Nanda Wanninayaka, the Founder of Horizon Lanka Foundation
I met Mr. Rehan Allahwala from Karachi, Pakistan while I was at Lanka Hospitals, Colombo, Sri Lanka to get my annual medical checkup done in December, 2013. Rehan’s face was so serene and inviting so that I could not help initiating an informal chat with him even though I hardly talk to strangers. We talked about each other’s work and we both had the interest in using ICT-related technology for social good. So we met several times in Colombo and talked at length on using technology at various fronts to make a positive difference in the society. He gifted me what came to be my first Android phone, a 3G-enabled Samsung Galaxy S Duos 2 S7562, a hot release by then. Rehan calls such phones “smart phones” as the others do and the non-smart phones, “stupid phones.” That smart phone changed my life with mobile based Internet and the fate of Horizon Lanka Foundation. Horizon Lanka was closed for almost 3 ½ years from February, 2011 to June, 2013 as we faced a financial crisis. Also the repercussions Horizon Lanka faced due to me leaving the village in January, 2006 with my marriage.
Even though I had opened a Facebook account when it was opened for this part of the world, I did not use it much as I thought it was a time wasting tool. But Rehan explained me how one can change the way people think to positive with Facebook. First I thought Rehan was crazy, to be honest. But his crazy ideas just worked. I started adding Rehan’s mutual friends to my FB account and in turn, I started getting a lot of Facebook friend requests from Pakistan. Now I have more than 2,500 contacts and around 1,500 of them are Pakistanis. Pakistan is a good friend of Sri Lanka politically and culturally and they helped Sri Lankan government (along with China and Russia) a lot to win the war against the Tamil Tiger terrorists who wrecked the island of Sri Lanka into pieces for almost 30 years. In addition to that, we are more or less equals in the game of cricket now and enjoy each other’s visits a lot.
In September, 2014 Rehan introduced me Mr. Sarwar Mushtaq, a documentary filmmaker, the CEO of Eckova Productions, Pakistan in turn who introduced me Dr. Steven Watson, a revered author from the USA. Dr. Watson pools the income he gets from the sales of his books to a non-profit organization called ChildsPlay International, which promotes outdoor activities like, folk games, folk songs, folk dances, storytelling, drawing and painting, mask making etc. to get the children actively involved in education. This went in par with my vision, though I hardly used folk stuff for it as I wanted to use contemporary forms of arts, sports and new technology to get the students engaged in outdoor activities which paid rich dividends. But now I understand that preserving the folk forms of arts and sports also can be used and both students and the parents love it. They do not forget their history that fast. Who am I to deny that right for them?
I had a chat with both Dr. Watson and Ms. Denise Davies from Canada who had spent some time in Sri Lanka and was convinced that this is a chance not to be missed. So, Dr. Watson sent Mr. Sarwar Mushtaq, the Pakistani American photographer and videographer on a fact-finding mission to Horizon Lanka, Mahawilachchiya, Sri Lanka in November, 2014. We had enough time to talk and see places in and around Mahawilachchiya and our chemistries matched most of the time if not all the time.
Then we planned to hold the ChildsPlay International – Horizon Lanka Foundation (CPI-HLF) event in December, 2014 but with the torrential rains and subsequent floods that hampered any transport between the Left Bank (where Horizon Lanka is) and the Right Bank of the village, we had to postpone it to January, 2016. But the floods did not recede even by January. So, the next option was to have the event in April 2016 which was not practical due to Sri Lankan New Year celebrations in April short public school vacation.
So, the most practical and logical choice was August, 2016 the driest and the most rainless month of the year. Alas! It rained virtual cats and dogs in August too and it stopped few days into the event making the village of Mahawilachchiya all green, as green as during Sarwar’s first visit. So, everything around Horizon Lanka was giving us a photogenic atmosphere.
