A laptop in Dambana – Wijeya Pariganaka, January 2004

Wijeya Pariganaka

Wijeya Pariganaka LogoWijeya Pariganaka ICT magazine published this story about Horizon team’s visit to Dambana to meet the Veddah community. This article appeared in the magazine’s January 2004 issue. This article was originally written by Gamini Akmeemana of the Daily Mirror and later translated into Sinhala for Pariganaka ICT magazine by Nileema Rahubaddha.

Wijeya Pariganaka
Wijeya Pariganaka
Wijeya Pariganaka
Wijeya Pariganaka

Over the Mountains We Flew – Daily Mirror, December 20, 2003

Over the Mountains We Flew – Daily Mirror, December 20, 2003

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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.

10-year-old Saman Kumara's drawing of an aircraft
10-year-old Saman Kumara’s drawing of an aircraft

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.

Veddah Children with the officials of Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka
Veddah Children with the officials of Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka
Enjoying a snack inside the aeroplane ... ...
Enjoying a snack inside the aeroplane … …

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.

How exciting !!! A mother and a child ... ...
How exciting !!! A mother and a child … …
Veddah children in front of an aeroplane
Veddah children in front of an aeroplane

 

Knowledge revolution in the making – Daily Mirror, November 01, 2003

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By Gamini Akmeemana Saturday, November 01, 2003 – Courtesy Daily Mirror.

Taking computers to the village? In Sri Lanka, there has been a lot of talking, but very little has been done. Now at last, the gap between dream and reality seems to be narrowing. At any rate, some people believe that it can be done.

Funded by the Ministry of Rural Economy, a research team carried out an exhaustive study of existing computer facilities and the potential for computer use in the southern and Uva provinces. Many remote villages which have no computer facilities at all were visited during this three-week-long tour.

Heading the three-man team was a young man with first-hand experience in introducing computer education to remote backwaters – Nandasiri Wanninayake, director of Horizon Lanka, Mahavilachchiya, an agricultural settlement in the Anuradhapura district.
His remarkable success story in establishing a sophisticated computer-education centre where websites are designed for foreign clients today by the children of farmers was told in this newspaper last month, and doesn’t need to be repeated.

As someone who was born in this formerly LTTE-threatened area only 30 miles from Mannar, Mr. Wanninayake understands both the difficulties as well the possibilities when it comes to introducing computers to places where a TV set is still a luxury.

In fact, the authorities couldn’t have found a better person to carry out this survey for them. Often, such surveys fail because they are done by people with an excellent education garnered abroad who have little understanding of grass-roots realities.

A research team member talks to villagers - Photos courtesy of Horizon
A research team member talks to villagers – Photos courtesy of Horizon

When I joined the team in Badulla, it had already finished its survey in the southern province, having visited some very backward villages in the Hambantota district.

To their amazement, the researchers discovered that some villages tucked away in hilltops in the lush Badulla basin were, if anything, even more backward.

We found out that first impressions of lush greenery were quite misleading. Badulla is a hilly region, but it’s in the dry zone, and depends a great deal on the northeast monsoon for water. Many villages carry out only one harvest and slash-and-burn cultivation is common, all dependant on the timely arrival of the monsoon.

The rains were late this year. All the villages were parched and Badulla town receives water only for four hours per day.

The main objective of the survey was to design a project suitable to village culture, on the basis of successful projects already undertaken in neighbouring countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The hilly terrain makes life doubly difficult for villagers in the Badulla district. Roads snake up steep mountain sides, and are so bad in some cases that buses do not run. Some of the villages we visited do not even have a three-wheeler, hard to believe in today’s Sri Lanka. One was so hard to reach that the postman leaves the mail in the neighbouring village.

Despite the lush landscape, life is very hard in these villages
Despite the lush landscape, life is very hard in these villages

Nearly all of them had electricity only at the periphery. Many had no telephones. In fact, the lack of phones would be a great obstacle when it comes to introducing computers to such villagers, since the Internet and email facilities could not be made readily available.

