A new place to learn
BATTICALOA, 19 September 2007 - Nirushan was only five years old when the tsunami swept through his village, but he remembers it well. “I was playing with my friends in the next-door neighbour’s house when I heard some people shouting. They were shouting that we should run. So we looked outside and saw the wave and we all started to run. We ran for half a kilometre, and the wave didn’t reach us. When we got to the main road we jumped on a bus. Everyone was okay.”
Now eight, Nirushan, a small boy, eager to converse, is taking a religious studies lesson at the newly completed Peryiathambipillai Vadyalaya school in the Batticaloa District on Sri Lanka’s east coast. The school’s deputy principal, T Nadarajah, says the old building was completely destroyed by the tsunami. “Nothing was left, only the foundation and a few pillars.”
10-year-old Anuya also remembers running from the tsunami. She was helping her mother and father in the garden at the time. Like all her fellow villagers, mainly fishermen and farm labourers, she and her family escaped unscathed.
Despite the destruction, the teachers managed to start classes again when the next school term started. For a few months they taught under tarpaulins. Then a temporary, open-sided structure with a tin roof was built. For the following one and half years, five classes were held together under the tin roof. “It was really hot,” Anuya says, “and it was very distracting.” Quite a few parents didn’t send their children to school during this period because of the difficult conditions.
Since May, the situation has changed. A new school building, much larger and better equipped than the old school, was completed, with funding from UNICEF’s Swiss National Committee. The school is built round an open courtyard and has an assembly room and spacious classrooms, as well as a temple where children can say their prayers. Unlike the earlier building, it has toilets, with separate facilities for girls and boys.
The school lies in an area where most of the local people earn modest incomes from fishing and farming. As well as the tsunami, the locality has felt the affects of Sri Lanka’s ongoing conflict. A military presence is visible on the main road not far away, and the threat of child recruitment hangs over every family. Despite the difficulties, local parents are closely involved with the school every day, coming in to cook meals, using provisions supplied by the World Food Programme.
The school’s seven teachers are still collecting books for their new library, and they and the children would like to have computers to work with, but Anuya says the new school is much, much better than what they had before, and that’s she’s happy.
The staff are expecting school attendance to increase now the new school building is open. A large intake into the first grade is predicted for the next school year. But there are still some scary moments. Last week, a tsunami warning was given out after an undersea earthquake near Sumatra. Everyone immediately ran as far as the main road. No waves came this time, but no one felt like taking any chances.