It all started with one school

Sri Lankan English teachers

Sri Lanka 2003 –

“My nieces and nephews can recite poetry in perfect English but can’t hold a simple conversation. UNICEF has already rebuilt the school. I want to put a teacher in there to teach English. They need to learn about computers too.’’

Thus spoke Tony, my partner, on his return from a ‘fact finding’ trip to his ancestral village in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. It was 2003 and a ceasefire in the long running ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka had been in place since 2002, negotiated and monitored by Norwegian peacekeepers.

Tony’s original plan was to recruit an Australian teacher to work in that one school for six months. Having worked with him professionally for many years I knew that once he started something he would not rest (literally in some instances) until the job was done and done well. His enthusiasm and personal commitment were contagious and, very quickly, myself and my sister, Monica, began using our network to search for a volunteer while Tony looked for a way to connect with the relevant authorities to get permission. So began our first experience of working ‘around’ conflict.  

At that time, the Sri Lankan Government controlled the Jaffna peninsula, but the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) controlled an area south-east of Jaffna. Nevertheless, Tony was told by Government officials in Jaffna that, even there, the LTTE needed to give approval to a plan such as ours. So we sat in front of our computer screens in Sydney and puzzled over how to do this in a way that was transparent to, and within the law of, both the Sri Lankan and the Australian Governments.

Eventually we found a way in through the Catholic charity, Caritas, in Jaffna, to a Catholic priest working in Kilinochchi, the LTTE headquarters, and through him to the Government education representative for that area, who in turn facilitated the necessary discussions with the LTTE Education Department, with whom he liaised under the terms of the cease fire agreement then in force.

The Kilinochchi based priest was Father Francis Joseph who later became famous, in the final stages of the war, for staying and helping the Tamils trapped by the fighting. He disappeared at the end of the war.  

In Kilinochchi Tony met with both the government representative from the Provincial Department of Education and the LTTE Education Department officials in a room full of books about Tamil history and culture.  Even in those circumstances, the government remained responsible for schools and the government representative he met with seemed to have a very good working relationship with his LTTE counterparts. At this crucial meeting the parties agreed to Tony’s proposal on one condition: that we also run a teacher training course for 30 English teachers from the North-East.

We said yes.

Would you like to sleep on that decision?

Risks arise through assumptions that have the potential, if wrong, to have a severe impact on the objective. The assumption we made for that first teacher training course was that the attendees would be trained English teachers. The person most impacted by this turned out to be our first volunteer in the field.

We were still looking for a suitable volunteer to run the workshop while more longer-term plans were made to place an Australian volunteer in Tony’s village school. One Saturday evening in Sydney, as we sat outside discussing the project, Monica phoned the first candidate for the role, Helen, to ask if she would agree to travel to Kilinochchi for three weeks to run the workshop. Within minutes she agreed. She’d never been to Sri Lanka, knew little of the history and politics, and had never in fact travelled to Asia. We suggested she sleep on the decision, but she said, ‘No need!’

Helen prepared her course based on our assumption about the qualifications of the trainees. After the first three days of the workshop – three very stressful and difficult days – she sat down and rewrote the whole thing overnight. Well, not quite overnight because the hotel she was staying at had no electricity after dark.  

Helen turned out to be an inspired choice and that first workshop was hugely successful, not least in establishing a firm foundation in relationships of trust, empathy and mutual commitment to a shared goal between ourselves and the teachers. Several of the teachers in that first group have continued to work with us to the present day.

The training course was held in a school outside Kilinochchi in January 2004. The teachers stayed at the school, sleeping on the desks or the floor. This did not prevent them from presenting for class every day in their beautiful saris. Female teachers and all public servants, when on duty, are required to wear saris and some schools even require parents coming onto the school grounds to wear one.

The students also took care of Helen as she adjusted to the conditions. During the first few days, Helen discovered that the audience was not, as we had expected, trained English teachers. This made communication in the classroom somewhat difficult as she was not getting the feedback in terms of body language, facial expression, and oral response that she was hoping for. And so she began to speak more emphatically and louder, sub-consciously trying to get a response. Eventually one of the teachers – who remains a good friend to us to this day – took her aside and told her ‘Madam, if you keep talking like this you will lose your voice!’ She relaxed, they helped translate, and the workshop settled down.

When Helen was preparing for the trip we told her not to get into any discussion about politics or the war. But it was difficult to avoid. Every morning the students would start the day with 30 minutes of English conversation practice in pairs.  Helen would then ask them what topic they would like to talk about the next day. Their choices included the role of women in their society, teaching, technology, and inevitably, their experiences during the conflict period, before the ceasefire. This was their choice and Helen did not feel it was up to her to refuse.

