7th March 2006
This is likely to be my last letter from Sri Lanka as I am due to return to the UK soon. My two years are actually up on the 9th March but I will be working until the end of the month. The project on which I work as part of a team has been going 5 years and finishes on 31st March this year. It seemed right to stay until the end. This project, funded by the European Union, has been all about strengthening the institutional capacity and capability of an all island network of 24 Sri Lankan NGOs so that they can better meet the needs of their beneficiaries. Currently, there is a 3 member independent team of evaluators assessing the effectiveness of the project and I shall be most interested to read their conclusions. Before I met the evaluators, I referred back to the VSO Placement Outline given to me before leaving the UK which identified the key responsibilities of the job. It included the quote, “the successful volunteer will search for opportunities where he/she can contribute most”.
After my initial 6 months in the placement, I had a reasonably clear idea of the things I felt should be changed and/or introduced to increase efficiency, management awareness and staff effectiveness. Of course, many of my own goals and targets have not been met and I think I realise now that they were probably too ambitious. I soon learnt that a person having the title of say Finance Director cannot be assumed to have the experience, knowledge or indeed the authority that would be expected of their counterpart in a Western context. This meant that I had to start at a much more basic level than anticipated. Also, things do not happen in Sri Lanka at the speed one is used to in the West. I have from time to time for example agreed objectives or an implementation plan with the appropriate manager but have been unable to convert this to an agreed timetable that has been met.
It appears to me that in Sri Lankan culture, people’s faith in their ability to influence the future by following plans is often low. Many are not used to, nor have any experience, with working according to a fixed and documented plan over a period of time. But, whilst one is never satisfied with ones achievements, I finish my placement happy that I have made some little difference to the organisations with which I have worked.
So what have I gained personally from my experience?
Well, I haven’t been cold for 2 years, I haven’t had to wear a tie and I have bananas, mangoes and coconuts growing in the garden. But probably the most valuable aspect of life as a VSO volunteer is that one lives in, and as part of, the community. One gains insights into the country, its culture, its religions and politics all of which are so different from that experienced in the west and which are not available to the 2 week tourist. This is particularly true for those like me who have spent their time in a more traditional, conservative and rural part of the country away from the distractions of the capital.
One experiences life as it is for the majority of the less affluent (i.e. poor) population. I have been particularly fortunate in that all my immediate neighbours have made me very welcome and made sure any problems I have come up against were speedily resolved. I have been welcomed into their homes, shared their joys and their grief and shared their meals. I have been invited to all the social functions such as weddings, coming of age celebrations, funerals and death remembrances. I have made many good friends and I’m certain some of these will endure long beyond my stay in the country. I soon learnt that the pace of work is so much slower than I have been used to and there is certainly a lack of urgency about anything. Consequently I have developed a greater level of patience not previously one of my virtues. It was a little disconcerting at first to discover that sometimes a key member of staff was gone for a few days to attend a marriage, funeral or other family occasion. I have learnt that work is not always the be all and end all of life. Sometimes other things are more important. The most important event in Sri Lanka just recently has been the talks between the government and the Tamil Tigers held in Geneva a week or so back. This is the first time the two sides have met for three years and it is a significant achievement for the Norwegian peace brokers. The ultimate aim must of course be the replacement of the current cease fire agreement with a permanent peace settlement. The two sides remain so far apart in their aims that it was unrealistic to hope for a major breakthrough at the talks. The good thing that came out of the them is an agreement to meet again in April with the two sides agreeing to restrain from violent activities in the meantime. But the killing yesterday of two LTTE members by government forces has caused the Tigers to question the governments sincerity in moving forward. Certainly we all rejoice in the markedly reduced level of killings and bombings that have been apparent since the Geneva talks were announced. Locally in Akkaraipattu, the LTTE and the leaders of the Muslim community met and agreed to cease all violence and to lift all restrictions on movements between the Tamil and Muslim sides of town. This agreement is holding and security measures in town have been relaxed. With no killings or other incidents for three weeks now, this is the longest period of non violence I have experienced in my time of living in the town.
Naturally, I was so disappointed that Sue and Anna were not able to come to Sri Lanka in January but they
are now planning to be here on the 3rd April for a couple of weeks and I hope to travel back with them. I’m obviously looking forward to seeing them again and showing them something of the country that has been my home for the last 2 years. There is a Colonial era establishment in Colombo called the Grand Oriental Hotel although it’s not so grand nowadays. It looks out onto the Indian Ocean and over a busy harbour that in its time has seen the arrival of Arab, Portuguese, Dutch and English colonists. Urban legend has it that if you sit in the lobby for long enough, anyone of any importance in the world will pass by. So, see you there… if not, I look forward to meeting you all again when I get back.