ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, July 29, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 09

Moving forward with courage and help

A poverty-stricken village in Habarana, Halmillawe, gets a helping hand from John Keells Social Responsibility Foundation (JKSRF) that has adopted the village under a pilot programme.

By Lakwimashi Perera. Pic by Berty Mendis.

The thorny scrub jungle that is common to the Dry Zone, lining the road, interspersed with wide expanses of dry grass land is all that meets the eye on the road from Habarana. Occasionally, through the bushes, a house can be seen, nothing more than a small room made of wattle and daub walls and a thatched roof, intended to keep the inhabitants safe from the wind, the sun and when it occasionally rains, the water. The poverty prevalent in the area has to be seen to be believed.

Our destination was the village of Halmillawe, located about 20 km away from Habarana, in a remote corner of the island. The village is home to about 550 people, making up 120 families, mostly living in wattle and daub houses. The jungle that surrounds the village is not too far away from the backyards of most houses.

Electricity is a luxury the people of Halmillawe do without. Being about two km away from all adjoining villages, the villagers feel the authorities are not taking an interest in the matter as the cost of providing electricity is high. Water is also scarce and the villagers lead a hand-to-mouth existence, farming when the rain gods allow it to eke out an existence. Compounding their problems is the threat they face from wild animals, especially elephants.

The village school, Halmillawe Vidyalaya, conducts classes only up to Grade 5 with around 50 students and volunteer teachers. The older children travel great distances to go to schools in neighbouring villages. There is one bus that operates in the morning. If the children miss it, they have to either use the private bus that plies the road, which costs about Rs 40 a day, or walk. As a result, more often than not children miss school if they are not in time for the morning bus. Some of them take the bus in the morning to school and walk home in the afternoon, after school as they cannot afford to take the bus. Sarath Wickremasinghe, General Manager of Cinnamon Lodge, Habarana told us that the only meal some of these children get for the entire day is the free meal provided by the Government to schoolchildren.

Almost every villager has a tale of misery and hardship to tell. M. B. Jayarangani, a mother of three told us that it is a daily battle to educate her children. It costs about Rs. 30 for the three children to travel to school daily and she and her husband struggle to find the necessary funds as they don’t have a fixed income.

The village pre-school, built in the temple premises, is again, a wattle and daub building with a thatched roof. “Almost every week we have to break away the mountains that termites build on the walls of the pre-school before we have classes,” Anoma Priyanganie, one of the two teachers of the pre-school said. The pre-school building also doubles as a bana maduwa she added.
Proper medical facilities are another basic requirement that is a luxury for the inhabitants of Halmillawe. The people have to travel by bus to the nearest hospital which is in Yakalla, a fair distance away from Halmillawe. “Any emergency cases, including pregnant women, have to be taken to hospital two kilometres away on a borrowed motorbike,” Dayan Seneviratne, known in the village as Senevi, told us.

Senevi is one of the success stories in the village. He teaches at the village school while following an external degree unlike most other young people of the village who either join the armed forces or the apparel industry to make ends meet.

Jayarangani also told us how difficult it is for them to survive. Their source of income is mainly from doing manual labour. Farming is restricted only to one season because of the lack of water and even then does not bring in much money. If they don’t have work on a particular day that means that the whole family has to go hungry. This is not limited to Jayarangani’s family alone but is true for almost every Halmillawe household.

Villagers hopeful of better things to come.

It is in the midst of this poverty that the John Keells Social Responsibility Foundation (JKSRF) came to Halmillawe and decided to adopt the village under a pilot programme. Under the programme, solar panels were erected in the school to provide it with electricity and the teachers’ quarters was also made more comfortable, to encourage the teachers to stay in the school. “Now the school is equipped with fans, a television and DVDs and the school is kept open until evening so that any child can come and study in the school,” Mr. Wickremasinghe said.

To help the villagers in their main occupation of farming, a dam was also built across the rain water stream adjoining the catchment area of the village and a canal was built from the catchment area to the main tank. “This we hope, will increase cultivable land by 40%,” he added.

The work of the JKSRF is a hands-on project, with volunteers from the John Keells hotels located in Habarana liaising with village heads regularly. The people of Halmillawe are full of praise for the JKSRF. “Life has improved for us a lot since they came here,” Jayarangani said, with the rest of the women nodded their heads in the background in unanimous agreement.

The latest step of the JKSRF project was to empower the women of the village by initiating a savings scheme where the women can save money and utilise it later to supplement their husband’s income. The JKSRF will match the women’s savings one-for-one, to encourage their efforts to save.“We can save about ten rupees a month into the new savings scheme,” U. B. Muthumenike, an elderly villager told us. Sixty women took part in the first meeting of the savings scheme which they themselves have chosen to call “Diriyen Idiriyata”, to move forward with courage.

It is heartening to see that people like those in Halmillawe are receiving help to come out of their misery and suffering. Halmillawe has come a long way with the help of the JKSRF but their journey to find a better life is still an uphill one.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.