A Little History
When the hillsides and jungles of Sri Lanka were being opened up to British planters of coffee in the middle of the 19th century, the planters were desperate for workers but the Sri Lankans, the Sinhala, were not interested in working for foreign colonialists. Why should they? They had their patch of paddy to tend, a coconut plantation and banana trees, they were self-sufficient and the British only needed them at the time of the coffee harvest.
Casting around for labour, the British found they could import poor Tamils from South India. It was not quite a slave trade; slavery had been abolished a few years earlier, but it was not much more humane. Conditions were bad and many died en route. Up in the hills they were given ‘line houses’, small huts in terraces. Schools, health services, community facilities were not considered important.
Coffee failed due to disease and a Mr James Taylor introduced tea. This meant that the workforce could be employed all year round as tea bushes are picked every 3 weeks or so.
Tea Pickers Plight
Tamil tea pickers are still up in the hills, living in poor conditions without modern facilities. The women do the picking because they have nimble fingers. There is less work available for the menfolk. The children, who by law should attend school until the age of 14, often stayed home because parents could see no need of an education if a child was to become a picker. Others stayed at home because the family could not afford shoes or the school uniform.
When we heard that our friend Bernard had got together a group of friends to purchase school uniforms for Tamil children up high in the Knuckles Mountains we joined in. We have seen pickers and the conditions they live in and a chance to do something to improve their lot was welcome.
The Monk in the Mountains
The local monk, Wellawatte Selagawese Hamuduruwa, a charismatic and educated man, organised a register of all the children in the Knuckle Lebanon Village and their foot size. Together he and Bernard arranged for 70 school parcels of satchels, a pair of shoes, a uniform and a few school books and pencils.
On Christmas Eve, seven of us, 3 Sinhala, 2 Brits and 2 Indians squeezed into a van and drove up into the mountains. The road twisted and turned, rose and fell and climbed steeply. Buses drive the road and meeting one in an experience. They do not like to reverse. With a sheer slope down one side and a deep drainage ditch on the other, we carefully edge past one another, our wing mirrors kissing. The climb took us over 4000 ft and then descended to a valley at a mere 2750 ft where we parked by a river.
Walk to the Monastery
Then we progressed on foot alongside the boulder strewn river up and up through tea bushes, past banana plantations and small huts from which curious faces peered at us. Beneath the mountain slope, with a high waterfall on one side, a small bridge crossed a stream leading to our destination, the Sandum Arana Meditation Centre, a Buddhist temple nestled in a fold of the ground where the river opened out into a placid pool.
Through the valley were several footpaths but very few huts but, after a while, families appeared walking towards the temple dressed in their finest with the boys in football shirts if the had one and the girls in their most glittery dress.
The children lined up in the sunshine and when called forward they knelt on one knee to touch the foot of th monk who gave them their gift. We, as donors, got to present some of the gifts and our feet were touched also. It is mandatory to go barefoot into Buddhist temples. About 70 school kits were given out .
Then, more queuing, this time for a lunch packet. After lunch and a good chat, the crowd dispersed along the footpaths, children all proudly wearing satchels, to their unseen dwellings among the trees and plantations of the valley.
Aren’t the Tamils all Hindus, and the temple is Buddhist? Yes, and there were some Christians and Muslims there too. You do not see this sort of charity written in the newspapers, there would be complaints. Children are born as babies, they are not Hindu, Christian or any religion at birth. Why should their needs not be treated equally? The important need is for them to receive an education which will do more than anything to break the cycle of poverty.
As people drifted away,, we drifted to a relatively still pool by the river and bathed. Never has water felt so beautifully cool and soft. I have never been under a waterfall before so it was a thrill to feel the force of the water on my back as I passed under it. Once in the space beneath the rock I peered back through the watery veil at the fellow bathers from the dark and secret space beneath the waterfall. Through the aqueous distortion I felt like a Santa observing a confused and imperfect world.
There has been no Christmas Eve like this one. The beauty and drama of the mountains and location, the people, the ability to give something really needed, the most amazing curry for lunch followed by a cooling bathe.
Education of free and compulsory up to the age of 14 years. Free…? Officially free but teachers are paid a pittance and do not want to work in isolated places. Some do not turn up to school but do another job as well. Some schools were forced to apply a registration fee during the civil war as teachers’ salaries were not always paid. Some insist that the uniform is bought from a particular shop (possibly belong to the headmaster’s brother.)
The Sri Lankan literacy rate is high but fell a little due to the civil war. Education is valued and those who can afford it take extra tuition at weekends. Maths, English and Computer Studies are the favourite subjects.