Friday, August 07, 2009

A hand for the drowning

In the midst of our languishing by the pool in Hikkaduwa last week, we had the opportunity to visit a project in Hambantota on the south coast of the island.

It's a pre-school and after school club run by a UK-based organisation that I don't normally have much time for. But this scheme is truly inspiring, fabulously well run and meeting a real need among some of the poorest children in the town.

Hambantota is where the current president hails from and the Chinese are there building a huge new port. Their workers live in a beautifully constructed temporary village with plant lined roads and air conditioning on the edge of the town (at the end of a new road they've also built which will join up with the toll highway under construction - also by the Chinese - that goes from Hambantota to Colombo).

The school serves the needs of a community of poor families who live behind the dunes on the shoreline. Those dunes saved the community from the worst effects of the tsunami; many others in the city, especially those at the Sunday market, weren't so lucky - the devastation was truly apocalyptic.

Fifty or so three to fives gather each day of the week for breakfast, structured play and learning, ending with lunch before going home. For most of them, it's the only really decent food they get. The workers say that when the kids arrive for breakfast on Monday, they are constantly emptying their plates and asking for more.

Having seen the end of the morning programme and helped to serve lunch, we went off to see the area they come from. There is an effort underway to replace their mud and wood houses with brick built ones but it's going off at half-cock. Terraces of houses (6-8 in a line) are being built by local builders who lack the skill and resources to do a decent job. Many of the would-be homes languish half finished because no one has the money to complete them. They are meant to be two-storey so they all have stairways leading to a hole in what is currently the roof, so none of them are water tight. They also lack windows and doors - though they are supposed to be coming.

But the real issue is water. The local authority owns the land the homes are on and they will supply a tap with a water meter for 15000 rupees (that's £78.23 at today's exchange rate). The authority will pay half that cost for each tap, leaving these abjectly poor people to find 7,500 rupees to make up the balance. You might as well ask them to deposit a million dollars in person on the moon!

So there are squabbles over water and people are left with the indignity of washing outside with their neighbours watching.

The authority has also said that no one can have an indoor kitchen. So most cook on open fires outside their wooden shacks. Some have begun to construct wooden lean-tos against their designated brick house to serve as a kitchen - with an open fire - as and when they move in.

The kids are lively, wide-eyed, craving attention. When they arrived at the project in January, they were all under-weight, averaging just 10 kilos, somewhat less than a well-fed three year old should weigh. The project aims to build them up physically as well as providing a grounding in education - maths, Sinhala and English, social skills and friendship. In many ways the project is a mirror of the pepe projects run by BMS in various places.

I came back to my relatively luxurious hotel full of awe and despair. This little project is a tiny boat in a rough sea of need. What made the despair deepen was seeing rich, sassy Sri Lankan young people, down from Colombo for the Hikkaduwa beach festival, drinking, smoking, playing with their mobiles and camcorders: it was hard to believe we were still in the same country.

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