On the main road into Kandy there is a narrow doorway leading to Dharmawickrama, a school for 1,000 girls.
My wife Brenda arranged to visit to see what a state school is like. The contrasts within were striking. The building was poorly maintained and conditions were crowded and there were few facilities, no play area, squatter toilets, builder’s rubble in some corridors.
The music room had a trumpet and a few drums.
Within all this 1000 girls were neatly turned out in their white uniforms. They were polite friendly and spoke well for themselves.
The staff were keen, appreciative of a visit and showed her around. The staff salaries are around £1,000 per annum and have not always been paid in the past.
All schools seek contributions from parents for extras. This school serves an area where families have no spare cash, work for fathers is usually casual labour or poorly paid. Many mothers have had to go abroad to work, often to Saudi Arabia.
Looking at the Library
Being an author and teacher of creative writing, Brenda paid most attention to the library.
Their library is a room about 14 x 10 ft. The books are dog eared with broken bindings and striped with sellotape. The wooden bookshelves are being turned to powder by boring insects. There is a round table and a few old chairs.
Children take books out and return them. Loans are dutifully logged by the school librarian who appears overwhelmed by the state of the place.
Many books were in piles on the floor so that only the top one or two were accessible. Underneath some decent books were buried.
One of the problems is that nothing can be discarded unless signed off by a government inspector, it is a way to prevent theft.
The school has not seen an inspector for many a year and books and pamphlets go back to 1970. The broken bookshelves have to be stored somewhere.
Offer of rejuvenation
Working behind the scenes is Madhuri, a dynamic educationalist who facilitates things. She was delighted when Brenda offered to rejuvenate the library.
We set a budget of £300, part from our own resources and part from donations. The teaching staff embraced the idea of improving things and we decided that the first requirement was for decent bookshelves. After discussion, the Christmas Holiday was set as the time to do the job.
Our tuk-tuk driver, Manoj, was a willing recruit as project manager. He took us to a small roadside workshop where a man had a drill, a hacksaw and a welding kit.
Brenda gave him drawings of 2 x 3 ft 6 in long book shelves and one 7 ft long, and to be 5 ft high. They were to have lugs on them to fix to the wall in case someone tried to climb up and pull them over.
Brenda and the metalworker discussed the merits of various box section steel girders to be used and agreed on a price of about £170.
Manoj arranged a friend with a lorry to deliver the shelves for about £4. When they arrived it was clear that there had been a minor misunderstanding. There were 2 x 7 ft long bookshelves. Ah well, these things happen in Sri Lanka. Luckily the shelves would fit the space.
Manoj and his friend Ajith spent a morning moving all the books out and sweeping the floor. Then they painted walls.
The paint tin said ‘Princess blue’ which turned out to be an attractive pale blue. We paid them a fiver each for the morning’s work. (That is twice the normal rate).
What about books? We have a few with us and some friends have donated £85 for books.
Brenda is to do two teaching workshops in Colombo for the British Council. They have agreed to pay her in books.
A friend here is downsizing and wishes to dispose of some of his books including old encyclopaedias. There is a promise of £100 from another source.
Making a pleasant library
A former art teacher agreed to paint a picture for the wall. We obtained a cloth to cover the old table and remaining money was spent on a CD player for music and audio books.
An electrical extension lead was necessary and multiplug adaptor. Plugs and sockets here are a mixture of round and square pin, two pin or three.
For £300 the school has a new library. We plan to improve it over the next year with an injection of more books.
The books will be in English. The ability to be able to speak and read English is the gateway to a decent job here and to marriage for the girls. English is one of the official languages, Sinhala and Tamil being the other two.
We had not reckoned with the opening ceremony. On arrival we were presented with bouquets by the head girl. Speeches were made and the traditional flame of friendship was lit.
This charming ceremony involves everyone lighting a wick of an oil lamp. The flame burned rather too well and set fire to an artificial flower arrangement and began to consume the table cloth.
The caretaker tried to dowse the flames with water, forgetting that water is not the way to deal with oil fires. Luckily the small amount of oil soon exhausted itself.
Brenda made her speech, took the proffered scissors and cut the ribbon.
The library was now auspiciously open. What a difference – tidy, orderly, bright and clean, a place you would like to visit.
Back in UK: rules and regulations
Can you imagine if we had tried to do the same in UK? There would be intake of breath through pursed lips.
What do you know about libraries?
Have you any teaching qualifications?
Anyway you cannot come to the school, you have not had any Criminal Record Checks.
How do we know that you will not bring in unsuitable books?
No, you cannot decorate unless it had been approved.
There is insurance to consider, you are not covered.
Have you filled in a risk assessment form?
In any case, the education authority has a contract with a company to do all the decorating. The education authority also supplies all the books after vetting them as suitable.
It would be unfair to upgrade this library; all the libraries need upgrading. We have to keep the children’s best interests at heart.
If you would like to donate the money to our central fund, we will see it is well spent. Oh yes, I have heard that before.
And so on…
Hampshire Library: What does the future hold?
Meanwhile, back home we are aware that all the resources of Hampshire County Council are being direct towards closing a few of our libraries.
Find out more from Alison’s article about Hampshire County Library Strategy, and your views are important. The consultation period runs until Saturday 16 January 2016.
Post Series: Dispatches from Sri Lanka, by Mike Sedgwick:
- Journey to Sri Lanka: Creating a Local Library for 1,000 Girls
- Tropical Diseases – What You Need to Know
- Dispatches from Sri Lanka – The Tunnel in Kandy
- An Unusual Carol Concert in Sri Lanka
- Christmas in Sri Lanka: 9 Things in England I’ll Miss This Christmas
- Agricultural Restaurant in Sri Lanka
- Back to Sri Lanka
- Bats and Hallowe’en
- Dispatches From Sri Lanka
- Kandy Lake vs Chandler’s Ford Lakes
- Self-Employment In Sri Lanka
- Sri Lankan Wedding
- Sri Lankan Food
- There’s Some Corner Of A Foreign Field
- The Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka
- This Is the Record Of John
- Tuk-tuk: My Transport Of Delight
- Life On The Road
- Commonwealth Games In Kandy
- A Temple For A Tooth?
- Dawn Train Down The Mountain To Colombo
- Traditional And Modern Medicine in Sri Lanka
- Ancient Vedda Tribe Becoming Extinct
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