Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: New child-friendly schools provide stability five years after tsunami

News and Press Release
Originally published
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By Rob McBride

THIRAIMADU, Sri Lanka, 30 December 2009 - Dressed in homemade costumes to represent the different wild animals native to Sri Lanka, the children of Navalady Namahal Vidyalaya High School make a colourful and lively spectacle as they run through the final dress rehearsal of a play in the main hall. A crow, a deer and even a tortoise will all have a role to play in the performance.

Dressed as a mischievous fox, Sundaralingham Gnanasekaram, 10, has one of the most important roles, which he plays with enthusiasm. The performance is all the more remarkable when you consider the pain he has overcome to turn out to be the confident young person appearing on stage today.

Five years ago in the tsunami, he lost both of his parents as well as two younger siblings, leaving him with one older brother and sister to look after him. He counts himself lucky to be able to attend school.

"My brother and sister both work and they can support me to go to school," he said, taking a break from rehearsal and still in his costume and make-up. "So I want to do well, and in the future I will be able to support them."

A 'child-friendly' school

The school he attends, built with the support of UNICEF, still has an aura of newness about it. The original school at Thiraimadu on the nearby coast of eastern Sri Lanka was completely destroyed by the tsunami, claiming the lives of 119 children.

Kanakaratnam Chandra, a widow who works in the canteen at Palchenai High School in Kalkudah Zone, lost her sister in the tsunami and is now raising her sister's two children in addition to her own.

Now with 434 children enrolled here, teaching methods have been vastly improved, thanks to the adoption of child-friendly school (CFS) approaches.

"If the children first want to play before they study, then they should," explained Rajamahendran Indumathy, one of the teachers who has undergone training in CFS methods, supported by UNICEF. "And they learn a lot better," she added.

Multiple hardships

Further along the coast, at Palchenai High School in Kalkudah Zone, the staff and pupils have not only had to overcome the devastation of the tsunami, but have also been badly affected by the recent domestic conflict.

The teachers have become expert in spotting children still suffering psychosocial trauma and know the importance of a stable school life. "If the children stay at home, they might not get that much support," explained teacher Kanapathippillai Nagendran. "So it's good to keep them in school."

Studying attentively in class, Tharmaratnam Mahanaroj, 13, is enrolled here along with his elder brother Mathirupan, 15. For both boys, the anniversary of the tsunami is particularly hard, reminding them of the day they lost their mother.

"When we start lighting the candles, I sometimes cry and feel bad," admitted Mathirupan. "But we have to go ahead with our lives."

The fate of the survivors

Mahanaroj sits with their aunt, Kanakaratnam Chandra, outside their small house in one of the post-tsunami re-settlement areas dotted along the coast.

Ms. Chandra manages to earn enough money to support them and her own children by preparing lunches at the school. It is a burden she faces alone; her husband perished in the country's internal conflict in the early 1990s. In spite of it all, she remains resilient.

"It's a challenge but I have to accept it," she says

As significant as the hardships are in this part of Sri Lanka, so seems to be the determination to overcome them.