Broadening ‘Horizons’ in Mahawilachchiya – Daily Mirror, August 30, 2003


By Gamini Akmeemana Saturday, August 30, 2003 – Courtesy Daily Mirror.

The road to Mahawlachchiya with its broken macadam looks so familiar now. The checkpoints are still there even if the policemen nowadays simply watch you going past without waving a hand to stop you. The junction is the same old collection of sleepy shops, and the canal has the same muddy water flowing in it. Nothing seems to have changed since my last visit two years ago.

In fact, a profound change has taken place. This is embodied in the spectacular growth of the Horizon School. When I first visited Mahawlachchiya in 1999, a young schoolteacher called Nanda Wanninayaka was struggling to publish an English-language newsletter called “Horizon” for his students.
Today, the Horizon school has its own building, housing a computer lab. From an open-air class of ten students under a mango tree, it has grown to be an up-to-date learning centre with multi-media equipment, its own website and more than 100 students.

In terms of computer literacy, its students are light years ahead of the average in this country. This modest schoolteacher has, in the short space of four years, wrought a remarkable knowledge revolution in this backward farming community only thirty miles from Mannar – right at the edge of LTTE-controlled territory.

I was visiting Mahavilachchiya, along with computer journalist Sunanda Deshapriya of the “Pariganaka” magazine, to hold a workshop. I would carry out a photography workshop and establish a stamp club for Horizon students, while Sunanda would lecture on media presentation.

The Horizon School now has no shortage of visiting specialists offering their services free of charge. On our heels, an IT specialist was due in Mahawlachchiya  to teach these students, ages ranging from 10 to 17, the art of web designing.

Mr. Wanninayaka believes that Horizon School must offer a fully-rounded education. Knowing computers won’t be enough if these students are to be able to compete for jobs in Colombo one day – there are no white-collar jobs (except for the most traditional kind) in this remote backwater.

While teaching English is thus a priority, Mr. Wanninayaka now hires teachers for other subjects as well. What cannot be had from the area is offered by visiting professionals free of charge.

Believing that a purely academic and technical education does not complete a person, Mr. Wanninayaka has formed a Horizon dancing troupe. He plays the organ and this idea goes back to very inception of Horizon, when he encouraged students to dance to Western and Hindi music.

Self-taught, these teenagers picked up the art of dancing entirely by watching television.

These non-traditional ideas have naturally aroused some hostility in this backward and highly conservative community. While Horizon and its creator have a loyal following in Mahawlachchiya , others resentful of its spectacular success were mean enough to file a petition with the superintendent of police in the area that computers were being used to misguide children.

The petition had an unusual effect. After checking things out, the police were convinced that the petitioners were talking rubbish. On the other hand, realising that Horizon had enemies in the village, they provided an armed home guard to protect the building – he now sleeps inside it at night.

Such hostility isn’t just village-based. At a recent IT seminar in Colombo, a leading IT authority cold-shouldered Mr. Wanninayaka and his students, simply because his unreasonable demands weren’t adhered to.

A few months back, a Horizon team were given the opportunity to visit Italy for a study tour. But a Sri Lankan official at the Italian embassy in Colombo refused to give them visas, on the ridiculous assumption that these students and their teacher would become illegal immigrants in Italy!

The most serious attack came from a big business conglomerate in Colombo, which tried effectively to take over Horizon last year.

They offered financial help for the computer lab. When the project was halfway through, they asked Mr. Wanninayaka to sign an agreement which amounted to a management takeover. The company would name one of its executives as head of Horizon and have a say in all policy decisions.

The idea was to hijack the project and present it as a company project to a visiting Japanese team.

Naturally, Mr. Wanninayaka refused. The company director in charge of the project phoned him and threatened to have him killed. The nasty phone calls stopped only when a legally-knowledgeable friend from Colombo confronted the man and warned him of possible legal action.

Set against such sorry cases, however, are scores of impressed donors from all over the world who have helped bring Horizon to where it is today.

Mr. Wanninayaka’s dream is to provide his students not just with an education – they should find jobs in a competitive world. He thus plans to broaden their horizons by teaching extra-curricular subjects such as photography.

