Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Under the Tamarind Tree

A tree house in the compound of the School

Singarajah Forest...a wildlife Preserve

A piercing pain in my ears awoke me that morning.
It’s past midnight, in four hours I will be going for a trip to rural Srilanka, visiting Mrs. Bernadine Anderson’s Bridge to Peace Montessori Lunugamuvehera.
I am clueless of what to expect, i am not even sure how many hours the journey would be, But I let myself be open to the positive possibilities of the universe (My new philosophy) .
So it was with a settled mind I rush out to meet the Jeep that came to pick me at home, the pain reliever I swallowed numbing the ear ache.
The darkness slowly gave way to dawn, as we gradually left Colombo behind, speeding past the outskirts of the awaking city. Aunty Berne is her usual cheerful self, infecting us all with her enthusiasm and passion for her work.

Lyzel, Fazreen, and Thalini, all staff of LPF (the school Mrs Anderson opened Over 15yrs ago), join Aunty Barne in the chit chat, i join in every now and then. Our elderly driver, focuses all his attention on the road, never speaking unless he is spoken to, an uncommon trait in a Srilankan driver as they are known to butt into conversations of their passengers, or comment nonstop on sundry issues.

I doze off after venting on the garbage disposal issues in Colombo, I am particularly peeved about the refuse dumped in our neighborhood ,Dehiwala where I reside and my kids attend school. Fazreen and I brain storm the different possible efforts we could put in place to pressure the municipal council to take action. The solutions we come up with seem unrealistic and farfetched to me, I soon give up, not even Fazreen’s noble words, “come on Pam, change can start from us” would spark a light of enthusiasm for social change in me.
Mothering two boys while I study and cope with all the house hold chores leave me too exhausted to be noble. It occurs to me that this maybe the reason no one else has done anything about waste disposal problem in the city, most people are just too overworked to bother. We work, we earn, we shop, then produce waste we are too tired or preoccupied to dispose properly, the reality of city living.

The surreal view of the deep green forest takes my breath, as we stop for the “traditional” tea break on the Udawalawe Bridge. We spot waterfalls streaking down the hill sides in the distance, the misty horizon leave me speechless and serene, at once I feel the crisp clean air fill my lungs, only then I realize the Colombo air is congested and polluted.
We pile back into the van, refreshed and the ready for adventure, an elephant and two calves, probably from the elephant orphanage nearby linger by the water’s edge, for a while we stop and stare, in awe as always by the wild elephant’s seemingly gentle ways.
Fruit stalls built with palm fronds, stand picturesque by the road side, and we spot another elephant, this time very close to the side of the road, just behind the electrified fence put in place to stop it from wandering to the sugar cane plantations on the other side. We stop and take pictures, posing in front of the wild elephant, whose thoughts were probably “why can’t these puny creatures get me something to eat instead of staring stupidly at me?”

We move on, in a short while we reach our destination, our first stop is the derelict prefabricated quarters where the trainers stay whenever they come from Colombo, as we stretch and freshen up, i am drawn to a shelter nearby made by two tamarind trees, i wander under its wide branches, looking out for creepy crawlies. Narrow logs of wood tied together form a good bench and I sit on it sighing deeply, taking in the fresh clean air, almost immediately I feel the tension I didn’t even know I had, drain out of me.

We walk a short path to the bridge2peace Montessori, an impressive and well equipped building, three class rooms for 2 ½ to 5 year olds. One of the class rooms is for the children with special needs, today only three are in attendance, two with Down Syndrome sit and work, a heart wrenching sight knowing how much pain they suffer in remote poverty stricken regions as these
We walk among the children, accepting their greetings, smiling and watching them work. Soon they pile out for “the peace Routine”, then pose for their end of the year photos, its overwhelming to observe them, considering the providence that has brought quality education to their quiet backwater, they seem so cute and well behaved, most likely a biased impression, as only their care givers know their true temperaments.
A little later, Fazreen and I join Mrs Anderson to visit a few homes of families who have applied for the enrollment of their toddlers, but not before witnessing the sight of a mother with her three day old infant in her arms and her prematurely grey husband, who had been waiting for several hours by the school gate to speak to Mrs Anderson personally. They request for their son’s enrollment, I cringe at the thought of having to be the one to turn them down, simply because they are not poor enough to be considered. The spaces are limited, so it is important that only the “poorest of the poor” are given the opportunity to educate their children.
I am frustrated that I cannot help, I am angry at the fate that economically cripples such people, I am helpless I cannot do more. For a while my own financial challenges are suppressed with a deep desire to see the fragile little one hiding behind his mother’s frock educated in a safe and productive environment the B2P Montessori provides.
I am a bit relieved to climb back into the van and head for the home visits with Fazreen and Mrs Anderson. Mother’s with their children travel the interior regions on bicycles, unprotected from the elements and snakes, Lunugamuvehera has some of the highest snake bite reports in Srilanaka. Soon the nostalgia for such natural pollution free settings is replaced with gratitude for running water and electricity.
The homes are over three kilometers from the B2P Montessori, the realization of the distance they have to travel is very disheartening.
“ Initially they brought their children because of the free meal and the annual care package of clothes, shoes and toiletries we offer the children”, Mrs Anderson explains. "but now they see the value of the programe".
I tag along, observing the incomplete structures they live in, lost in the translation from Singhalese to English Mrs Anderson provides as she talks to them, as she tactfully finds out the information she needs to approve their applications, and listens to their tales of woe. Once again I am filled with awe and admiration for Aunty Berne’s devotion to the poor, a rare trait among the typically indifferent Colombo elite.
We return to the B2P premies, the children are closed for the day, almost all the children stop to "worship” us, a very respectful form of greeting in Srilankan culture where the younger ones bend and touch the feet of the elder, we hold them up and shake their hands, its humbling to receive such unearned respect.

Within the school premises we have returned to, is a young woman with her young daughter in a tight embrace, Aunty Berne translates to me after talking to her that she just got news that her husband died in the war front, her beautiful tear streaked face paralyzes me, I feel the image singe into my subconscious, this is a part of Srilanka I have never seen before. The poverty, the war, the deep deep sadness, invisible in the bright lights and shopping districts of urban Srilanka.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good point, though sometimes it's hard to arrive to definite conclusions

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