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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