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East Coast Adventures in Ulla

Negotiating the roads in Sri Lanka is an art which I’m sure takes years to master. Instead of looking right, then left and finally right again; you move your head from side to side like a semi-automatic machine gun for the entire width of the road.

I learnt that getting off a Sri Lankan bus also requires a great deal of skill. A skill which I also have not yet mastered. The bus pulled in at Arugambay and just I was getting off I turned my ankle and landed in a crumpled heap in front of several giggling Sri Lankan tuk-tuk drivers. I have not only cracked the screen of my computer but also badly strained my left ankle.

Jeeva and I have made the long journey from the relatively cool 4,000 foot elevation of Community Friends’ tea estate project to the east coast beaches and fishing village of Ulla where Community Friends started its first humanitarian and micro-enterprise projects immediately following the December 2004 tsunami.

Our first night was interesting. Sri Lanka does not have your average city pest. In London, we have foxes which rip open the bins and squirrels which also steal the flowers from my mum’s plants. In the US you have raccoons and the odd Coyote or skunk which play similar roles. Sri Lanka has very few, if any of these animal street dwellers. In Trinconmallee for example they had deer that see the city as a safe haven. Deer! And all over Sri Lanka you have monkeys. Jeewa made the silly mistake of leaving his bedroom window open and in return the monkey left a present on the floor. ‘ Why couldn’t they use the toilet?!’ Jeeva exclaimed.

We went in the village of Ulla, just north of the last human dwelling before Yala National park where Jeewa works. We crossed the bridge, which has been newly built after being washed away by the tsunami. When Community Friends first came here, our volunteers crossed by boat until the bridge was rebuilt.

Our first stop in Ulla was the local school which was also destroyed by the tsunami and greatly helped by Community Friends. Where the climbing frames of the playground now stand, Jeewa told me that it was once a huge hole from where the tsunami wave had lifted the entire school building out to sea. The school is really, really beautiful and once again thriving. It is great seeing Sri Lankan kids on their way to school-all very keen to learn and better themselves. I do wish more of us would have that same attitude in the UK.

Ulla School

Just half an hour ago I was hobbling on my bad ankle along the lovely beach at Arugambay when four dogs saw myself as an easy target and started growling very nastily! I slapped my flip flops aggressively together and ran to the safety of the Sri Lankan fishermen. My humiliation turned out to be a good conversation starter. We talked for a while about the similarities between England and Arugambay of which there were not many before moving on to the more serious matter of the fishing. Again, due to the heavy rains recently there have been a scarce number of fish. Mohammed the captain of the boat said that at one point during February, the lack of fish meant that he and his men had barely anything to eat for a week. Tomorrow, they leave at 4 in the morning and I have been invited to go with them.

4 o’clock is very early! I went fishing today and understood what Mohammed meant about the lack of fish in the sea. The previous day he and his fellow fisherman Karim had dropped their nets and early this morning we went out to reel them in. Mohammed doesn’t have one of the traditional Catamarans as his, like most in Ulla, had been destroyed be the tsunami. He now uses a fibreglass boat donated by another NGO.

John, Mohammed & Karim

The main staple fish of the local area is called Sear fish which can weigh up to 15 pounds or so but these are becoming far rarer. This morning under a spectacular sunrise we only managed to catch one inedible fish in the whole 500 metre long net. I could see the disappointment in both Mohammed’s and Karim’s faces. They then brought out the mackerel lines which resulted in the catch of a dozen or so fish-barely enough to feed their own families.

As Community Friends discovered, even before the tsunami, Ulla’s economy did not provide adequate needs for the people here. This is why Community Friends initiated its first pilot projects, the rice-flour collective and the chilli-grinding collective. These are separate collectives using identical grinders otherwise you end up with spicy roti (bread)—not necessarily a bad thing. The objective of the collectives is to invest in women and seed micro-enterprise businesses.