It was with this aim that he asked me to hold a photography workshop. I decided to teach them stamp collecting in addition because these village children are eager for a hobby –and this is something that they can do at minimal cost.

The Horizon School already has a digital camera and students use it to cover their events. Mr. Wanninayaka would like to develop this skill into photojournalism and other professional skills – hence the need for a workshop.

The world of photography is increasingly dominated by digital cameras. Just how long traditional silver-halide based (analog) photography would last is anybody’s guess – I wouldn’t like to make predictions in this regard. But, given local conditions, it is hard to see digital cameras completely replacing analogue ones in this rural area as a livelihood over the next ten to twenty years at least.

Besides, when teaching the basics, it is best to start with the traditional form – how cameras and lenses work, different films and their speeds, the function of shutter speeds and their apertures.

All this can’t be taught in a day. But my problem is that, not being able to travel often to such a distant area, I couldn’t hold a workshop spaced at regular intervals. I therefore had to teach these students the most essential facts, bearing in mind their age and their unfamiliarity with technical jargon.

Ideally, I’d have started by taking snapshots with them, using their digital cameras, teaching basic things such as how to frame a picture and how to select subject matter.

As this wasn’t possible, I carried out a brief survey of photographic history, types of equipment and basic theory, different types of film and how load film into a camera, with practical demonstrations of how cameras and apertures work and how lenses differ from one another.

If this foundation is sound enough, we can go on to professional aspects of photography at a later stage.

Again, there is little scope in this area for making a living out of professional photography. But it can be a valuable tool for those students who dream of careers in the print media. They can cover weddings in their own families, saving a lot of money. They can take pictures of community events which go unrecorded because no photographers are available.

The idea is to develop basic skills and then take it forward from there. There are several students here who already show talent in photography. These will surge ahead faster than others. I’m a firm believer that anyone can learn photography, especially with today’s equipment, and take nice-looking, well-composed pictures. Individual vision is another matter. Those who have it will discover it and Horizon School will have to nurture that talent till it flowers and matures.

It’s a great advantage to these students that Horizon could buy them the equipment they need, and underwrite the costs of learning photography.

I emphasised to these students that, living as they are close to nature, they have great potential in nature and wildlife photography. This is currently the rage in Sri Lanka, with the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition offering Rs. Hundred Thousand as first prize.

Stamp Collecting

After a full day’s discussion of photography, I’m sure that everyone found Sunday morning’s stamp workshop to be fun.

Like everything else, stamp collecting in this village is as basic as things can get. Only two students had stamp albums and it was clear from these that collecting was done without knowing the basics.

Pundits may scoff at the idea that, given the general level of poverty, hobbies are hardly what people here need. That’s a cynical view. Everyone needs hobbies. Even poor people can afford hobbies. Collecting antiques isn’t a hobby for everyone, but collecting stamps is. It can be done at different levels by both the rich and poor, even though this view isn’t shared by the business side of stamp collecting. An example is our own philatelic bureau, which keeps up jacking up stamp prices at a dizzying pace.

But anyone can collect stamps at a basic level. It’s the mental tools that must be acquired first. My idea was to teach the basics and also teach how to collect stamps without burning a hole in your pocket.

During the workshop, the students learned about stamp history, different types of stamps, philatelic terminology, and the importance of collecting philatelic matter such as post cards, First Day Covers and stamp envelopes. They learnt too, very basic skills such as removing a stamp from an envelope without damaging it.

The basic FDC with a Rs. 4.50 stamp still sells at Rs. 14 and it isn’t beyond the means of families here to buy them. There are a number of inexpensive philatelic items that these students can afford to buy and will make an interesting collection in time to come.

They were also taught how to find pen pals from abroad (being great Web surfers, they’ll have no trouble doing this) and how to obtain free foreign stamps from philanthropic organisations.

The problem is how to get used Sri Lanka stamps. Few families here get letters on a regular basis, and the three post offices in the area get only very small quantities of new issues. But the Horizon School has such a solid reputation that collecting cancelled stamps, whether Sri Lankan or foreign, won’t be an insurmountable task.