Notes from the Field

Hope for Resurgence of Sri Lanka’s North Rests on Education

May 11, 2011

On a recent trip to Sri Lanka, I traveled by car from Colombo to Jaffna, a journey of more than 10 hours, and I discovered a city that seemed quietly determined to move forward. Two years after the devastating civil war between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tigers ended, signs of the decades-long conflict are still omnipresent in Jaffna, the capital of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. Although the city’s significant landmarks are being rebuilt or rehabilitated, including Hindu temples and the revered Jaffna Public Library, many buildings remain gutted or severely pocked with bullet holes. Certain areas have not been cleared of unexploded land mines, leaving large swaths of land off-limits and thousands of families waiting to reclaim their homes and livelihoods. The strong Sri Lankan Army presence in the area gives an uneasy impression that this is not yet a society at peace. Some soldiers can be seen actively helping the mostly rural population rebuild their lives – I saw one driving a tractor with a group of farmers and another distributing cows in the middle of town – but most of the soldiers I saw were stationed on every other street corner, armed and alert.

Jaffna’s best schools were not immune to the war’s debilitating effect. Pictured here is Uduvil Girls’ School’s library, which the principal is anxious to rehabilitate. Photo by Wendy Rockett.

Not as immediately evident is Jaffna’s intellectual decline. Jaffna remains the cultural capital of Sri Lankan Tamils, but suffers from three decades of brain drain due to the war. One fourth of Sri Lankan Tamils currently live outside the country, concentrated in Canada, Great Britain, United States, and Australia.

Now, much hope for the resurgence of the region rests on their schools. Whereas for safety reasons, school hours were restricted to just a few hours a day during the height of the war, parents now are eager to send their children to school with an eye toward university education in India or the West, or a career in technology. As a result, proficiency in English in addition to the Tamil language is highly desired.

But the war has impacted the education system in unexpected ways. Aside from the depletion of resources and psychological effects from decades of war, Jaffna’s schools face a new set of challenges stemming from a dramatically altered socio-economic makeup. Since many of the prosperous and well-educated Tamils left, the student population at Jaffna’s elite schools is now disproportionally from poor, rural families. And, since Sri Lanka’s Tamil society is structured along the lines of the Hindu caste system, the presence of the lower classes at these schools is not without tension and conflict.

Such tensions add further complications to an already traumatized student body. For example, Uduvil Girls’ School has had up to 300 students (23 percent of its student body) displaced by the war. Nearby, 21 percent of St. John’s College and 10 percent of Jaffna College students board at the schools because they are – at least for the moment – homeless. J/Vigneswara College, which does not have a boarding facility, has 18 children without fathers and 19 without mothers. All the schools have teachers trained in trauma counseling.

The principal of St. John’s College, right, inside the semi-private school's boarding facility which boards 450 internally displaced students. Photo by Wendy Rockett.

Now that Jaffna has emerged out of decades-long isolation, educators are struggling to keep pace with a rapidly modernizing society. Located at the northernmost tip of the island nation, Jaffna was occupied by government forces early on in the war and cut off from the rest of the country by fighting in the region known as the Vanni, south of the Jaffna peninsula. Now that new roads and communications networks are being built that will connect the region to the rest of the country and the world, Jaffna’s schools and libraries are faced with quickly adapting to a student body newly enamored by the internet and mobile phones. One of the outcomes of this access to the outside world is exposure to a modern youth culture oftentimes at odds with traditional Tamil culture. Jaffna College’s principal Noel A. Vimalendran related his shock at seeing one of his normally shy students whip off his shirt in excitement while watching a recent ICC World Cup match – unusual behavior surely for the disciplined and immaculately uniformed students I observed in Jaffna’s classrooms.

The decline in reading habits is a lament repeated by teachers and librarians throughout Jaffna. The eight libraries I visited were largely empty. The most heart-wrenching visit was to the Jaffna Public Library. An architecturally significant and historic library that became known as one of the best in South Asia, the Jaffna Public Library epitomized the Tamil community’s deep reverence for learning. For example, all visitors to the library must remove their shoes at the door and walk barefoot through its halls, a custom more commonly reserved in Tamil culture for entering Hindu temples. Chief Librarian K. Thanabalasingham estimates that the library currently receives just 150 visitors daily, compared to the more than 1,000 people that used to visit each day before the original building was burned down during heightened ethnic tensions in 1981. Thanabalasingham cites the effects of war and the internet as reasons for the precipitous drop in visitors.

Despite these setbacks, the residents of Jaffna seem eager to put the past behind them and rebuild their community. As Reverend Gnana Ponrajah, principal of St. John’s College, a partially private school, told me, “We are encouraging our children and little by little it is improving.”

And, perhaps hope can be placed on the next generation. When asked if she likes living in Vavuniya, an ethnically mixed town at the edge of the Tamil heartland, Sinhala student Hirushi Amalsha Liyanage who recently moved from southern Sri Lanka, said, “I like Vavuniya because I like to speak Tamil and play with Tamils.”

The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia distributes more than 130,000 books a year to more than 1,200 institutions across Sri Lanka, including secondary schools, nongovernmental organizations, government agencies, public libraries, universities, and primary schools. The program strongly supports local efforts to create open access libraries and schools with rich resources for English-language development, and continues to assist areas that were devastated by the 2004 tsunami. Read more about Books for Asia.

Wendy Rockett is Books for Asia’s communications and outreach program officer. She can be reached at wrockett@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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