Ruwanti & her sister

I met a good friend of Community Friends, a young woman named Ruwanti who is now 20 years old. Along with her mother they bring out the customary cup of tea and chat very openly about the tsunami in which they lost five family members. Ruwanti is quite the entrepreneur herself and she makes really gorgeous sculptures out of shells and ceramic pottery to sell at market. It is an example of the kind of resourcefulness and self-sufficient desire of the people of Ulla. I almost bought one of the sculptures but as they were so fragile and my past experience with a bus I decided it was too risky. Community Friends considered the possibility of exporting or distributing Ruwanti’s products; however, the fragile nature created challenges. There are so many challenges for these people, yet they seem relaxed with their lives.

John Ainger
Community Friends’ Intern




Meet up in Ulla!

When we first visited Sri Lanka, in January 2005 just after the tsunami, Carsten Henningsen carried hand drawn artwork created by Janet Reynoldson’s second and third graders. We had been strangers, but soon the artwork and letters were traveling back and forth between Portland and Eastern Sri Lanka and it wasn’t long before we considered each other friends.


Here is one such friend, Ruwanthi, holding up a letter from the States.
The letter she is holding reads as follows:

“Dear Miss Ruwanthi Kalpana and friends.

I am feeling sad because I read your letters and my eyes filled up with tears. I am very sorry for your losses. All of my hopes go to you. Maybe we could be pen pals. Do you know what that is? It’s when you only keep in contact by writing. That’s the “pen” part. I am very happy you survived and your sisters too. Did it hurt when you got tangled in the tree? What grade are you in? My dad is a friend of Carsten. I absolutely love the drawings you guys sent to us. How old are you? Because we probably won’t meet this is what I look like. I have short brown hair, brown eyes, dark pink lips and long eye lashes. What do you look like? What happened to your sisters? I am 9 years old, 10 next February. I will always help you in your troubles.

All hopes,
Rebecca Memminger Goodfriend”

During her eighth grade year at the Arbor School in Portland, Rebecca and all her classmates worked on yearlong study projects of their own choosing. Rebecca decided to do a photo essay on the topic of displacement in Sri Lanka and its impact on children. With the war in the area around Ulla over, it suddenly became possible for our whole family to travel somewhat freely together. So, we made plans to travel to Ulla and, it being so close to Christmas 2009, this happened to put us in Ulla for the fifth year anniversary of the tsunami.

Ruwanthi and her sister had both stayed close to Community Friends, since they had asked to join the first micro-enterprise that we formed in Ulla. This was the rice flour collective. Of course the war made it very difficult for us to communicate with Ulla between 2007 and 2009, so when we arrived for the family visit not much was known.

That first day in Ulla was exciting for all of us. I set out to look in on the collectives with Deva and Seevali, while Rebecca journeyed out with her sister Raela and mother Kathleen. These were her first moments shooting pictures around the community. After hearing the initial reports from the collectives, the three of us asked about some of the young entrepreneurs, so we could get some first hand accounts of how the program was working. One of the school kids volunteered to walk us around the village and show us where each person lived. As fate would have it, the first house that we visited was Ruwanthi’s. And who should we meet there but Rebecca, Raela and Kathleen!

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The two of them had found each other on their own and within a few short minutes made all the connections back to 2005. Ruwanthi was able to find Rebecca’s original letter which she showed to my amazed daughter. Somehow, the dream we had when we conceived of Community Friends, that we would build long term, direct relationships, with people whose names we know and vice versa, was suddenly realized before our eyes.


Thank you Rebecca and Ruwanthi – we are so proud of both of you!

Jay Goodfriend




Elephant Farming

The Women’s Cooperative Society that runs the flour collective is a recipient of the government’s assistance program providing discounted food rations, such as dried fish, rice, and sugar, to the poorest members of the village. Before Community Friends provided the flour grinding machine, the women in the collective had to grind the flour by hand.  They make roti, hoppers, string hoppers and pittu and sell to little restaurants in the village. The restaurants open at around 6:30 a.m. selling. to fisherman and other workers setting out for the day.