Nonetheless, Mr. Wanninayake remains optimistic that a knowledge revolution can be created in this context, and his plan has been already accepted in principle.

He has proposed the use of Uva Radio as a substitute for Internet and email in those villages where it will take time to establish those facilities, that the radio will broadcast Internet-based information till the Web is widespread.

Twenty four villages are to benefit from a pilot project drawn up by the Ministry of Rural Economy to improve the lot of villagers, with funds drawn from the World Bank. This has already been going on for one year, with endless discussions between ministry officials and villagers as to how the funds should be utilized meaningfully – that is to say, without money being spent leaving villagers poorer than ever.

Computers weren’t part of the original plan, which was to form ‘companies’ consisting of villagers with the money rotated amongst them for their own projects. But, now that this idea of village information centres (VICs) has come along, it could turn out to be a very good thing. Computers could fill huge gaps in the villagers’ lives and connect them with the outside world.

In this context, some of the proposals made by Mr. Wanninayake are highly innovative. For example, many of these villagers are unable to sell their fruits and vegetables to major distribution centres such as Dambulla and Colombo because of low prices. Instead of depending on this monopoly, the 24 villages could exchange their products directly.

Also, seasonal fruits such as mango and lime, now largely thrown away, could be sold to makers of soft-drinks and hotels. All this assumes, however, that a constantly updated e-network exists between buyers and sellers. Internet and email facilities are therefore essential if this scheme is to work. Major markets such as Colombo and Dambulla should have websites, constantly advertising their needs as well as buying and selling rates. Buyers can signal their needs in advance via the same medium, and a villager 200 miles away can know instantly what the market rates are at any given moment.

Village information centres can advertise their products through websites. Digital images of products can be used to attract buyers and give them an idea of the quality of what they are buying. Websites could also be used to teach new methods of harvesting and packaging, and to teach up-to-date agricultural methods.

Instead of direct cash transactions, payments should be done through a bank as much as possible, using electronic methods of payment as much as possible. This would go a long way to encourage savings in the villages.

Expatriates can be encouraged to buy land and invest in these villages through websites, which will have video clips of the lands for sale.

The village information centre has to be self-sufficient, and not dependent on aid in the long term. People from the village would be trained to handle all aspects of it. All this may sound visionary at this point, especially in villages which do not yet have phones or a photocopy machine.

In the village of Kuruvithenna, for example, those who want a photocopy must travel either 20 miles to Mahiyangana or 35 miles to Badulla, the nearest towns.

Few of these villagers have seen a computer, but some of them have a pretty good idea as to what one can do. Most of them feel that they are essential if the village is to make progress, for the younger generation at least if not for themselves.

“This is a misconception that must be cleared up,” says Mr. Wanninayake. “The adults will find that computers will be useful to them in so many ways.”

With new types of printers which can also function as photocopy and fax machines, he says, a major problem will be solved – in addition, the VICs can readily generate an income for themselves. Computers can be used to show films in places where it takes half a day’s travel to find a cinema hall.

When asked about the negative image the new technology has generated (pornography, currency forgery etc), most villagers felt that the positive effects outweigh the negative ones. The bottomline is that these people are not only desperately poor – they live in such isolation that they could still be living in the 19th century for all intents and purposes. A VIC which will help them in commerce, education and entertainment will go a long way to enhance self-esteem and make these people feel that they too, are part of the modern world.

The villages surveyed shared many bleak features, but there was a surprising degree of difference when it came to spirit. In Kuruvitenna, for example, the village committee is now vociferous, ready to talk to visiting officials. (In bureaucratese, they are now ’empowered’).

In neighbouring Pinnagolla, however, there was apathy in the air. According to the village committee chairman, many of the young have left the village for distant cities – the men working at low-paid labour jobs, the women in the apparel industry. The village school is in a bad state.

Polgaha-arawa is another equally poor, small village in the same area, but the spirit was entirely different. The villagers are proud of their school. The road is very bad and there are no buses, no phones, no electricity, no post office and no dispensary. Despite all this, the school boasts of good Advance Level results. One could sense the unity among villagers when it came to common problems.