We started the CPI-HLF event on August 24, 2016, first with giving an overview to the children, youth and the parents at the Sri Sudarshanarama Buddhist Temple, the temple we work closely as the chief monk is a friendly, helpful and intelligent person. Next day, all the students visited Horizon Lanka and there were around 130-140 students there. Sarwar Mushtaq, the CEO of Eckova Productions, Pakistan and his team members, Nadeem Ahmed, Ejaz Bhatti and Nayab Rehman did a splendid job throughout the event. They became very friendly with the children and the villagers and the children and the villagers in turn, returned the favor and the warmth.
We worked on indigenous art, crafts etc. and indigenous performing arts (music, song, dance, etc.) We also had activities such as masks making and costumes, etc. which the kids fell in love with and everyone needed a mask which was Nayab’s pet area. For local storytelling traditions, we got both the kids’ and adults’ contribution actively and did the recordings at the Buddhist temple which was mentioned above.
After supervising all these activities what I felt was that there should be a better communication between the beneficiary organization and the benefactor so that many things go as planned if not all. Due to late night work (such as downloading the pictures and videos from their cameras and editing them) of the CPI team, some days students were idling without much activities to be done. On the other hand, the volunteers selected should have taken over during the absence of the CPI team but this did not happen. Next time we should employ volunteers who can be in the premises throughout the day.
Children became very active and lively with the activities. This is what they miss at their regular schools. In public schools in Sri Lanka, children get the first term totally dedicated to sports without giving a chance for significant amount of academic affairs and the next two terms are totally academic without providing a window for sports so much so that the school playgrounds grow into little jungles by the start of the next year. I wanted to see a change in this while I was a schoolboy. Once I was hired as a consultant to the Ministry of Education, I tried my best to convince the relevant officials who did not agree with what I said and all they said was what they have been doing is an age-old procedure and it is not advisable to change that tradition. I think it would be a good idea to introduce CPI model activity based education to the public schools as well, if there is an avenue for it. Children were very comfortable with CPI activities and they did not want the program to end. Even the most inactive or least talented student actively took part in the activities. This helped them to get rid of stage phobia and typical shyness the students in this part of the world have. In fact, children are not comfortable in questioning the teachers as the children think it is improper to question a teacher because of the great respect they are supposed to have towards the teachers. This is an adverse effect of too much respect. But with the CPI activities, both the teachers and the CPI team made a leveled field with the students and everybody reacted positively.
The teachers and parents were extremely happy with the way program was conducted and requested that similar events be held frequently at Horizon Lanka Foundation. Teachers/volunteers need more awareness about the goals of the work of CPI. They are not used to this type of activities as they are used to work according to a fixed timetable throughout the year. They find it difficult to introduce something new if and when the CPI team is not present at the premises. Parents want us to pay more attention to children’s aesthetic (painting, singing, dancing, etc.) talents as those talents are not used at public schools and only a few selected children get all the opportunities whereas with CPI, every child gets equal opportunities.
If we are to organize a similar event with the CPI in future, teachers, parents and mentors are very happy to contribute since they know what exactly to be done with their first hand experiences. At their request, we are planning to have a sports tournament and a 3-hour long concert at Horizon Lanka in early 2016. The practices have already begun and we will be able to fine tune the dancing items if there is a budget to hire the dancing teacher in the village.
We will organize an evening to show what the children did by putting up some photographs of the events, showing them some video, playing back some of the recorded stories. This will be very encouraging for children to see themselves and to know that what they have done is valued. We are waiting to see the videos done by CPI at the event so that we could show both children and parents of the activities done. What we have for the moment are amateur videos and it is worth waiting for CPI videos and photos taken by professionals.
I think this idea of CPI should be expanded to other schools in the area and Horizon Lanka can be used as the bridge to do so. We can convince the headmasters and teachers in the area and can do the communication and organizing part through Horizon Lanka so that the presence of the Horizon Lanka Foundation will be valued even more by the community.