morning. Though the conference has only just started its second day, youth from across the nation were already forging friendships with people they once considered enemies. An hour earlier, the teams were eating breakfast together at Trinity and participating in icebreakers to grow their ability to work as a single body. The team volunteers themselves had a meeting even earlier to discuss the events that coming day and encourage one another in their vital roles.
As the students settled down, Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala rose to deliver the first session of the day. The former under-secretary general of the U.N. spoke of the importance of responsibility and the initiative present within the youth dedicated to creating a better nation. To move forward, Sri Lanka must cease shifting blame to others. While psychologically satisfying, such posturing does nothing to improve the nation’s well-being. Language remains a massive barrier to true reconciliation. If one wants to understand his fellow countrymen, then learning their language is the best place to begin. As citizens understand each other, the mutual discovery of commonalities lends itself to an expanded mindset that includes those outside of one’s ethnic group. Finally, students should never be afraid of criticism when their actions are grounded in truth. If the youth get caught up self-perception and self-consciousness, then no progress can happen. Imagine the state of India or South Africa if Gandhi and Mandela had stopped their movements because of their critics’ remarks?
The Visual and Performing Arts
As the respected ambassador took his seat, the students’ teamwork and creativity was soon to be tested. The SLU staff had compiled various Sinhala, Tamil, and English newspapers at the edge of the stage to prepare for the first real competition of the conference. Teams soon discovered they had been allotted the task of sifting through the newspapers to find appropriate cuttings. The fragments then had to be arranged in a collage that symbolized reconciliation and the future of Sri Lanka. All three languages had to be used and every member of the team was required to be involved in the process. In only one hour, the creations were to be submitted for assessment. With their team’s first impression on the line, groups fanned out across the stadium to begin brainstorming. Across the grounds, there were students huddled in small circles looking downwards as they arranged various snippets of paper on a background canvas. The final results conveyed a vast range of creativity, from cleverly assembled photos to choice selections of emblematic quotations. In the final decision, the Kilinochchi Kingsnakes took first place while the Polonnaruwa Pirates and the Kegalle Kohawks garnered second and third place respectively.
One of the Future Leaders Conference’s more ingenious activities began at 11:30 am. Forum Theater gives the students an opportunity to simulate the process of identifying and correcting injustice. SLU volunteers and staff begin the event by acting as characters of different ethnicities in an everyday situation. At some point in the script, an injustice will occur. Students can then pause the scenario, “rewind” to the beginning, and replace any actor they wish. They can then use their newfound role to either prevent the injustice from appearing or correcting its effects. For example, one situation depicted a member of the Tamil community boarding a bus and being mistreated by the other passengers because of the stereotypes regarding his ethnicity. After the skit’s conclusion, students replaced certain actors and replayed the circumstances while standing up for their unfortunate countryman so that he could get the equal treatment he deserved.
After lunch, more points were available as teams vied to convey the best presentation on the potential of their own actions after the conference. Every team chose a member to address the crowd with a speech, skit, or visual performance. Regardless of the team, the entire audience roared with approval after every appearance. SLU staff rewarded the teams with most moving and dramatic performances by allotting points to their respective teams. Dr. Asanga Wijeratne took center stage for the second session as he lent the students some more immediate and practical advice. For the youth to take charge of a nation, they must first take care of themselves. Dr. Wijeratne continued his lecture to discuss personal wellness, personality development and its relationship to healthy leadership.
Cricket and Concerts
The day’s sports competition allowed the students to release their energy in a constructive manner. Teams paired up and set out across the grounds to compete at games such as cricket. At this time, the extent of the bond between the participants was revealed. Showing genuine comradery, teammates cheered each other onward, encouraged those who struggled, and found innovative ways to increase their edge in some of the more inventive competitions. Lasting a full two and a half hours, students seemed to never weary of racking up runs, regularly whacking the ball out of the stadium, and generally having a grand time.
Certainly the most vibrant highlight of the day was the evening’s comprehensive entertainment package. The faces of the crowd were lit with exhilaration as they were called up by team to dance to the best of their ability for a two minute frenzy. Waves of music flooded the stadium as the marquee’s structural supports resonated to the bass of the tower speakers. My own expectations were far surpassed as the bonding that had occurred in a mere twenty four hours testified to the flexibility and tolerance of the Sri Lankan youth. As the media booth blasted its special playlist prepared for the occasion, a general atmosphere of frivolity prevailed until the night’s main attraction arrived, King Ratnam. At 8:00, the professional Tamil rapper arrived from Colombo to illustrate his support for SLU and delight the audience with several of his tracks. Before he could begin, a sound check was required, and an amazing sight unfolded. To accommodate a noiseless environment, the students lowered volume to near silence. The level of coordination and contrast to the noisy scene that had only just prevailed was truly striking. After two minutes, the crowd simultaneously resumed their previous enthusiasm as Ratnam took the stage and delivered a powerful concert. After a full day, staff, volunteers, teachers, and students alike returned to their beds happy, grateful, and exhausted. Though it had only just begun, the conference was already half way completed. If the past at all foreshadowed the days to come, then Sri Lanka Unites could already count the venture as a resounding success.
The conference is being LIVE-STREAMED for the first time! From Wednesday the 10th through Saturday the 13th, you can follow it at www. npiptv.com
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