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Bridging Lanka Monthly Report
Free Fall – December, 2021
Fuelling Discontent

Sri Lanka’s present crises are suffocating the nation. While macro-economic problems are alarming especially with rapidly depleting foreign reserves and mounting foreign debt, it is at the micro level that households are facing the real crunch. Import restrictions and lack of foreign exchange for wholesalers are resulting in empty shelves at retail outlets with chronic shortages in all manner of stock. This has caused unpredictable weekly if not daily increase in prices, loss of employment opportunities, fall in household income, wide spread poverty and conditions of near-starvation creeping into households. Not even kerosene or gas to cook with! In the past starvation was an exceptional event in Sri Lanka, which now threatens to become normality.
Back to the Future

How lofty ideals can collapse! We had the noble intention of creating a commercial café and kitchen to support widows and other vulnerable women in securing a livelihood for them in Adampan, one of the most war-affected areas of Mannar District. Through Café Arokkiya we hoped to cater for the growing tourist market that sought nutritious traditional cuisine, a higher standard of cleanliness and a relaxed space. We were well on our way to meeting such expectations when the Easter bombings and the pandemic struck, decimating tourist numbers. Then the foreign exchange crisis and the collapse of global and national supply chains meant we couldn’t even replenish our gas cylinders. So guess what? The women have now returned to war-time practices of cooking on open wood fires.
The Show Must Go On! by Kavivarman Mailvaganam, Project Officer

After a gap of two years, we returned to our Eats & Beats program, combining live music by Mannar’s youngsters (including me) and yummy food from the Café Arokkiya kitchen. Our meals that night used up the last of the kitchen’s gas supplies!

After such a long break I got many struggles getting the music team back together again. I organized seven days of rehearsals for the event. Almost all the rehearsals were of low energy. I got highly depressed. As the days progressed my level of fear also increased. But I also held strongly to “I can do this” even it’s hard. I spoke to myself that whatever challenge I faced I would ensure the show would go on. I didn’t allow the fear to grow in me. I went about doing my responsibilities and created some hope. 
Finally, the night of Saturday 4th December arrived and magic happened. We did very well! I really got lots of support from our Bridging Lanka staff. Jerad, Rojan anna, Nancy and Komakan cooked fantastic food. Shanjhai, Luman, Benojan and Dilu were master waiters and the musicians Eric (vocals), Thilakshan (keyboard), Deni anna (tabla), Saathu (flute), and myself (guitar and vocals) were well received. My sister Kiru, sang up a storm too! All up we had more than 60 guests on the night plus another 20 of us.
A few days later we had a solid debrief session at Kunchukulam - what worked; what didn’t and how to improve for next time. I’m so happy for the experience, to recognise what we were capable of, to mark my mistakes so I can improve and to make future Eats & Beats events even more enjoyable.
Here We Go Again

Our worst nightmare has resurfaced. Titanium Sands Ltd (TSL), the Perth-based Australian mining company has recommenced the final stage of its exploration of ilmenite sand before submitting an application to mine 93% of Mannar Island. A year of protest commencing in 2020 halted their illegal operation in April 2021. Widespread protests and awareness raising campaigns in Mannar, online petitions and even action by the Greens in the Australian parliament were our first wave of protest. 

We wrote a brief about TSL’s intended plans and spoke to the Government Agent, Divisional Secretary and Director of Planning about it. They were not aware that exploration had recommenced. An initial meeting was held with the Mannar Citizens Committee and a Right to Information (RTI) application submitted to the Geological Survey & Mines Bureau and the Ministry of Industry & Commerce to ask probing questions about this latest round of activity by a foreign mining company. Through their local partners, TSI is illegally trespassing on private property without landowner permission to drill holes to 12 metres – well below what is permitted by Sri Lankan law.
Unintended Consequences

Ignorance of local factors can have devastating effects. The engineers behind the multi-million dollar wind turbine project on Mannar Island to generate electricity for the national grid, have caused havoc. They didn’t factor in that their road construction would block 14 natural outlets for heavy run-off water during the wet season to flow to the sea. Only three outlets were created for drainage. The result? Devastating floods with houses and agricultural land under water for weeks. Our Hendro Animal Rescue Centre land was one such casualty. The final stages of the construction await, as does the commencement of our sterilization and rabies vaccination program for street dogs. Here’s hoping that the seasonal deluge will abate and that construction work can be completed next month.
Getting Under their Skin

