Photos & the text By Gamini Akmeemana Saturday, December 20, 2003 – Courtesy Daily Mirror.
It all happened because of a drawing made by a 10–year-old aboriginal boy in remote Dambana.
I visited Dambana with some friends two months ago. At the Gurukumbura Primary School , which has 27 aboriginal children and two teachers, I couldn’t help being stunned by the pastel drawings these children, the oldest of whom are fifth graders, have made.
They have no art teacher. The drawings were made possible only because of some pastel colours donated by a visitor. All the drawings were colourful and often abstract.
I was particularly struck by 10-year-old Saman Kumara’s drawing of an aircraft. It wasn’t merely colourful. The concept was very abstract. It was triangular in shape, and looked like a Stealth bomber. But he had never seen a picture of one.
Airliners hardly fly extensively over Dambana. The only aircraft he had seen close are low-flying military helicopters (there are two of them in the drawing, and that’s why his triangular airplane has a rotor on top. He naturally thought that all aircraft carried helicopter-like rotors). But the aircraft he drew came entirely from his imagination.
Back in Colombo , I mentioned this to Duncan Jayawardane, an old friend who works for the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka. He was then busy in his role as a co-ordinator for CAASL’s planned exhibition and air show to celebrate the centenary of powered flight (held on December 16 and 17 at the Ratmalana airport).
Duncan is a man of many parts – basketball coach, former air traffic controller, and collector of vintage motorcycles. He is also a man of tremendous enthusiasm who can see the big picture at once. When I asked him if it would be possible to bring Saman Kumara to Colombo for the planned exhibition, he decided that the CAASL could do much more than that.
After a discussion with CAASL Chairman Shibly Aziz, Vice Chairman Mohan Pieris and Director General H. M. C. Nimalsiri, he proposed to bring the entire school to Colombo and fly them in an aircraft, something beyond my wildest dreams.
This was to be part of an ongoing project called “Gift a Flight to Underprivileged Children” – 40 children suffering from cancer were to be flown on December 17, an event sponsored by a domestic airline and Sri Lankan pilots flying for Singapore Airlines.
The aboriginal children too, could be flown on the same day under the same project (due to a last-minute glitch on the part of the cancer hospital, those terminally-ill children could not be flown. A group of children from St. Joseph ’s School for the Deaf, Ragama, were flown instead).
There were hardly six weeks to go, and a lot of work to be done. First of all, it remained to be seen if the Dambana children’s parents and community elders would consent to the project.
As telephone communications were difficult and in any case would not be sufficient, Duncan, his wife Sagarika, CAASL coordinator K. M. Jayasekara and myself went to Dambana. With us too, was Nandasiri Wanninayake, the director of Horizon School, Mahavilachchiya, with whom I’d gone to Dambana for the first time.
The results were very positive. The two CAASL co-ordinators and Sagarika struck an instant rapport with the school’s children and teacher Dambane Gunawardane (the principal being absent on that day). Wanniyalage Eththo, the current Veddah chieftain, approved of the project, as did the parents.
The children were thrilled at the idea. And why shouldn’t they be – as far as I was able to determine, none of them had traveled beyond Mahiyangana town, and certainly none had ever traveled in the relative comfort of a car, let alone an aircraft. Even a three-wheeler ride would be quite unusual in a place as remote as Dambana.
The group that traveled to Colombo on December 16 in an old bus which carried 31 people (other than the bus’ two-man crew) – 27 children, the two teachers, and two parents. The children were all dressed for the occasion in their best clothes.