e-Village in the Jungle – The Nation – December 03, 2006

e-Village in the Jungle
e-Village in the Jungle

The humbleness and abject poverty of the people of Ceylon were themes Leonard Woolf touched when he wrote his famous novel, ‘Village in the jungle’, many decades ago. Even in this era of modern technology, there are numerous such isolated villages in Sri Lanka, which are locked in time and far removed from the outside world. Ashoka Weerasinghe of our sister paper Rivira, went in search of one such village, situated in an isolated corner of the Anuradhapura district. Though from the exterior this village is typical of any such ‘village in the jungle’, when one takes a closer look the differences are startling. Due to the vision and dedication of a young English master who came to the village a few years ago, the place has now evolved in to an e-Village, connected to the world through the internet and boasting of an IT centre where dozens of village children learn the skills they will need to compete in this Information Age.

Even after arriving at Anuradhapura, following an arduous journey, we had more than four kilometres left to travel to reach our destination. The road rapidly deteriorated once we moved out from the ancient capital and after a while became a hazardous path full of potholes. The mere skeletons of houses on either side of this rural road were good indicators of the average wealth of the people in the region. Seeing the pathetic conditions in the area, it was clear that this region had been forgotten by the authorities, both political and administrative, for a very long time.
We were stopped at a military checkpoint where we were asked about our destination. “On our way to the Horizon Lanka” was our answer and the security men seemed immediately satisfied, allowing us to proceed without any further questions. We finally reached our destination, several kilometres after passing the Mannar junction. We had arrived at Sri Lanka’s first and only e-Village situated at Mahawilachchiya.

It does not take long for a visitor to realise that Mahawilachchiya is far removed from the material comforts familiar to us. Though it is named as a model village with internet facilities and computers, these are not immediately visible from the exterior. Instead, what is seen is the abject poverty of the village. The tumbling shacks, the pothole filled roads and the absolute isolation are more visible to an outsider than anything else. Ninety five percent of the village’s inhabitants are farmers making a meagre living if the rain gods are kind to them.

Though politicians frequent this isolated hamlet during election time, they are now as rare as proper houses in this impoverished village. It seems that the farmers cultivate their lands more out of habit, since it is the only option they have to make a living. Even though the people in this area are undergoing numerous hardships just to make ends meet, they all greeted us with warm smiles, which made us feel welcome in their remote village. Following the warmth of their smiles we went in search of the beginnings of this Horizon Lanka, a venture which has revolutionalised rural life in this village.

The humble beginnings of the project go back to 1998, when a young English teacher got an appointment to the village school. Nanda Wanninayaka who hailed from the same region had to undergo numerous difficulties to educate himself, in the English language. The young teacher commenced his work with much zeal even though he had to teach under a tree most of the time. Many teachers who were appointed to the Saliayamala Vidyalaya, were looking for transfers to better areas from the moment they arrived. Wanninayaka however was different. He was determined to make a difference with his young charges. With time the school got a computer as a donation. The English teacher voluntered to double as the computer master as well. Using this computer, Wanninayaka designed a website called ‘Horizon Lanka’. The village did not have internet access. Nor did it have telephone lines at that time. The students and the teacher had to travel to Anuradhapura to carry out their work on the website.

During these years Wanninayaka and his students used to come to Anuradhapura, and even Colombo, for English workshops. The rural students were astonished with the level of facilities enjoyed by their city counterparts. They learned much from their enthusiastic master about computers and English during these visits. Many of the students in this remote corner of Sri Lanka, passed their English language paper at the Ordinary Level exam thanks to the tireless efforts of their teacher. Five years after arriving at Mahawilachchiya, Wanninayaka decided to quit his job as a school teacher in order to concentrate promoting Information Technology in the village.

The biggest challenge Wanninayaka faced was to get internet facilities to the village which did not even have a telephone connection. By this time he had received a substantial amount of funds from various foreign donors who had read about the Horizon Lanka project through the internet. The website www.horizonlanka.org gave details of the proposed IT projects. The former teacher used to come to Colombo with his laptop and work on his future plans. He managed to raise Rs 500,000 through donations. The money was required to acquire the RLL radio link network. A tower was constructed, which allowed communication between Mahawilachchiya and Anuradhapura, giving internet access to the village. A young British lady who had come to Mahawilachchiya as a teacher had been very impressed by this initiative and convinced her parents to fund a building to house an IT centre.

As a result of the generosity of the young lady’s parents, Mahawilachchiya received a two storeyed IT centre while the communications tower connected this remote village to the World Wide Web. The place now named the Horizon Lanka Centre provides the opportunity for students of different ages to familiarise themselves with the internet and computers. After school and during weekends, youngsters throng to this place to experience this new technology. Under the watchful guidance of Vanninayake, children as young as six are now using this facility. Most of them are improving their English language skills thanks to the centre. Some students frequently come for workshops held in Colombo. Computers and English which were once the privileges of city children are now being mastered by their less affluent counterparts at Mahavillachchiya. Currently nearly 100 students are using the facilities at the Horizon Lanka Centre.

Wanninayaka did not stop at constructing the IT centre. He had a dream of providing computers to the children at their homes, from where they could access the internet. With funding coming from abroad, he managed to build four more RLL radio link towers in the village while providing 28 households with computers. Two more schools in the area were also provided with the facilities and even the Mahawilachchiya police station now uses the internet. This is a far cry from the other police stations in the area.

Meanwhile, many have now volunteered to work at the Horizon Lanka Centre, among them being Wanninayaka’s own English teacher, Ranjith Pushpakumara. “We hope to expand this scheme to give a broad professional knowledge to the students,” says Wanninayaka who hopes that the students can eventually find jobs in the IT sector. The pioneer of the project says that the teaching methods at his centre are very different, where the children are given an opportunity for a hands on experience. Over 50% of the students are provided a grant in the form of a scholarship. With donations from well wishers, the staff has managed to include this money in a scheme called microscholarships, for the duration of time, the students are learning at the centre.

We were able to talk to some of the youngsters, enthusiastically working at their computers. Isuri Nirmani who is in year seven was actively involved in making her bio data when we met her. “I’m learning PowerPoint, Word and web designing software,” said the bubbly 11-year-old. She was joined by several of her friends who shared their experiences with us. These youngsters are now sending e-mails to their friends just as any average kid familiar with the internet.

The ambitious young team running the Horizon Lanka Centre are aspiring for greater heights. They have plans on the pipelines to give an opportunity for the farmers in the area to come online to sell their produce. An impossible venture some might say but that would have been the same thought which many would have expressed if they were told two years ago that someone hopes to provide internet facilities to a village in the Anuradhapura jungles.

“I believe that our opportunities are limited because of the lack of technology and the knowledge of the English language, ” says Nanda Wanninayaka.“As a teacher I didn’t want to limit my students’ knowledge to books. That’s why I see English and technology as the gateway to the future.”

We wish this dynamic young man, his staff and most importantly the students under their care, the very best. May their example be a source of inspiration to others.