So they told their stories, amongst tears and laughter. One teacher told how, when they fled their village, she was pregnant and after 9 hours walking she had to stop and give birth and then pick up the baby and walk for another 9 hours. There were many stories like this, some involving sheltering from gunfire under pieces of corrugated metal, losing elderly parents who simply could not carry on, or fleeing homes, not once but multiple times.

The closing ceremony was beautiful, full of the protocol and ritual that always surrounds such events in Sri Lanka, with tables laid with flowers, the oil lamp to be lit by in turn by Tony and local officials, speeches, and presentations.

Having established such a strong rapport with the teachers at the first workshop we found it impossible to walk away. Even though that group of teachers did not have the qualifications or experience that we were expecting, they had been selected in line with our other criteria, that is, they all came from remote village primary schools. These are known as Type 3 schools in Sri Lanka and typically only go up to Grade 5, but some go to Grade 8.

Our rationale then and now – our target is the same – is that these schools are most in need and mostly forgotten by larger top-down programs. Our target was and remains much higher risk in terms of successful outcomes precisely because of their lack of resources including well trained experienced teachers. We can afford to take this risk because we are using our own personal funds. Had we been reliant on donors and/or donations, perhaps we too would have gone for the low hanging fruit – the easy option. But, as Tony often said (and I’m not sure if this is original) – ‘there could be another Einstein ploughing the paddy fields’.

As our mission encompassed both English and computer literacy, we then set about sourcing desktop computers and educational software for the schools.

Technology in education, and in particular in remote area village schools, sounds like a good idea and gets teachers and students very excited. But it’s often a poor use of money and delivers little in terms of real learning outcomes without well thought through application and appropriate teacher training. That was true in 2004 and remains true today in many cases.

Nevertheless, between January 2004 and October 2004, we organised second-hand computers to be shipped from the US charity, World Computer Exchange, arranged a donation of educational software from IBM Australia, and selected additional free software to complement the program. We also developed a complete curriculum and syllabus for English and Computer Literacy for Grades 1 and 2 in Sri Lankan Village Primary Schools. The computers and software were intended to substitute for a more immersive experience of English given that the children would not encounter much English at all outside their English lessons. 

The logistics of getting the computers shipped, cleared through Sri Lankan customs and transported to the North in time for the January 2004 workshop were co-ordinated by us remotely from Australia. 

We have learned over the years since then that maintaining computers in remote areas is almost impossible and second-hand equipment, even refurbished, does not last more than a year or two under these conditions. However, that first shipment was highly prized by the recipients.

Travel with a local – always!

Then the Government official responsible for English in schools in the North-East, who’d participated in the opening and closing ceremonies in January 2004, asked us to run a similar workshop for another 30 schools in the East later in the year.

We said yes.

So, in October 2004, we returned, first to Kilinochchi and later moved on to Trincomalee. We decided to fly from Colombo to Jaffna as Tony wanted us to begin our school visits with the school that was supposed to be the original one and only.

Microsoft Sri Lanka had agreed to donate copies of Microsoft Outlook for the project and they delivered them, complete with their bulky packaging, to our hotel in Colombo –  a huge stack of 50 copies of the software. After we dispensed with the packaging we managed to get them into our luggage for the flight to Jaffna.

The flight was very interesting. It was the only time I’ve ever been asked to stand on the scales to be weighed separately from my luggage. Then the flight was delayed due to mechanical problems. We watched the plane on the tarmac and didn’t see very much activity, but eventually they boarded us anyway and off we went. An Australian embassy official also travelling on the flight said we were fortunate. At least the flight had gone ahead. Quite often it didn’t. Later, after we returned to Sydney, we were retelling this story to some Sri Lankan friends. They commented that everything gets recycled and re-used in Sri Lanka until it truly reaches its end of life. Monica observed that if that principle was applied to planes the ‘use by’ moment could occur mid-air!

In Jaffna we stayed for the first of many visits at the Bastian Hotel. The Bastian at the time had two locations – a bar-restaurant and, a few doors down, a guest house. The guest house was located between the offices of an NGO and an international aid donor. Upstairs, where our rooms were, there was a large conference table, no doubt to cater for visitors from its neighbours. There would have been quite a demand at that time due to the ceasefire and peace negotiations.

Our rooms were simple and clean, and we had our own private small dining area. Each day we were asked what we would like for dinner and at what time. Then after dinner the same question for breakfast. The service and the food were excellent. We would spend afternoons on a small veranda at the back drinking tea, reading, planning, and chatting. It was very peaceful and welcoming. We stayed there many times.

