(this program was held in September)
The journey to Puttalam took us through heavy monsoon rains and into dry rural-lands. In the van were several Shanti Sena (“Peace Brigade”) staff and two Israelis, Yaara and Oriah, who were working with Sarvodaya. Narrow roads and lush greenery, green despite the dry season, extended in all directions. I was nervous and excited – I was to observe Sarvodaya’s Youth Exchange program, which brings together youth (age 18-25) from Tamil and Sinhalese areas to build relationships and dispel stereotypes.
I was impressed by this program. Around 120 Tamil and Sinhalese youth arrived to this small village in Puttalam, and each Tamil was paired with a Sinhalese to be living together in a homestay arrangement. The villagers – including the local administration of this Sarvodaya Society – planned everything. They prepared the food, hosted the participants, and joined and coordinated the Shramadana. This strategy demonstrated the philosophy of Sarvodaya: the utilization of local resources for Sarvodaya projects.
At first, the discomfort between the Tamil and Sinhalese was tangible. Communication was strained, since the Tamils spoke Tamil and the Sinhalese spoke Sinhala. English, supplemented with body language, was the most effective communication medium. So here I was, watching as these youth struggled to find the right words to communicate to their peers. During cooperative assignments notebooks and dictionaries were brought out, scribbled in and gestured towards. I walked between them in fascination.
During the second day, Ravi, the director of Shanti Sena, led a group meditation. The participants were once again paired up with each other and brought to sit face-to-face. Closing their eyes and gently holding each other’s hands, the participants were guided through a simple metta (loving-kindness) meditation, focusing on their breath to calm their minds and feel the presence of the other.
No translation was available to me immediately, but I spoke with Ravi later to understand the meaning of the meditation:
Breathe in, breathe out; the air we breathe is the same.
The blood in our veins is the same.
We may say we are Sinhala or Tamil, but are we not the same?
A simple idea with monumental significance. When we are born we have no name, language, race, ethnicity, caste, religion. If we are completely separated from our environment, would it make a difference who our parents are or what country we were born in? Let us return to this basic idea and begin here when we consider any conflict.
The exchange program continued with Sarvodaya’s powerful Shramadana. Dr. A.T. Ariyaratna organized the first shramadana in a small, poor village in 1958. The inhabitants of the village were of the lowest caste; birth into this caste meant a life of degradation and abuse, subject to the worst conditions of living where begging is the only acceptable form of livelihood. Dr. Ariyaratne, then a school teacher, took his students to this village for an “educational experiment,” not knowing that it would soon snowball into a revolutionary movement. Shramadana, “the gift of labor,” meant that everyone worked together to accomplish local tasks, such as building latrines, wells, schools, playgrounds, etc. The significance of caste and social status faded away as sweat and effort were expended. Humanity could flourish in the work camp where determination, effort, good-will and altruism were far more descriptive than their “prescribed” identity. The entire village participated and gave what they could to accomplish the tasks at hand. Some donated food, some water, others labor and other essentials, like tools for road construction.
And before my eyes I saw this program in contemporary form. Most of participants of this Shramadana were not from this village, yet they were donating their time and effort to it. Tamil and Sinhalese were laughing and busily working to construct a road that would connect this village to the nearest Christian church and its village. When I first wrapped my hands around a shovel and began working, I was a spectacle. Several of the young villagers were laughing at me – at my “funny technique”. They kindly taught me how to use their shovels properly. As the blisters in my hands slowly ripened to maturity, my presence drew less and less attention and I felt closer to my peers. I could only imagine the impact this would have over a longer period.
After three days it was time to part. The Tamil and Sinhalese said their goodbyes and many cried as they embraced. In a flurry of motion and emotion the buses were loaded. After ten minutes there was a sudden silence: in the past days the village came to life with action as all shared meals, discussions, labor, and culture. This was the first event held in such a humble village, and the first time (for many) to meet a Sinhalese or Tamil.
To say that lessons were learned is an understatement. The impact of this program was palpable and it will, no doubt, continue to shape the youth of the nation.