Our Fighting Fit program takes on new dimensions. Through our program, each youngster who has or is in the process of kicking the drug habit becomes a role model for others hooked on substances such as ICE and heroin. Their example gives a flicker of hope to their friends that they too can change. Slowly one by one they come closer to us. First they drop by the office. Then we embark on long interviews, sometimes involving many sessions to get ‘under their skin’ of their lives and what they are escaping from. We also meet with their parents. One such young person - lost to heroin - has finally decided to go for three months rehab before coming to live with us. Fingers crossed that he will actually follow through with his resolve.
Getting to them Earlier
We’ve realised that combatting the severe addictive behaviours that are fast becoming ‘situation normal’ for Mannar’s youth needs a multi-pronged approach. Chavez, a volunteer who recently parachuted into our lives wants to establish a preschool run along very different lines than those currently operating in Mannar. We too realise that we have to influence youth at a much younger age. The Biblical adage, “Train up a child in the way s/he should go: and when s/he is old, s/he will not depart from it,” (Proverbs 22:6) is wisdom we intend to follow. But first the research phase. We met with the Early Childhood Education Officer from the Divisional Secretariat to understand government regulations and requirements. She loved our different approach, said there is a dire need for English medium preschools and offered her utmost support.
Insights of Parents

Next we met with mothers who had preschool aged children to hear of their experiences. The issues raised included young children not being able to concentrate and focus due to their addiction to smart phones; children’s manipulative behaviour that if they were prevented from playing with a smart phone, they would refuse to go to nursery; and refusal to eat healthy food, now being accustomed to consuming packaged snacks. A motivation driving many mothers was to give their children what they didn’t have. After the session we also realised that parents needed much more awareness of how to raise their children.
Preschool Teacher Training

Our next step...we caught the bus to Jaffna to get the ‘good oil’ from Aaruthal, an organisation which specialised in preschool teacher training. They were the lead agency working with the government to provide a one year diploma course that lays a solid foundation for effective early childhood education. Currently we are negotiating with Aaruthal to train some of our potential teachers. Their curriculum and approach seemed to support our alternative perspectives on educating the young.
At the Crossroads

The chosen site for our proposed preschool is a 1 ½ acre property with a 70% forest cover. It is located at the very edge of Puthukkudiyiruppu, a Muslim village, adjacent to Hindu and Catholic communities. Our intention is to make this facility accessible to children of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. We met with the Mosque Committee to outline our intentions and gauge the level of support of this important body. Surprisingly the members were ecstatic at the prospect of an English medium preschool and gave us their fulsome support.
Selecting Suitable Staff

We were on a roll! Next we held interviews with potential teachers. Apart from checking CVs and asking the usual list of questions to deem their suitability, we asked them to read a story to a group of children we’d gathered. This was to gauge their rapport with children. Some interviewees did extremely well while others were uninspiring. Finally four were selected for training.
Back to School by Kumanan Mylvaganam, Fighting Fit Coordinator

I have been coordinating the Peer Counselling component of the Fighting Fit program. We chose 12 peer counsellors out of 19 participants to share their counselling knowledge with their friends and other young people. Already they are keeping case notes of each session. Recently I received a report from one of our peer counsellors, Thiviya, who has spent huge time with her friend who dropped out of school. Thiviya discovered that her friend was really fearful about the forthcoming Ordinary Level exam because her parents are expecting her to get high marks which she knew she could not get. Over many sessions Thiviya encouraged her friend to just do her level best. Thiviya even had conversations with her friend’s parents who finally understood the pressure they were putting on their daughter, and backed off. Now the parents are supportive and Thiviya’s friend has recommenced her studies toward her O Level exam. 
Understanding the Home-Street-School Nexus by APF Rojan, Manager

We’ve started this project in response to Mannar’s Zonal Director of Education’s request for us to help solve the worsening situation at Santhipuram Primary School. A serious fall in school attendance, families facing collapse and few positive role models for growing children are creating the conditions for a failed future. As the school principal said about a grade 2 boy, that he can’t read a book but can give a good explanation of how to pack and sell drugs. 