Over the years, Tony developed quite a contact list of drivers based in various locations who could be called on to transport him or the team around the country, or in the town where we were staying. The most unusual of these was a three-wheeler driver in Jaffna – a man who was both deaf and mute but who had a regular clientele who sent him text messages to book his services. Sadly, he passed away just a few years ago but one of his sons has taken over the three-wheeler and we have also used his services.

In Australia Tony valued the quiet life, but from the moment he landed in Sri Lanka he didn’t stop talking. He would always take the front seat next to the driver and chat continuously, even on an eight-hour road trip. They would open up and share their life story with him, but unfortunately we learned nothing because these conversations were always conducted in Sinhala or Tamil – Tony being fluent in both. On one occasion, after a five-hour trip from Trinco to Kandy, Tony told us that our driver used to be a magician.

On one of our first team trips, Tony told us as we set out that he was not a tour guide and we were not to keep asking him questions. As it turned out, we didn’t need to. He couldn’t help himself and would constantly explain something to us or point something out and then immediately follow that with ‘but I’m NOT a tour guide!’ Indeed he was not – he was infinitely better than any tour guide! And so much more entertaining.

In the planning for the October 2004 workshop in Kilinochchi, I contacted the Australian Embassy in Colombo to get their advice, given that we would be staying and working in the LTTE controlled area of the country and specifically in Kilinochchi. I was strongly discouraged from proceeding. One of the more minor reasons given was the lack of any hotel in the town. Now, this was not entirely true, but much depends on definitions.

Our accommodation was basic, the food was good, and the town itself buzzed. One evening as we set out for a walk and dinner we found street theatre in progress. We discovered a large restaurant with numerous staff – mostly young women who also found Tony very entertaining and hovered around us constantly. There was a long menu, but only a very small number of the dishes were actually available. Supplies of basic foods were very limited at that time. Nevertheless, we all had a good time that evening.

The sound of …. music, rain, and excited teachers!

The Kilinochchi workshop  was all about the new syllabus we had developed for Grades 1 and 2, with an emphasis on computers and English language software as a means of providing some kind of English immersion experience for the students, however limited. With the help of some locals connected to the school, we set up a  makeshift computer lab in a classroom in a village school, using the second-hand computers shipped from the US, with cables everywhere, a leaking roof, a reluctant generator, and an electrician/handyman who was an absolute star but, for reasons we could only guess, extremely reluctant to have his photo taken, so we didn’t push it.

Before the workshop started, Tony and I met with the government Provincial Education Department Representative and the LTTE Education Department to discuss distribution of the computers. Coming from a management consulting background I had, of course, prepared a PowerPoint presentation. The audience humoured me very politely, but rapidly got to the bottom line – how many computers had we acquired, and how many schools would we support?

The teachers attending the Kilinochchi workshop were highly excited at the opportunity to use computers. Over the three days of the workshop we ran lectures and they took turns in groups in the ‘lab’. When it was changeover time there was a near riot as the incoming group charged in and the outgoing group hung on to the last. 

It rained quite a lot and one afternoon, after we’d wrapped up for the day and the teachers had changed into their casual clothes, we stood under shelter waiting for our lift to town, singing songs we all knew including, if I recall correctly, ‘My Favourite Things’ from The Sound of Music!

My lasting memory from that workshop is of two teachers departing on the last day for Jaffna in an old Morris car from years gone by with the desktop computer for their school on the back seat. They had their computer and they were not leaving without it!

The rest of the computers eventually made their way to the other schools. We kept records of serial numbers which we cross-checked with schools. It was all done correctly and everything ended up where it was intended.

We weren’t sure how the schools would manage the computers, especially as many didn’t have electricity. Two schools pooled their resources and shared a generator, one week about, until one of the teachers persuaded the parents to fundraise to buy their own generator.

That same teacher, like many, was very forward thinking and passionate about her profession. She’d decided to learn Sinhala, the mother tongue of the majority ethnic group in Sri Lanka, believing that being able to bridge the language divide was part of the journey to lasting peace. Trilingualism (English-Tamil-Sinhala, or English-Tamil-Arabic) is not uncommon in some parts of Sri Lanka, for example in Kandy where Tony grew up. Indeed, his trilingual ability was a great asset to us. However, in other parts of the country it’s rare, and in that environment it seemed to us an exceptional aspiration. Language policy in Sri Lanka has shifted several times since Independence and is still a very contested space. Meanwhile, the people learn what they need to in order to communicate and go about their daily lives. 

Our accommodation in Kilinochchi was basic but adequate. I think it was mainly used by commercial travellers. Our room at this hotel, accommodating three women, literally opened onto the dining area of the hotel, itself a room not bigger than a large living room in Australia, and full of male travellers who were staying at the hotel. It was embarrassing because we used to string our laundry across the room and felt we had to exit very carefully so it would not be seen.

