Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Volunteer's Thoughts

By ~ Melanie Wathugala

Some of you may know that I’ve been working in Sri Lanka for the past few months. Some of you may also know that there was a 30 year war in Sri Lanka that only officially ended in 2009.

Growing up in America, I honestly didn’t know much about the conflict. My parents didn’t talk about it and I suppose we visited the country during the more peaceful times since I never witnessed any violence. I started to really learn about it around only 2011, actually, when certain groups were talking about genocide in Sri Lanka… but that’s a different story.

Anyway, the gist of the war (in oversimplified words!!) is that there are multiple ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, with the Sinhala being the majority. (Usually people say there are Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim people –which doesn’t totally make sense to me…) After the British left, they got a lot of the government positions and there was even an Act passed that made Sinhala the official language. Basically the minorities weren’t treated as well and the LTTE formed. This was a terrorist group that wanted part of the country for the Tamil people. Lots of killings happened from the government’s side and the LTTE’s side. That’s war for you.

That brings us to now --- what are people doing to make sure this doesn’t happen again? At some point Sinhala and Tamil are official languages (I think and something about English being a linker), and there are various policies/programs like,demilitarizing the police, and creating new highways, that I think are supposed to help the country heal.

Sri Lanka Unites (SLU), run by “youth” (under 30), is aiming for reconciliation through their Future Leaders Conference. I found out about it since the SLU’s National Director and Volunteer Coordinator dropped by The Asia Foundation and asked us to volunteer if we were interested. My boss here was okay with it and boom, suddenly I was a volunteer for SLU (accidentally bypassing the application process, whoops).

I don’t speak Sinhala very well, though I can understand a fair amount, and I can only say a few phrases in Tamil. That was probably my biggest challenge at the conference. But let me back it up a bit and tell you the general schedule.

On Tuesday, August 26, around 10:30 pm the girls buses left from Colombo – after like two tea stops, we made it to the school in Ampara around 6 am.  The school is where we ate, slept (on mats in empty classrooms), bathed (when there was water),played sports, and watched performances. The kids started arriving at noon so I had a bit of time to shower and nap. From then on we had a packed schedule.Volunteer meetings were at 6:30 am. By 9 we were bused a couple kilometers away to a big hall for “sessions” which were like lectures on future careers, leadership,making changes. Then we came back for lunch, bused back for an afternoon session and then started sports back at the school around 4:30. I’ll admit I don’t think I lasted any entire session without taking a small nap. Something about the heat in there…

The sports were like relay games and other things that required teamwork.

Then we had some time to take a wash and eat dinner before watching some teams perform (like a skit or a song) about the theme of the day.And it ended with “entertainment” which meant the kids getting to dance or watching performances. We slept around midnight.

So, my team (“beware, beware, Batticoloa Bandits!” – that’sour cheer) was 17 people. Four girls, thirteen boys. (Parents of girls are less likely to send them to an overnight conference?) Most of them spoke Tamil and all I could say at this point is like “My name is… How are you?” (Enda peer…Eppadi suham?) so that was probably the most challenging thing for me. I wanted to be able to learn a lot about their lives and connect with them and encourage them to talk to each other but mostly I asked basic questions about their ages,and if they had siblings. Still the ones that knew a bit of English and the ones that figured out I could understand Sinhala made an effort to talk to me.Sometimes I even explained the game/activity first in English and then a co-volunteer would translate.

I was watching all of them carefully the first afternoon and whole next day, wondering how well they are communicating with each other and if they had any prejudices about other ethnicities/regions. After the first sports day, when I went to shower, the water ran out, so I had to wait while a truck came to fill the tank. So, I was pretty late to dinner. By the time I got there, the kids had mostly eaten and they were all talking excited and greeted me “Melanie Akka!! We were waiting!” and taking pictures of each other and trying to add me on Facebook. I was so surprised. What happened while I was gone? Was it the sports? The long wait for a shower?