When asked about what he thought of computers, a villager in his thirties said: “We have to go along with the world. You can’t be afraid of progress and hide from it.”

It is to this spirit that an appeal needs to be made. If the VICs are to become a reality, that spirit will be as important as the technology.

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

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

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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.

A Computer Took Them to New Horizons – DailyMirror June 02, 2001

A Computer Took Them to New Horizons  – DailyMirror June 02, 2001

 

daily-mirror-logoBy Gamini Akmeemana June 02, 2001

Three years ago, these school children from Mahawilachchiya, a remote farming settlement 40km away from Anuradhapura, would not have believed that they would be having their own website by the year 2000.

Their mentor, an unusually enterprising young English teacher called Nandasiri Wanninayaka, was having more basic things in mind – how to procure the photo copy paper on which his students produced their English medium journal “Horizon.”

A reader of my articles, he came to Colombo and met me. The resulting article about him and his students was a turning point. The U. S. Embassy provided them with a computer. With his good luck, came a familiar tale of woe. The computer was given to the school where Wanninayaka was teaching. The result was a typical tale of bureaucratic meddling, ignorance and professional jealousy. Wanninayaka quit in disgust, leaving the computer idling at school, and his students seemed to be depressingly back to square one.

The luck was not out, however. Donald and Bhadra Gaminitilake, an expatriate Sri Lankan couple living in Japan, arrived back home just then. They had read Mahawilachchiya story from the Internet. Once they heard about Mahawilachchiya story, they decided to help. Together with Mahen Kariyawasam, a director at the computer firm East West, they gave a computer and a printer to Wanninayaka and his students.

It has proved to be a lasting bond. The Gaminitilakes have ‘adapted’ these remote village children as their own and continue to help them in various ways. Donald Gaminitillake, a manager of graphics and printing in Japan, decided to start a website on behalf of what has now become the ‘Horizon School.” It has proved to be a huge leap forward from a stenciled news sheet.

I joined the Gaminitillakes in what was their fifth visit to Mahawilachchiya, a settlement bordered by sprawling jungle and guarded day and night against the threat of LTTE attacks. The school is based in a cramped room in Wanninayaka’s modest village home.

These students ages ranging from six to sixteen, have become incredibly computer savvy. In addition they are capable dancers, as proved by their annual musical concert.

Wanninayaka, an amateur keyboard player, loves to play the electronic organ during these occasions. On an improvised open-air stage, his students displayed an amazing repertoire of folk and modern dances, ranging from Indian to Arabic to Western pop.

Gathered at this occasion were an unusually large group of outsiders. To begin with, there was the first generation of benefactors – the Gaminitilakes and Mahen Kariyawasam (Sanjeewa Wickramanayake, the other figure from East West who figured in giving the first computer and printer ‘Horizon’ was not present.)

Added to this group was a new benefactor. Thushara Wijerathna is a young computer programmer for Microsoft in the United States. Having heard about Wanninayaka and his students, he too, decided to extend a helping hand while here on holiday. To that end, he was in Mahavilachchiya too, along with his wife, infant child and parents. Wijerathna offered Rs. 15,000/= in cash to the Horizon School.

The next step is to build a computer room, and each contribution will help realize that dream. Equally important (and perhaps more so) are the emotional bonds – these students now feel that there are people in the big city (which most of them hadn’t seen until the Gaminitillakes arranged a visit last year) who care about them.

This is very important because of the stark divide that exists between city and village in our culture. Anuradhapura is the only city that most people here know of and there are those who haven’t even seen Anuradhapura. Also instances of affluent city people going out of their way to help villagers are unfortunately all too rare in Sri Lanka.

“We must try to bring the city to the village,” says Donald Gaminitillake. The way things are right now, that may sound utopian. But giving a computer to a village and following it up is a perfectly good way to start.

