ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, March 25, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 43

Cultural rebirth

A community devastated by the tsunami in the south makes a fresh start through an arts and cultural centre

By Ayesha Inoon

Sarvodaya Community Tourism Initiative

Community-based tourism is a growing market, as tourists increasingly seek more meaningful experiences from their travel. While beach and sight seeing activities are integral to Sri Lanka’s tourism market, it does not always benefit the communities that surround these popular areas.

The Sarvodaya Community Tourism Initiative aims to develop sustainable livelihoods and build capacity in village communities by sharing natural resources, village culture and the vision of Sarvodaya with both foreign and local visitors. It aims at empowering village communities without compromising their traditions, values and lifestyles. The villagers run the projects themselves with assistance in development, training and marketing from the CTI.

It stands as a testimony to the courage of the human spirit – to our ability to rise from the ruins of disaster and rebuild our lives anew. It is the outcome of a community’s desire to restore their confidence and become self-sufficient while nurturing the traditional arts in their children.

For the people of the small fishing village of Balapitiya on the southern coast, their Community Arts and Cultural Centre is a source of great pride and joy. Built as part of the Sarvodaya Multi-Purpose Community Centre which serves the practical needs of hundreds of villagers, the Cultural Centre is the result of a Community Tourism Initiative (CTI). It aims to promote sustainable livelihoods, develop the rich cultural resources of the area and provide hope and encouragement to a society that was devastated by the tsunami of 2004.

A devil dancer

The Community Centre itself - which was funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee - provides a number of other facilities to villagers such as a pre-school, modern playground and village society bank.

“This place is a treasure,” says 64-year-old Hemalatha, who has been raising six grandchildren since two of her daughters left for the Middle East soon after the tsunami, and the third died from injuries inflicted by her husband during an argument.

With her eyes constantly tearing from the smoke of the wooden stove on which she cooks meals to sell and support her family, Hemalatha says that the educational opportunities provided by the centre, where she brings her grandchildren every day, are such that she cannot afford otherwise. Other mothers agree, adding that the activities here have greatly helped to ease the sense of fear and trauma that the children underwent in the aftermath of the tsunami.

Featuring a large natural amphitheatre with a rocky outcrop as the backdrop, the Arts and Cultural Centre trains children in traditional southern dance, drama and music. The funding for the costumes, musical instruments, teachers etc, have been provided by Give2Asia USA, a non-profit organisation which is dedicated to providing personalised programmes and services for giving to Asia.

“The Cultural Centre was initiated by the community themselves,” says Sharadha de Saram, Advisor to Give2Asia, explaining that during a workshop in the area to assess their needs, the villagers had highlighted their concern for the self-esteem and development of their children.

With their deep sense of pride in the traditional southern dance forms that are an integral part of the cultural heritage of Balapitya, the community felt that to train their children in these arts would help to re-establish their sense of identity and self-worth. British volunteer, Catherine Leach, who was working with Sarvodaya to develop a CTI, collaborated with the community to establish this centre.

Children engrossed in drawing lessons

Parents feel that learning these arts will complement the children’s academic progress rather than hinder it. “We especially appreciate the opportunity for the children to practise on a stage,” says G. Shiranthi, whose two children also participate in the programme, adding that they wouldn’t be able afford the required fee for such facilities elsewhere.

Currently, 62 children and teenagers between the ages of five and 20 are participating in this programme, says Dharshana Parakrama, Manager of the Arts and Cultural Centre. A qualified dance teacher from a nearby village coaches the students. “We hope to build an excellent team of dancers – one that can perform at any level,” he enthuses.

Officially beginning tomorrow, March 26, the Centre will host weekly performances for foreign and Sri Lankan tourists. They also hope to take their dance troupes to perform in local hotels, says Parakrama. The community will use the income generated to develop further facilities for their benefit. Additional community income will be secured by the addition of a cafeteria, open daily, with traditional snacks and juices prepared and served by the village women. Locally made handicrafts will also be available for sale.

“I really cherish this project,” remarks Jagath Wijesekara, Manager of the CTI. “There is a big difference in the attitudes of the children – they are much brighter and happier than they were at the outset. It has really helped them overcome the psychosocial trauma caused by the tsunami.”

The joy and excitement on the faces of the young children as they dress up in their costumes and perform their graceful movements on stage are a manifestation of his words.

Top to the page

Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.