The women don’t make enough money from the collective to support their living expenses so they also work in the fields growing vegetables. This type of farming program is called Chaina Cultivation and has a long tradition in Sri Lanka. Government land is made available in the jungle at no cost. The jungle area is cleared by entrepreneurial villagers through field burning and then villagers grow vegetables which they sell at a farmer’s market in town. Everything is organic because they cannot afford chemical fertilizers or pesticides. The land is in rotation and after cultivation it is given a 6-month rest.   


One of the big problems with the farms in this area is the wild elephants which trample the gardens and cause mayhem. The villagers have built huts in trees where they take turns guarding the land 24 hours a day. If they see an elephant, the villagers light a “cracker” which is like a very large fire cracker or small explosive device. The loud sound scares the elephants. 

Deva Ratnakara




Blind Woman Helps To Manage Business

Latha’s mother, Abehami, is 75 and a widow. She helps with the chili grinding collective although she is blind and needs treatment for cataracts on both eyes. She opens up the room in her home where the equipment is housed and secures it in the evening, locking windows and covering up the chili grinding machine.

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She does not want to spend the money for cataract surgery because she feels that she will not live long. The medical care is actually free through the government’s socialized medical system. However, there would be some fees, transportation, food and housing costs of perhaps $250. She would have to travel to the capital city of Colombo or Kandy for the operation. This could be a 15 to 20 hour journey by bus and Abehami has never been far from her village. She seems content with her small contribution to the chili collective and she receives a small portion of the profits. 

Deva Ratnakara




Panama Women’s Cooperative Society

After finishing with Latha, we brought the Rice Flour grinding machine to Mr. Piyasena’s house in Panama. In the early days right after the tsunami, Community Friends staff had stayed in the town of Panama, which is about 10 km south of Ulla, while doing relief work in the Ulla/Arugam Bay area. During our stays there, we often were put up by a friend of Geeva’s named Geetha. Upon arriving at Mr. Piyasena’s house, we learned that he was away, so while we waited we decided to visit Geetha and say hello.

After exchanging news, we explained to Geetha what had happened with the collective in Ulla. That we had taken back the rice flour grinding machine and were looking for a new group who wanted to get into that business. Geetha was stunned. She said that she and a group of women in Panama had formed the Panama Women’s Cooperative Society. They worked together as a team and would find various businesses to get into. Currently, they had a baking business – making roti, pitu, string hoppers and this sort of thing. As a group, they had decided that their next step needed to be grinding their own flour, since their profits were being stifled by the high cost of ingredients.

Being both familiar to us and well established running a business, we felt this was a perfect match for the equipment in our possession. So we entered into a deal with them on the spot, ran over to Mr. Piyasena’s house, collected the grinder and within an hour the whole thing was concluded. Good luck ladies!

Jay Goodfriend




Update on Collectives

The war in the North and East of Sri Lanka made it difficult and very unsafe for Community Friends to visit the village of Ulla. Guerrilla attacks in the rural areas surrounding the town were happening regularly in 2008 and early 2009, catching farmers and other innocent victims in the brutal conflict between rebels and government forces. Kidnappings and political abductions also started cropping up in this region, with the most senseless of incidents occurring with the abduction of the head monk from a nearby Buddhist hermitage – who found himself in the hands of the Tamil Tigers deep inside the interior of Yala National Park.

Fortunately, this incident ended well – the monk found an opportunity to escape captivity and somehow found his way home. But our inability to visit the community due to this danger created an obvious gap for us in our relationship with the two collectives. This problem was made worse by the fact that the school principal, Mr. Piyasena, who had been instrumental in overseeing the two collectives, was transferred to the school in Pottuvil. So for nearly a year we went without any reports from Ulla about the state of the two collectives.

With the war ending in the summer of 2009, travel has once again become possible to the East. And so it was with this in mind that we came to Ulla in December of 2009.

Coming here to Ulla again, it is obvious that the community is rebounding in most ways. Schools are open, restaurants and hotels are flourishing, roads and infrastructure has been rebuilt and everyone is generally back to work. You see small children everywhere. Now trees, scrubs and other vegetation have rebounded as well, giving the impression that the soil has managed to shake off the layer of salt that was deposited by the tidal floods. Still, the question remaining for us was, what has become of the two collectives that we had set in motion.

