14th January 2001

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Building lives on sand castles

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi

Every culvert along the dusty Bowatte-Thisogama Road, which leads to the Deduru Oya, is occupied by gangs of teenage boys, be it a school day or holiday. They sit chatting and laughing, with their shovels by their side. As a tractor passes, showering them with red dust, they fall silent, and look up hopefully, wondering, "Is it for me?"

They are the 'sand boys' of the Deduru Oya, awaiting a call to earn some money. As we stop to talk to them, they are suspicious at first, then relent and answer our queries shyly.

Earlier we had seen tractors with sand loads mined from the Deduru Oya, plying along the Thisogama Road dumping them on coconut estates lining the road. Then the lorries home in, pick up the boys in twos or threes and take them to the estates to shovel the sand onto them to be transported to Colombo. The lorries cannot load the sand directly from the Deduru Oya because heavy vehicles get bogged down in the sandy track.

For the boys in the area, sand loading has provided the wherewithal for their survival. They see nothing wrong in leaving school before their time disrupting their education because they need to supplement their family incomes.

"There are no jobs in this area. The normal jobs are as watchers on the estates, but the older people have taken them up," explained Rohan Adikari who claimed he was 16, though he looked younger.

He and his gang of friends, all from Grade 8 in Thisogama Maha Vidyalaya, have not been to classes for about two months. "The chances are that we never will," says Rohan.

They leave their homes at 6 in the morning and sit on the culverts till about 7 at night. They work all week without even a day's break. "We get 25 rupees to load sand on to a lorry," says Rohitha Pradeep, also 16.

Nineteen-year-old Rohana Vasantha earns around Rs. 1,500, if he works all week. "Adyapanayen binduwak wath ne," (There is naught in education) he says, adding that at least now they have jobs.

However, only time will tell whether such jobs are permanent and the 'sand boys' of Deduru Oya will regret the day they left school to build their lives on sand castles.

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