What to do? We don’t know – but we have started a social experiment to find out what strategies may work to reduce truancy, increase a love of learning and create a more positive home environment. We’ve had two meetings with the parents of the 14 grade 3ers and also met the students briefly. Early in the new year we will visit each household to get a better understanding of their family circumstances and how we may be able to address issues that arise. Some of our staff will work with the parents and the others will relate with and run activities for the students.
One-Stop-Shop Getting Closer

Meet young Dinushan from Kunchukulam – at 19 years of age, a crack hand at multiple trades yet without any formal training. He’s an ace mechanic and can do the work of electricians, plumbers and masons. We are getting closer to establishing a shop front for this One-Stop-Tradies-Shop for unemployed youngsters like Dinushan, from rural, isolated settings.
Natural Medicine

A once overflowing Mannar General Hospital is not so frequented these days as patients are anxious about getting tested for Covid whenever they enter the premises. Instead, they are patronising private providers and paying an arm and a leg for pharmaceuticals that don’t do the job. Chronic pain from a host of conditions, prevail. Recently Dhivya Sivanesan from the Poornam Foundation contacted us about helping her establish a wellbeing clinic that would offer free acupuncture and gua sha treatments for people with limited means. Alhathir, Donkey Clinic manager, helped to get a letter of support for the initiative from the Mannar Pradeshiya Sabha. Rojan, our manager met the Regional Director of Health Services who recommended registering the centre with the Private Health Services Regulatory Council.
A Good News Story by Jerad Anton, Development Officer

Now we have established two Reverse Osmosis (RO) water filtration systems that provide safe drinking water to hundreds of people in Mannar and Kunchukulam. The RO plant at the Mannar General Hospital services many wards - the kidney dialysis ward, neonatal intensive care unit, wards for pregnant mothers and accident victims and also public wards. Many patients and their families are now drinking healthy water AND saving lots of money as bottled water has risen sharply in price more recently. 

In Kunchukulam our RO plant is now a micro business for a local young person, Dilaxan, providing part-time employment. Little by little more families are getting water from us at Rs 2.5 per litre. We are up to 42 families already. In a short while we are earning a minimum of Rs 10,000 to 12,000 per month.  Fifty percent of the takings go as salary and the remainder is kept for maintenance of the RO system and buying filters.
Variety the Spice of Life by Eric Fernando, Graphic Designer

My role as Graphic Designer got stretched. Beginning of this month I participated in the Eats & Beats musical program. That was really exciting program ever for me. Kavivarman coordinated the event and many days of rehearsal. As a performer I learned a huge amount of lessons like performing without stage fright, learning proper sound mixing and team coordination. I designed the flyer for that program. Other works that month included videoing some of Bridging Lanka’s operation including the donkey welfare and gym projects, and also designing a public sign board for Kunchukulam’s RO safe drinking water service. 
A Sour Taste by S. Mowleesan, Finance Officer

The Fighting Fit project has been challenging especially in terms of accountability. Last month we submitted a huge number of documents including final narrative and financial reports, meeting attendance lists, all expenditure bills, a selection of counselling case notes, powerpoint presentations both in English and Tamil, stories of positive outcomes, etc – but these were never enough. We have done many successful projects funded by the Australian government. Dealing directly with the staff of the Australian High Commission and the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade was a very positive experience.

We cannot say the same of our dealings with CARDNO which was contracted to administer all Australian grants. Our experience of CARDNO has been very frustrating. We found Cardno appeared to not be so interested in the amazing results we have achieved through the Fighting Fit project including some that were life-changing. Their interest was more focused on ‘bean counting’, asking for more and more quantitative data to tick their boxes. This arduous bureaucratic process unfortunately diverted precious staff and management time away from real life issues. 
A Delightful Encounter

The donkeys at the Donkey Clinic & Education Centre had a surprise visit from the wife of the Australian High Commissioner, Monica Holly. After a presentation about the salubrious history and current challenges of Mannar’s donkeys, Mrs Holly spent time to feed and cuddle the donkeys. Although masked, her delight at encountering these beautiful animals was palpable! Visitors and tourists are slowly trickling back to the DCEC after the long Covid absence.

In Australia, Bridging Lanka Ltd is a public benevolent institution (PBI) with charity status with the Australian Charities and Not for Profits Commission, deductible gift recipient status and charity tax concession status with the Australian Taxation Office. All donations are tax deductible.

In Sri Lanka, Bridging Lanka (Guarantee) Limited is a registered not-for-profit company with the Registrar of Companies and as a Voluntary Social Service Organisation with the Secretariat of Non-Governmental Organisations.
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Bridging Lanka contact details:

28 Mellor Street
Kedron, QLD 4031
86 Esplanade Road
Mannar 41000
Sri Lanka

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