Of course there were some kids who were still very quiet but by the last day they were all counting each other (instead of me counting them all the time to make sure we weren’t missing anyone) and even the quietest one (he was adorable) could be seen cheering loudly for our team. I had never been any kind of camp counselor before so that was pretty amazing.

I thought the program they had for the kids was really great for five days. Also, considering the water and electricity restrictions… it was amazing. They did their best to have it in all three languages – even setting up headphones to hear real time translations for every seat in the hall. Unfortunately, wires running along the floor under rows of movable plastic chairs was unlikely to stay intact and I feel like a lot of equipment got damaged just from people getting to their seats. When they did actual speeches in all three languages, it got very long, so that was also a bit hard.But of course worth it for people to understand. I believe there were more Tamil speakers at this conference (I could be wrong) so I was surprised when sometimes Tamil wasn’t immediately there but I think overall it was good.

They had a career panel where students had questions about how to get into a certain field and the panelist tried to give concrete advice that wasn’t just like go study and apply to jobs/schools, but like volunteer for this specific organization and build your experience in this specific way.They had a social media section talking a bit about how many Sri Lankans just accept every request they get. (I don’t remember if I fell asleep and missed it but I thought he should have talked about how social media could be used to create awareness on issues and not only to be “safe.”)

They had sessions on leadership, making change, and what reconciliation is. I like the points they made about it being a continuous process of healing, repairing, and transforming. There was also this great analogy of like the British leaving being like having new shoes that cut us but we keep it on and ignore the wound since we’re excited about having new shoes(independence). There was also a good point about how reconciliation of communities is different than reconstruction…

There was a forum theatre. Apparently the point of this is to act out some social situations that have “problems.” The kids then had a chance to take the place of one of the actors and change the scene to make it what they think is better. The point is to make them think about things they see happening and think about how they can change this in real life. The first series of acts was about a girl who didn’t want to go to school. On the way there, she was harassed by a man standing unnecessarily close to her on the bus with the conductor just telling her if she doesn’t like it to take a three-wheeler. Then at the school, she was told to stay behind and work on a failed test. There was a boy who was interested in her, and previously they were friendly (I think?) but she didn’t want to talk to him or get his help on the test. Despite her protests and clear “go away!s” he dragged her off stage and it was clear what was going on. This was hard to watch but what was harder was the reaction in the audience. During the bus scene AND during the rape scene people were cheering/jeering. At first I thought I had misunderstood (this play was in Sinhala) but no, I hadn’t. It was extremely uncomfortable for me and I realized that this could easily happen with some audiences in America as well. I was told later (when I was ranting about this) that perhaps laughter is the way to deal with something that is a real situation that people see and don’t know what to do about it. At that moment, the director didn’t yell at the kids,just saying, this could have been your Amma, Nangi, Achchi (mom, little sister,grandma). He told us later he didn’t want to suck the energy out of the room…To make up for this there was a presentation the next day about sexual harassment (including street harassment) which I hope has planted seeds in to the students’ heads about how just because these things always happen, does not mean that’s the way it should be or has to be. No one talks about these issues so I hope they will start to ask questions at least.

Some moments where I felt like really glad this conference existed were during the last days’ cheers in the hall. When people would shout“Who are we?” and everyone would answer “SRI LANKA” I felt like…damn. These kids (many of them prefects) will hopefully continue their leadership with this idea of one country that needs to work together to heal. Also impressive is that there is now a Congo Unites based on SLU.

Maybe people will argue that we should be pushing these ideas on current politicians and leaders and I am sure there are movements for that. But part of what’s so important about getting the youth aware of these current issues and excited about positive change is that these are literally the future leaders. Also, I believe the way Sri Lanka’s demographics are changing, these youth are an increasing percentage of the population in Sri Lanka. Some speaker said, it’s like when the young people started wearing jeans and older people thought it was weird but now everyone wears them. Sometimes the youth can teach their parents about new ideas since they are not already set in certain modes of thinking.

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