Back in June we held a crowdfunding campaign to support our work with some of the villages bordering Udawalawe National Park and the Wetahirakanda corridor. Thanks to our sponsors, we were able to raise $6000 for improvements at five pre-schools (Montessories) and an elementary school. We re-visited each of the schools in July to confirm their needs. In August it was my pleasure to visit with each of the teachers in order to provide the initial installments of funds. As the schools were on break, we visited several at their homes. Each teacher undertook individual accountability for showing that work was progressing and funds were being spent as intended.
The first stop was with Ms. Lakmini of Pubudu Pre-school. The previous year she had managed to collect just Rs. 200 (amounting to $1.25) per student, for the thirty or so students in the class. The fact that parents chose to put their children in pre-school at all with whatever little means they had, when they could have merely left them to their own devices, spoke volumes to us about the emphasis on education among these communities. They did not have a building of their own, and met at the local community hall. Our support would go towards providing them desks and chairs, a safe drinking water supply, and laying foundations for a new building. We paused for a traditional offering of tea, bananas, and a lovely home-made sesame seed sweet.
“Most people focus on supporting higher-level studies,” she told us. “There is virtually nothing for pre-schools. It is such a great thing that you have chosen to help with this level of education.”
At Kalawelgala, the principal of the elementary school was busy supervising the installation of metal grilles on all the classroom windows to prevent animals from entering. He was an energetic and enthusiastic character, adept at securing resources for his school from anyone who could help. The work was progressing nicely, and would be complete before classes resumed in September. As we sipped yet another cup of tea accompanied by sweets, he showed us an album in which he maintained a record of all the improvements he had initiated and overseen during his fifteen years in office. On the walls sparkled brightly-colored pie charts and histograms showing off the top marks his students had received in regional examinations. Particularly remarkable was a series of dates and names – the terms of office for each of the principals that had been in charge of the school, all the way back to 1938!
Sirisumana pre-school, which was run out of a crumbling classroom attached to the elementary school, had fortunately received government funding to construct its own independent building. When we arrived, bulldozers were kicking up dust as they cleared and leveled the space. Our support would provide them desks and chairs. The pre-school had a new teacher, Ms. L.S. Kumudini.
We were surprised and concerned to learn that a wall of her own modest home had been knocked over by an elephant back in April. The home was tiny, so one wall was effectively one quarter of it. They had a few acres of coconut trees and other crops, which always endured damage from elephants.
One by one we visited the teachers at their homes or schools. Our last stop, around 2pm, was with Ms. Gunawathie of Dilena Tharu pre-school. We had been advised to not to have lunch anywhere else before we arrived, but were still astonished to find the feast that awaited us. Rice with a spicy locally-caught river fish curry, a leafy green sambol of Gotu Kola, and other local seasonal specialties ended our day. You know a meal is good when you hear nothing but silence! Ms. Gunawathie and her cadre of moms had prepared the meal in thanks, echoing the sentiment that any kind of support for pre-schools was rare indeed.
We were impressed at the dedication and desire of teachers to provide whatever they could for their students. Art work on the walls spoke of the teachers’ own creativity in transforming everyday objects into enrichment for the kids. It lifted our spirits to see these colorful spaces, tucked away among the villages, and reaffirmed our commitment to work with these communities to better safeguard human and elephant lives.