Tony’s room next door did not suffer the same problems although he said he shared his bathroom with a frog that kept him company there.

One evening we were invited to dinner at the home of one of the education officials. On that evening, we were all hopeful that the ongoing peace negotiations would ultimately succeed for the benefit of the country as a whole.

And then there were 50

After Kilinochchi, we moved onto Trincomalee to run a similar workshop for the additional 30 schools we had promised to train in the East.

We needed another volunteer teacher for this workshop and had found one online – a young woman who’d been working as a teacher in a remote Indigenous community in northern Australia. We’d never met face to face.

We arrived at our hotel in Trinco and were inspecting our rooms, which all opened onto a large courtyard, under the relaxed and curious gaze of a young woman, sitting outside her own room. It eventually occurred to me that she might be our volunteer. I said, ‘Are you by any chance Lyn?’ So we met for the first time.

Lyn turned out to be a great find and was a huge hit with the teachers, not least because she was young, and they thought she looked like Shane Warne!! We enjoyed our stay at the Sea Lord Hotel, although, as in Kilinochchi, the accommodation was basic. We would spend the evenings before dinner sitting down near the sea wall, drinking beer or Sprite, and talking about the day.

The large yard outside our rooms was also open to a few local cattle who grazed on the bits of grass there. One also left a deposit one morning on Lyn’s doormat. The beds in the hotel had horizontal slat bases which would move around during the night as I tossed and turned. One evening I woke everyone up as several slats actually fell through the base and I ended up in a U-shape myself with the mattress in the middle almost on the floor.

Sadly, only a few months later the Sea Lord was wiped out by the 2004 tsunami.  

We initially had no plan to provide computers and software to this new group of trainees.  We’d simply agreed to run a workshop. However, on the last day, the teachers asked us if they would receive computers for their schools.

We said yes.

This time around, the second-hand computers were sourced from Australia. Tony and the Government Provincial Education official at the time, made a herculean effort in getting them cleared through customs in Colombo, loaded onto a truck and transported to the schools in the East. That was the last time we attempted this. Quite apart from the logistical challenges, it had become increasingly clear that donations of second-hand computers, in an environment where the conditions are less that perfect for care and maintenance, is a poor investment. As the years passed we modified our programs to make them less reliant on the technology component. The teachers were enthusiastic back then but were nowhere near ready to make good use of the resource in teaching and learning.

In studying and later teaching International Development at university, the concept of “appropriate technology” was used with reference to everything from infrastructure to computers in public administration. It’s a term not much used today and was even then a little paternalistic but, in terms of making good investment decisions in development, it does have merit. We learned this the hard way back then. Unfortunately, in the field of education, it seems the lesson has still not been learned as we see the new enthusiasm for smart boards in schools where teachers still have no training on the use of such technology in the classroom.

We have finally learned to say no when it comes to technology, unless it’s going to be used effectively in our program and can be maintained and supported by the school.

It all started with one school ….

This story began with our founder, Tony, simply wanting to rebuild the small primary school in his ancestral village in Jaffna, in the North of Sri Lanka. Within 12 months, Partners in Micro-development was formed and a program for English and computer literacy for grade 1 and 2 students was running in 50 schools across the North and East of Sri Lanka. That was in 2004.

By 2007 the fragile ceasefire between the Government and the LTTE was coming apart and in May 2009 the war came to a brutal and tragic end. Yet in those early years we managed to build relationships with schools and teachers that last to this day. Looking back over the 16 years since, and all that has happened, any difference we have made has been mostly due to the hard work, commitment and perseverance of these teachers in remote village schools who carried on even as their world was torn apart by a brutal ethnic conflict and its aftermath.

This is also the story of how a small group of volunteers set out to make a change at the bottom of the pyramid. By any hard measures the numbers don’t stack up and yet we believe it has been well worthwhile. Reconciling these two perspectives is the point of this story and will be left to the judgement of the reader.

One of our biggest challenges has always been learning to say ‘No’ and in those early days we just kept saying ‘Yes’.  Through the years we learned many lessons. When we regrouped in 2010 and returned to start again our approach was very different, but one thing remains the same – we still find it incredibly difficult to say no!   

This story is written as a tribute to Tony’s vision and total commitment to help his people, the people of Sri Lanka. Tony led our organisation for 15 years and inspired all who met him, especially the teachers. He passed away in January 2019. We continue to work to fulfill his vision. The story continues.

Donna Vaughan

March 2021

Donna Vaughan is the current President of Partners in Micro-development. She has over twenty years experience in IT, project management and management consulting and has also taught development studies, political economy and public policy at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

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