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