Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: Getting back to play

Mercy Corps staff creates, inaugurates playground at a camp for displaced Sri Lankan families

by Amy Ellingson

The morning cool was just burning off as we bundled into the van. The vehicle was already packed full of paint, rope, and various hand tools that by the end of the day would help create a play ground for over 60 children who live at the Komari camp for tsunami-displaced families.

Every seat occupied, sometimes twice-over, we traveled north with nearly all 11 co-workers from Mercy Corps field office in Pottuvil, Sri Lanka. Today, even the finance and administrative staff were going to get their hands dirty.

Our objective was to create a colorful playground from a dusty flat using nearly all local resources acquired by the community itself. Items such as palm tree trunks, beach sand, coconut husks, old bicycle wheels and tin cans were our inspiration. Leading the charge was Viji Krishnamoorthy, Mercy Corps' Program Manager who has a soft spot for such projects. Recently, Krishnamoorthy helped co-publish a book that details a variety of ways to transform Sri Lanka's everyday resources into a play haven for youngsters.

All over Sri Lanka, children's parks are a vital and much-loved source of community activity. When quizzing my co-workers about the importance of creating a space for children to come socialize and vent their energy, all of them remembered fondly their own neighborhood parks. "I wanted to go every day, but my mother would only take me once a week. I looked forward to that day all week," said Banu, Mercy Corps' secretary.

After the tsunami leveled the town of Komari, children have had only nightmares and a strange, new daily reality to occupy their thoughts. Recently schools have reopened, and a church has organized a couple of youth events, but the lack of a community playground has been a noticeable void.

"This park will help replace bad memories of tsunami or lost parents with new friends and good health," said Azmeth, a Mercy Corps Project Officer.

One local father who helped assemble the park over the course of the long, hot day rejoiced in a project that provided a "specific place for the children to play and have fun, not only for my family, but the whole community."

At last, as the hot sun started its downward spiral, the finishing touches were put on the brand-new play equipment -- not a moment too soon as the crowds of eager youth descended. Each section of the playground was monitored by a Mercy Corps staff or volunteer community member, explaining the rules to the particular game and doling out prizes to the participants.

It was mayhem in the best sense. Crowd favorites included a balance beam, a ball and hoop toss. one-handed pillow fight and the tree ladder race. Two cousins, Janosa and Sangeetha, ages 11 and 10 were ecstatic, raving that this was the "best park we've ever been to." Ten year-old Kinaharan agrees, saying that he especially loves the tree swing and can't wait to come back.

As dusk was settling into darkness, the final game was announced: the universal favorite, Tug Rope. After a close call between the women and girls of Komari camp and Mercy Corps women, it was time for the men to square off. This match-up pitted a group of burly men, seasoned from building over 100 shelters over the past few weeks, against a handful of relatively scrawny aid workers. I'll admit that my bets were cast early on.

Incredibly, when the tugging stopped, it was the Mercy Corps men who won the day. Laughing, Viji might have put it best: "Heart triumphs over brawn anytime."

It was an exhausting and exhilarating time for everyone, aid workers and displaced families alike. As we all dissipated into the gathering night, we couldn't wipe the grins off our faces, and you could hear laughter spread throughout the camp.

Amy Ellingson is a Private Funds Documentation Officer for Mercy Corps in Sri Lanka.