Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Future Leaders Conference Season 3: The Final Day

A Friend’s Forgiveness

After a late night of fascinating discussion, the international team awoke later than usual and arrived at Asgiriya just after 9:00 in the morning. The din of enthusiasm had already subsided as Prashan entered the stage to announce the post-conference activities that were to be initiated after students left for their homes later that day. The final day of the conference was not only the most emotional, but also marked the event’s “cultural morning.” Most attendees and staff members had arrived at the stadium dressed in traditional clothing derived from their ethnic or national roots. The appealing visual quality of the scene was apparent as the marquee was filled to capacity with a colorful combination of muted and vivid hues that spanned the length structure. Among the international guests, traditional dress from Kenya, Congo, and India were all present among many other types of cultural clothing. The final morning of the conference exalted the vast diversity present in an island of relatively small land area. In the quest for unity, one cannot accidentally disregard the multifaceted diversity that gives Sri Lanka its charm and character.

The large gathering gave way to team small groups as students trekked across the stadium to their familiar niches. For the next hour, these young people admitted their suspicions, stereotypes and unfair thoughts they had directed at others of different ethnic backgrounds. Each person on the team asked for the other’s forgiveness and assistance in creating a better nation, united as one people in their diversity. This event was an exceptionally emotional time for the pupils as this conference represented the first time that many students shared a positive experience with a person who only recently would have been considered an enemy. Upon returning to the marquee, students took turns introducing a person they had recently befriended who hailed from a different district. Many young leaders clarified that their peer was one of the first people they had met who held a differing ethnic background. The audience was excited as the fruits of months of preparation were being revealed for all to see. Due to the fact that a large portion of the Buddhist Perahera festival was to occur that day, the noise level of the conference had to be kept lower than usual. An ingenious solution was devised. Whenever the students desired to show their appreciation of a speaker, they would emulate the sound of rushing wind and lift their hands instead of clapping. The students’ adherence to this newfound method speaks volumes about their self-control and respect for their surroundings.

A Welcome Surprise

After resuming their seats, a treat long in the making awaited the participants of the Future Leaders Conference. Staff members took the stage to introduce the premiere of the SLU music video, shot and edited by American volunteer Ben Morrow. The footage features young people across the nation uniting for the cause of reconciliation. Symbolically, student leaders constructed a mural of the Sri Lanka Unites logo as the SLU staff sang about the need to overcome past hatred. As the music faded to silence, students “whooshed” enthusiastically for the production.

After the video, a welcome surprise lay in store as His Excellency Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa decided to visit the conference and observe the ongoing events. Currently in Kandy to observe the Perahera festival, His Excellency wished to acquire a firsthand perspective on the vision and purpose of Sri Lanka Unites and listen to the students’ reaction to the conference. All eyes strained to get a passing glimpse of the powerful head of state as the President made his side-entrance directly below the stage. During this period, the best young orators were scheduled to make a speech on the necessity of reconciliation and the means to achieve a lasting peace. One speech was given in each of the three primary spoken languages on the island. Afterwards, Prashan De Visser gratefully thanked the President for sacrificing his time in order to benefit the students by his presence. His Excellency revealed his appreciation, and, after several minutes, exited the stadium.


Shortly after His Excellency’s departure, the attendees themselves returned to Trinity for a celebratory finish to a whirlwind of new experiences. The staff and international team stayed back at the stadium for several minutes to look after some details before rejoining the students at the College. By the time we reached the campus, the pupils were hard at work obtaining the contact information of everyone they knew. The international team and I found ourselves bombarded with enthusiastic smiles and requests for email addresses, phone numbers, and an endless stream of photos with the eager students. After the initial flurry of activity, the assembly continued the celebration on the quadrangle where dancing ensued. Before long, students began saying their goodbyes. One by one, buses from all over the island whisked by the entrance of the main hall of Trinity College and collected their respective passengers. Friends embraced and tears flowed as the crowd thinned until only volunteers and staff remained. In a remarkably brief period, these young leaders had forge friendships that would continue for many years to come.

Walking among the abandoned halls of Trinity College on the heels of several days worth of exuberance is an eerie experience. Only a few hours before, these same spaces were filled with the tumult of students clamoring to savor their last few moments together. Now, the scattered few that remain are mostly volunteers from Trinity, gathering the sleeping mats and discarded trash that litters the ground. These leaders-in-the-making have decided to spend an extra day to clean the College of all the daily trash that inevitably piles up in the presence of large crowds. The SLU staff and international volunteers assisted with the cleaning process for several hours before celebrating the successful conference by watching the colorful and extensive procession of Perahera wind through the city of Kandy. Despite numerous uncertainties, the third season of the Future Leaders Conference had been an unparalleled success. After a well-deserved respite, the Sri Lanka Unites team will continue to stride forward by initiating their follow-up program and visiting dozens upon dozens of schools on an island wide tour designed to raise awareness and encourage the youth to focus their efforts on achieving national reconciliation in Sri Lanka.

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