Home > Beach, English, Manacare, Sri Lanka, Travel, Volunteering > Meeting an Old Friend

Meeting an Old Friend

Nearly six months in India had left its mark both emotionally and physically on us both. It truly is ‘Incredible India’, as the tourism board proclaim, though perhaps with an unintentional breadth of meaning. Having been entirely consumed by a single country for so long, we were shocked, saddened and joyous upon leaving. We were also slightly frustrated at having to take our first flight since departure from the UK. In previous years a boat service was available between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka but the outbreak of war saw an end to the route which has yet to be resumed. My suggestion of swimming however fell on deaf ears.

Our first taste of Asia had been in Sri Lanka in 2006, and we were therefore very excited to be reuniting with an old friend. We were particularly interested in our personal reactions to the country given our greater travel experience this time around. There was also the added bonus of freedom to travel to areas that were previously off limits during the war.

We touched down in Negombo in the middle of the night and gained some comfort from familiar sights as we walked through arrivals, namely the bright white of a welcoming Buddha statue closely followed by the equally radiant duty free fridges and washing machines. No buses were running at that time, so we jumped in a taxi with two bizarre Flemish guys who fell asleep on Hazell. My change in perception was immediately apparent, (not of Hazell, people always fall asleep on her). The main road leading towards Colombo had seemed so exotic, hectic and dishevelled five years ago, unlike anything I had seen before, but having just left India it seemed utopian, and it was me who displayed the former characteristics. Bleary eyed, we stumbled around on arrival in Hikkaduwa looking for a guest house, taking the first offer that emanated from the 5am darkness.

I had recently finished Ghandi’s autobiography, an inspiring read that tells the story of his life up to the point of his independence movement in India. In Sri Lanka we were to spend time volunteering for the Manacare Foundation, and it was with Ghandi’s words fresh in my mind that I proceeded:

‘Such service can have no meaning unless one takes pleasure in it. When it is done for show or for fear of public opinion, it stunts the man and crushes his spirit. Service which is rendered without joy helps neither the servant nor the served. But all other pleasures and possession pale into nothingness before service which is rendered in a spirit of joy.’

We were both a little nervous about offering our services, especially as we were unsure what our tasks would involve. These fears were allayed later in the day when we met the Chairman of Manacare, Joy. She picked us up next to the beach in a small red car and welcomed us in with a ’Hello darlings!’, before taking us to her home within the greenery, away from the coastline. There we met a friend who was visiting named Gaye, and we were offered tea and biscuits by a Sri Lankan maid. At this stage we were starved of sleep and feeling a little disoriented, so transmigration to the days of the British Empire came as quite a shock. This aside, we felt immediately at home and Joy informed us of her worldwide activities and current projects in Sri Lanka. Manacare has projects in Uganda, South Africa, Siberia and the Philippines to name a few; all of which Joy has developed during her ’retirement’. She takes no salary from any of her work, instead living on the money she made from diamond mining, a previous profession which she did ’relatively well in’. Other side projects have included digging up dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert and selling them to Japanese collectors.

The following day we visited the Manacare Village in Telwatta, a community that was devastated by the 2004 Tsunami. Soon after the disaster donations were received to start building and soon there was a crèche, pre-school, health centre, community hall, therapy centre and workshops for producing small scale goods. The core of the model is ’sustainable employment’, and local women and men are employed to run the site and manufacture goods such as soap, candles, and anything that can be produced with a sewing machine! These goods are then sold to hotels, private buyers and shops, with the profit paying salaries to the employees and contributing towards further developments.

The warm, welcoming atmosphere is immediately apparent on meeting the beneficiaries at the site. We were told that post tsunami the area was a mess of brown sludge, but today the wonderful Sri Lankan jungle flourishes and those working at the village take pride in their surroundings. There were plenty of jobs Joy needed help with, so we got stuck into tidying and organising the material shelf in the workshop. The next few days were spent white washing walls, and then our best effort, a lick of ‘Manacare Purple’ for the front gate. Jumping straight into the sea after a days work in the sun was particularly pleasant, and we joined many Sri Lankans cooling off. We did however refrain from undertaking the local custom of rolling around in ones pants in the sand before running full throttle into the sea.

It was wonderful to interact with the locals and we met many inspirational individuals. Cali is a middle aged Sri Lankan who lives in a house provided by Manacare; she is full time carer for her brain damaged daughter Themmi (Demi), who is soon to turn twenty. Previously, Cali worked in the Lebanon in hospitality and lived with her husband, a time which saw the birth of their daughter.

When Themmi was two years old bombs were dropped on the neighbourhood; the noxious contents left both parents unscathed, but the young brain of Themmi was permanently damaged. Initially Themmi was cared for by Cali’s family in Sri Lanka, while she worked in Spain to raise funds, but over time her husband developed arthritis and severe depression and is himself now in permanent care in Europe. Cali returned to Sri Lanka in order to care for Themmi and then the Tsunami struck, leaving the local area devastated and without adequate services for her daughter. Manacare began developing in the Telwatte and now they live in a nice house, with suitable conditions which Cali keeps impeccably!

It was an honour to sit and talk to Cali and listen to her experiences, and she told us she enjoys having guests to chat to! Many an afternoon were spent discussing all sorts of things over a cup of tea! Though Themmi is unable to converse, she listens intently to all conversations and recognises familiar voices when she hears them. She particularly enjoys music and radio programmes and listens in both Sinhalese and English. Cali is able to comprehend her daughters communication as only a mother can and is amazingly responsive to Themmi’s needs.

Most of the beneficiaries at Manacare have a harrowing story to tell, and the destruction of the Tsunami left most individuals bereft. Charitable construction has provided an enormous amount to the inhabitants of Telwatte, and we were learning all the time from our surroundings and from Joy during our stay. We certainly empathised with her and the vision she has for Manacare, (as does another, slightly higher profile supporter, Mr Cliff Richard) and this connection lead to the next phase of our travels.

Joy had planned for some time to develop a similar project in the war effected areas of the north; people in Sri Lanka had seen her project in the south and pleaded with her to replicate it. Even though we had only helped out so far with a couple of bad paint jobs, Joy asked if we’d like to be involved in this future project, starting with a ‘reconnaissance trip’ to Jaffna. We had planned to travel to the north, but this gave the journey an extra dimension, and it was with an added sense of purpose that we headed to what was previously forbidden territory.

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  1. September 28, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    I am in accordance completely

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