I have been carb-loading. Four times a day I am shovelling rice and roti into my belly with my fingers as if I don’t know when my next meal will come from. The thing is I do know where my next meal is coming from, and when I might possibly be fed extra too.
We’ve been volunteering at another Child Action Lanka project, this time in the rural communities around a coastal town call Chenkalady, near the town of Batticaloa. The project in principle is very similar to that in Kilinochchi – children who don’t have full access to education come for extra classes so that they don’t fall behind.
The way the project is delivered is different here though. Instead of one centre, there are five community outreach centres, each with two young teachers from the communities themselves, all looked after by Reji, Batticaloa’s Ramesh equivalent.
Don’t be under any illusions when I say community outreach centres. We’re not talking about state-of-the-art educational facilities here: one is a wooden frame with a corrugated iron roof, another had no access to water.
The land was incredibly dry and the days very very hot. We began each day delivering training to the ten teachers on how to resolve conflict, how we learn, and how to tell stories. In the afternoons we went to visit each different community. Each community outreach has upwards of 60 children aged from around 3 years old up to around 14 coming regularly.
Like we did in Kilinochchi we did some circle time with the children, sitting them round and asking them to share what made them happy or sad, we played Duckduckgoose and Dodgeball, went on bear hunts, played Follow My Leader and showed them games where they learned English words. The children showed me how to play Elle (pronounced el-lay) which is a cross between rounders and tig – the bowler bowls the ball at the batter and you have to get round all four bases without being tigged out by the ball, or caught out. I got caught out on my first innings which was distinctly unimpressive.
Each place feeds the children a simple meal every afternoon, usually cooked by the mother or sister of one of the young teachers – coconut rice and spicy sambol, or spiced chickpeas, or anything that is easy to carry in large tubs and dole out onto plates with a big spoon. We sat and ate with them – a second lunch or an early first dinner, depending on how you looked at it, and the teachers were clearly over the moon that we joined the children for food. ‘Most visitors will not eat the food,’ they told us, probably because they don’t want to take from the children, but eating together was a sign of honouring them. ‘You came and you ate with us!’
Some of the centres have over a hundred children registered and have tried to timetable their attendance to stagger them throughout the week. It doesn’t work – the promise of a meal means they all come every day for the most part, in spite of the teachers’ best efforts.
When you’re playing games and giggling you don’t notice, but these children are evidently extremely poor. They don’t want to hold your hand with their left hands because they’re aware that they’re dirty. Their clothes are very threadbare, and some of the girls were wearing housecoats which are what old ladies wear around the house – no one would be seen out in them unless they really had nothing else to wear. You can also tell how impoverished their early emotional development has been because some of the children struggled to understand how even the simplest games worked.
I got to speak to the teachers about their work and they told me about themselves and some of the children. ‘One girl in my class is very neglected,’ one teacher told me. ‘Her family have no house and they live in a hut with no facilities. Her father is an alcoholic and there is no money for food.’ She doesn’t have the money to buy school shoes or school books, and as often happens here, the school asked her to stop coming – she was too poor to be acceptable. The poorest of the poor are ignored and people don’t want to be associated with them.
When we heard this, our translator turned to me and said ‘We have been eating four meals a day, and these children are lucky to get one…’
‘At Child Action Lanka,’ the teacher continued, ‘she is able to come and learn and she’s been catching up on her lessons. She gets to eat a meal every day. The children don’t treat her any differently – they play with her and they talk to her.’
‘What do you hope for the children’s future?’ I asked.
‘I understand how they feel,’ one said, ‘Because I had no house and my father was a drunk and my mother died. I never thought I could become a teacher, but I know that if I help them, these children can get a better position than me.’
These children have immense obstacles to overcome, but it’s the simple things that are life-changing – a basic education, a teacher who is like them to aspire to, acceptance and being treated with equal worth and value.
And at least one good meal a day.