It was 5am, just 4 hours after the airport finally dropped off my lost luggage at our Airbnb rental in Colombo, and just 15 minutes before we were to board a 7-hour train from Colombo to Jaffna, the northern most city in Sri Lanka. After our brief, but efficiently utilized, 20 hours of living it up in Colombo, it was time to put our foot on the clutch and get ready to switch gears. Jaffna sits at about 50 kilometers from the southern tip of India and was one of the hardest hit areas of the bloody decades long civil war. As a matter of fact, the very train I was sitting on had barely been open a year after being shut down for over 20 years, effectively cutting off the north from the rest of the country.
The differences were immediately evident as the train exited the outskirts of Colombo and casually rolled through the rural areas north of the capital city just as the sun began to rise. While this region of the country was flat, it was gorgeous countryside, lush greens, farmlands full of palm trees, rice fields, (lots of) cows, and various fruits and vegetables from cabbage to citrus, the abject poverty was clearly visible along every tie of the track – shanty towns cobbled together by corrugated aluminum siding, wooden pallets, cloth furniture pads and blankets, mismatched bricks and mud – piles of burning trash dotting the horizon as well as the sides of the tracks – barefooted malnourished figures popping in and out of the shadows carrying everything from cords of wood to butchered meats. And the faces. The faces looked hardened…jaded…chiseled…knowing.
As the train continued on, there was a region that stood out to me as what was perhaps the most downtrodden of the communities I had seen through the windows of that train. Perhaps not so ironically, this was the exact region we’d be driving back towards in 2 days.
Before then, however, we had 48 hours in Jaffna ahead of us. We arrived at the train station and were picked up by a Ministry of Education van that dropped us off at our hotel, the Gnanams Hotel, smack dab in the heart of Jaffna. The history of the city, as I’d learn over the next 36 hours, is quite rich. The Jaffna Public Library, which was destroyed during the war, was, at the time, amongst the biggest in Asia, and housed some of the oldest collections of Asian history in existence. While the library has since been repaired and re-opened, they’ve been scrambling ever since, trying to piece together and reassemble anything they can of that written history that may now forever be lost.
Then there was Fort Jaffna, which, during its almost 400 year history has been occupied by everyone from the Portuguese to the British to the Dutch, eventually being used by both sides at different points during the Sri Lankan Civil War, and the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple, built in 618 and remains one of the most important temples in the Hindu religion, especially for northern Sri Lankans. On top of it all, Jaffna was once one of the most educated parts of Asia, and the Jaffna Central College, originally built by British Methodist emissaries in 1817, was one of the most distinguished schools in this part of the hemisphere. This is the school that Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam once attended. This is where his rise as an athlete began. This is a big part of why the man has spent the past 30 years focused on one thing – education. Bringing back education to the level that it once was. The level that he knew it to be when he was a student himself.
And, somehow, someway, for some reason, here I find myself in the privileged position of not only sitting with him…but also planning out a course of action for the next 10 days. This is also precisely the moment, over a lunch hot potu and spicy chicken curry, that I began to realize the scope and magnitude of the work I’d been flown out here for.
So here it goes...
A big part of what Ethirveerasingam’s work has culminated in has been to create S.E.R.V.E., an e-learning institute designed for underprivileged youth in the Northern Province, specifically the city of Jaffna. Since then, in less than a single calendar year, he’s managed to turn some of the most underperforming students in the region into the top performing students in all of Sri Lanka. We got a chance to hang out at the institute for a day and observe their methods, speak to some of the children, and get an overall feel for what a hunger for education is like in a country starved for this sort of opportunity. And it was beautiful. The children were eager and hungry and enthusiastic, immediately apparent as we watched one group put together and test out their first circuit board, while another group was interacting with an e-learning video based on how to properly use a microscope.
So what does any of this have to do with me? Well, apparently, the school system has taken notice to his system and the effect it was having and has begun to implement it in almost 150 schools in just the past year. This has created a demand for more materials to widen the e-learning offerings to cover a wider portion of the education curriculum. What I was going to be doing was training two groups of students and teachers from the Northern Province how to write, produce, set-up, shoot, and edit educational videos to fit into the curriculum. The idea was to give these subjects the basics skills necessary in order to make use of the new studio and resources in order to be able to not only create more videos themselves, but to take the skills we give them and be able to eventually train more and more educators themselves.
While this seemed like an obscenely large responsibility, not a single part of me ever had any doubt about being up for this challenge. I was all in.
The only thing now was preparing for, and getting over, a couple of hurdles. For one, most of my students spoke only Tamil. I’ll leave it at that. The second hurdle? I was completely unfamiliar with the editing software, Camtasia, that I would be teaching. The third hurdle? Most of these people have never even turned on a camera before. The fourth hurdle? The computers we’d be using were…well…embarrassing even 10 years ago – we’d have to shoot at the lowest possible resolution just to hope that the computers could handle the footage.
Whatever I signed up for…was certainly going to be interesting…
I get started with that in the next part, 3 Weeks In Sri Lanka – Part 3 : Teaching The Teachers In The North
If you missed the beginning, click here for 3 Weeks In Sri Lanka – Part 1 : The Most Meaningful Work I’ve Ever Done
All images and videos for this series of blog posts were shot with a Samsung NX1.
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