Parents from the community had volunteered to act as mentors for each of these collectives. Each also had a designated spot where the grinding machines were to be housed. The expectation had been that the mentor would supervise the four or five teenage girls in the respective collectives, one with the mission of grinding rice into rice flour, the other with the purpose of creating chili power.

The rice flour collective was supervised by a local fisherman named Shanta. His work shack, a small space standing next to the school, was our first visit. Regrettably, we found that the collective under Shanta’s supervision was not running. After much discussion, we concluded that this collective was not a good candidate for additional support from CommunityFriends, so we effectively terminated this venture.

The chili power collective was supervised by a woman named Latha. She and the young women originally set up their work in a small house located in Ulla. After finishing with Shanta, we made our way to Latha’s house to see how things were going there.

Like Shanta, Latha was very surprised to see us. After serving us tea, we explained what had been happening since our last visit. The house she had been using for the work had become unusable – she had difficulty accessing the property and the electricity was too sporadic. So, for mostly practical reasons, she relocated the business to nearby Panama.

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There, the collective has been experiencing success. In fact, Latha’s group now nets 200-300 rupees/week ($2 to $3 USD) for each participant. These are:

Shamali, aged 17, student in Panama school
Nirosha, aged 29, Panama resident
Sabitha, aged 25, Panama resident
Abehami, aged 75, Latha’s mother

The five women feel that they now have a stable business and are looking to expand. They are now saving for a second grinding machine. Latha also wants them to go into rice flour grinding business. Good luck Latha and great job with your success so far!

Jay Goodfriend




War Impacts Relief Efforts

It has been two years now since we established the first collectives in Ulla village. Unfortunately the war has made access to the village impossible without a military escort. The risk has been too great for our staff and volunteers to visit Ulla. As soon as it is safe to return to the village we will have an update on the rice and chili collectives. Our staff is hoping to make the 8-hour journey in the next month or two.

Carsten Henningsen




No word from Ulla

Well, here I am again in Sri Lanka. I had come with the idea of visiting Ulla on this trip, but the situation with the war has become much worse. The road linking Ulla, in the East, with Kandy and the rest of the country, has been effectively closed by the military. Not only is it very difficult to get people through, but supplies, even critical supplies like fuel, are only sporadically allowed to pass through the checkpoints.

There have been bombings and abductions in the areas of the East, some points in fact very close to Ulla. The military appears to be running an operations in the hills around Ulla and in Yala National Park, where persistent harassment from the Tamil Tigers is keeping the area terrorized. What this means to Community Friends is that we have no access to the programs that are going on in Ulla and no word from the micro-entrepreneurships that are under way. So, for the time being, we will have to focus on our work in the tea plantation at Waitalawa.

Jay Goodfriend




Kicking off the ventures

We have now all come to Ulla. Today I traveled with Deva, Seevali and Geeva to the Ulla school to complete the work with the girls and officially start the ventures.




Meeting our micro-entrepreneurs

Today we met with the folks from Ulla. A group of six of them has arrived in Kandy. Being here in the city is evidently a challenge for these people from the East coast. Besides the transition from a small community of several thousand souls, the visit to Kandy is all the more unnerving for them with the heightened security everywhere in town.

Deva and Seevali have arranged for them to stay at a hostel that is available to travelers who come here to Kandy as part of a Buddhist pilgrimage to the Temple of the Tooth, a very famous Buddhist shrine here in Kandy. This hostel is quite basic, but this seems to the least of their concerns. In fact, they seem much more comfortable staying in doors, so we have to drag them out into town for a meal.

We are meeting in Kandy with them to do two things. One is to enter into contracts between Community Friends and the collectives. Both the principal and the mentors will sign for the collectives here in town (the girls will also sign when we arrive in Ulla next week). Then, we are planning to purchase the grinding machines from the distributor, who will also provide training for both operation and maintenance of the machines.

Jay Goodfriend