How a Village School Vaulted Into the Computer Age – IPS – October, 1999

How a Village School Vaulted Into the Computer Age – IPS – October, 1999

 

ipsBy Gamini Akmeemana – COLOMBO, October 26, 1999 (IPS)

Ten-year-old Ruvini Seneviratne is adept at using an IBM compatible computer. It’s nothing short of incredible -considering that she does this in a remote village in the inhospitable dry zone of Sri Lanka, 240 km from here. That she and scores of other students from Saliyamala Vidyalaya have access to a computer in a place in which even a manual typewriter is a rarity is due to the tireless efforts of a young teacher called Nandasiri Wanninayaka. But the irony is that such rare enterprise has cost him his job. He resigned this month from his job in the Mahawilachchiya Village school due to irreconcilable differences with school authorities. Wanninayaka, 27, who was born and educated in this distant farming settlement in north western Sri Lanka, joined the staff of the school in January 1997. Till then, this small government school lacked an English-language teacher. As a result of his efforts, seven students passed English at the Ordinary Level examination in 1997, but results deteriorated again last year. Thinking of ways to improve the standard of English for the school’s 450 students, Nandasiri hit upon a bright idea: why not start a newsletter? A major part of the problem here is that students lack reading material. Though the total population of Mahawilachchiya contains some 888 families (around 10,000 people), reading levels are abysmally low. The sale of Sinhala-language dailies does not exceed 60 newspapers for a day. Few read anything in English.

”I saw that improving reading and writing skills was a priority,” Nandasiri said. ”That’s why I thought of starting a newsletter in English. It began as a pamphlet, a handwritten publication stuck on classroom walls.” Encouraged by the students’ enthusiasm, Nandasiri expanded the project, titled ‘The Horizon.’ It included essays, features and news items, all written by the students themselves. A student was elected as editor, and editorship was rotated. Then came the problem of finding enough paper to sustain the project. Nandasiri decided to produce the newspaper on photocopy paper. This may sound a simple matter. But in a place like Mahawilachchiya, where you may need to travel several miles simply to get a photocopy, the cost of the raw material was going to be prohibitive. The settlement lies at the edge of the sprawling Wilpattu National Park and is constantly under threat of attack from Tamil Tiger rebels, the separatist group which first staged an attack here in 1984. Since then, the entire settlement is guarded day and night by police and homeguards. It was then that he decided to write to several embassies, asking for a stock of photocopy paper. Only the U.S. embassy replied. Curious to know what this was all about, U.S. embassy staff called Nandasiri for an interview.

The result was a lot more than he had even dreamt of — he ended up getting from them a new Pentium computer and a dot matrix printer, as well as a large stock of printer ribbons. When the machine and the peripherals were delivered to the school six months ago, it was the first time any of the children had actually seen a computer. Only the Assistant Government Agent’s office has a computer — the local bank doesn’t. Thanks to Nandasiri’s vision, the students of this backward school which lacks proper lab equipment, sports goods or musical instruments were able to make a great leap forward, bypassing the typewriter right into the computer age. Never having worked with the QWERTY keyboard before, Nandasiri taught himself the basics and began teaching his students.

He tried to improve the students’ musical skills, too. Having taught himself the keyboard of his brother’s portable electronic organ, he improvised a school band, ‘The Butterflies’, with about 20 eager students. They staged a concert for the village in August. Singing and performing in — English, Sinhala, Tamil and Hindi. Opportunity and encouragement worked to open the dormant creativity of the students. One of Nandasiri’s student, 14-year- old Nirmala Sarojini, has two exercise books filled with essays written in the English-language. Asked to write one page on her activities on a given day, she ended up writing 16 pages.

But his non-traditional teaching style was not to the satisfaction of the school authorities. While his students and their parents approved of him, Nandasiri found himself under increasingly vehement criticism within the school for his unorthodox teaching methods. Earlier this month, he had no alternative but to resign. The computer belongs to the school, and he no longer has access to it. The students are unable to turn out ‘The Horizon’ by themselves, but Nandasiri is determined to continue with what he sees as an invaluable learning tool by going back to the old format — producing a hand-written news letter.

It remains to be seen if the school can continue to make good use of the computer — or if it will become just another piece of machinery gathering dust. (END/IPS/sg/an/99