This is a guest post by Jen Spinner, Program Reporting Associate, who shares her reflections from a recent trip to visit Room to Read's work.
Upon landing in Sri Lanka, one can immediately sense the impact and devastation caused by the country’s recent civil war. While the conflict officially ended three years ago, 300,000 Sri Lankans are still displaced and many communities still lack access to basic infrastructure.
Lying in the middle of the Central Province, Hatton is one of Sri Lanka’s largest tea production regions and home to one of the country’s largest Tamil populations, many of whom work upwards of 14 hours a day on tea plantations. Schools in this area fight for government assistance, often going months or years without access to new textbooks and learning materials.
It is within this reality that Room to Read’s Tamil Literacy and Girls’ Education programs operate, working with families and communities that have been largely forgotten by the country’s reconstruction efforts. As I moved from classroom to classroom and home to home, I heard girls we work with share stories of the personal impact their country’s war had on their lives, weeping for lost relatives and friends. But juxtaposed upon this immense sadness is a palpable sense of determination to succeed in school and provide for their remaining family.
One of my last stops in Hatton was a school at the top of the region’s highest peak that serves 1st to 12th grade students. Driving past homes which lacked access to electricity and running water, the obstacles these students face each day simply getting to school became obvious. As we stepped into the school’s main courtyard, students clamored to show our team their favorite books and literacy exercises, growing more excited which each new activity. In Sri Lanka, Room to Read is the only organization ever to provide an early grade literacy program in the Tamil language, so both students and teachers are extremely proud. As we prepared to leave school for the day, Sinthuja, a 10th grader, invited our team to her home to meet her mother and see her “homework wall.” During the trek from school, my heart sank at the realization that Sinthuja makes this trip every day, sometimes leaving school after dark to take the forested trail alone.
Sinthuja’s mother is a tea picker, spending 15-16 hours each day in the fields (despite terrible arthritis) to support her six children. Even with such an incredibly demanding schedule, Sinthuja’s mother comes home every night and asks about her daughter's day at school, without exception.
Upon arriving at Sinthuja’s home, I was immediately drawn to a curtained corner at the far right of the 12x15 structure. This was the only part of the one room-house that was partitioned in any way for privacy from the home’s seven occupants. When I asked Sinthuja’s mother about the space, she explained that behind the curtain is her daughter’s study area/home library, meant to provide some reprieve from the distraction of the busy house. Despite its small size, this space really impacted me, a physical manifestation of the entire family’s commitment to Sinthuja’s education.
And it’s not just Sinthuja’s family who is benefitting from her staying in school. Her community, which sits on the outskirts of Hatton's city center, is extremely remote, and the only means of transportation for its residents is an ever-changing and unreliable bus system. Given the poor quality of local roadways, the routes themselves change frequently, leaving residents with a major challenge when they need to get to work.
As the only member of her village who can read Tamil, Sinthuja now wakes up before dawn to go outside and read the directions and route information to her friends and family. While this may seem like a small act, her efforts save neighbors hours each day, allowing them to arrive on time to work and relieving the extra stress that used to precede a 16-hour day.
“It’s a miracle,” says Sinthuja’s mother, as she describes the vital role that education allowed her daughter to play within the village. Neglected by so many institutions and organizations, Sinthuja and her peers now have hope—a means to a brighter future than the labor cycles they were born into.
Join Room to Read in celebrating International Literacy Day throughout the month of September. For each action you take, $1 will be donated to support our work. Learn more at www.roomtoread.org/ILD2012.