The Sinhalese of Reason

16 Mar

This is the story of Kasun, a young boy who lived in one of the many villages which dot Sri Lanka’s splendid coastline, and how he came to attend a special school. As Karma would have it–perhaps retribution for bad deeds caused in a past life such as the killing of animals, the stealing of things, the sexual infidelities, the telling of lies, or the drinking of alcohol, all of which are strictly prohibited according to the daily Buddhist prayers–he was born deaf.

For more than ten years, he grew up in his village without meaningful access to language. Despite the hardships of being unable to hear–or perhaps in spite of it–Kasun learned the art of tenacity and became a popular boy among his peers, taking charge of pick-up cricket matches or foot races.

Then the waves came and washed away Kasun’s village. Dozens of people he knew lay dead, half-buried in the sands along with flip-flops, clothes, and toys. He was moved to a tsunami village high atop a hill a few kilometers east of Dondra, where a white lighthouse marks Sri Lanka’s southmost point.

For two years his family would live in a makeshift home that almost any tsunami survivor will be familiar with–a small plot of flat concrete with corrugated metal forming the walls and roof, with an interior wall or two forming two rooms. Many families would add a third room–an exterior kitchen–in the following months, not to simply have more space, but because they had wood-fire stoves and it was always safer to keep those away from the main dwelling, something many NGO-employed house planners failed to realize.

Thousands of people continue to live in homes like this today, nearly two years and three months after the waves came.

In the months immediately following the tsunami, Kasun and his forever-changed village were visited by one NGO volunteer after another, delivering clothes, rice, toys, shoes, playground equipment, art supplies, home decorations, and more as victims’ needs slowly transformed from food and shelter to more intangible emotional needs such as security, well-being, and self-importance.

The boy caught one of these volunteers’ eyes, Heather. Even as she worked to help hundreds of victims in several camps between Kalutara and Tangalla, and set up a women’s bag-making workshop to distribute “Suba Ude”-branded bags worldwide, she never forgot that deaf boy living in that tsunami camp a few kilometers east of Dondra.

And so when Heather returned to Sri Lanka last December, she would ask a volunteer at the deaf school in nearby Matara if he could help Kasun–by then, twelve, and just mastering the art of copying meaningless Sinhalese characters and Arabic numerals in his exercise books at Gandara Maha Kanitu Viduhala in Kudawella–change schools and have a real chance at changing the world.

This volunteer, named Adam, was not the best project manager in the South. He had been asked to do many things, such as teach weekly English workshops for the deaf association, create a VCD of videos taken of the school children, train deaf people in using computers, write a guide for mainstreaming deaf children in international English-medium schools, directing and publishing a sign language dictionary, programming a school website, or spearheading the creation of a deaf festival on the school grounds.

Some he would flatly decline, some he would plainly forget, other projects he would delay until the next school holiday when there was more time, and others he incorporated into his daily schedule–always in the afternoons because the early mornings until 2:00 PM daily on weekdays were always reserved for the school–Monday, teach Lakmal English, Tuesday, practice yoga with the children, Wednesday, teach Amila, Lakmal, and Ajith computer skills, and Friday, more yoga practice.

However, when Heather took Adam and Akalanka, a bubbly Sinhala-English translator who was a biochemistry–or something like it–major at University of Colombo, to Kasun’s village, that one a few kilometers east of Dondra, Adam was moved by the sight of a deaf boy–barely a teenager–with far more courage than his peers as he led white (!!) people around his ad hoc home and village, but lacking any external language whatsoever.

To test his faculties, he signed fluently in Sinhala to Kasun. Kasun attempted to mime his signs and nod in feigned understanding; to the hearing person, it would appear that Kasun understood everything, but to the deaf person–or at least one steeped in sign language–it was like talking into a mirror whose reflection moved a little slower, a little more tentatively.

And when Adam read his exercise books, he noticed the same mirror quality; Kasun had become an expert at copying Sinhalese words over and over by pencil. However, he could not identify one character or word–and of course, how could he? He wasn’t told what the difference between a kayanna and a iayanna was, or what mala and gasa meant.

So when it was time for Heather to leave, Adam swore that Kasun was one ball, one project he would not drop. Kasun was a special boy, and only a special school would do. And what better than the Rohana Special School, which was slowly becoming the best special school in Sri Lanka?

The following ensued: Heather left. Akalanka takes on the role of acting as intermediary, translator, and relay services for the deaf operator between Adam and Kasun’s family. Adam asks van driver to go up the hill to village. Van driver refuses; hill is too high. Kasun’s mother refuses to let Kasun walk down hill. Kasun’s aunt cannot walk Kasun down the hill; she is too frail. Adam offers van driver more cash. Van driver says okay. A start date is arranged. Van arrives. Kasun refuses to go into van; he is scared. Entire plan is scrapped. Two weeks pass. Adam asks Kasun’s mother if she will try again; this time, Adam will personally be there to help Kasun get into the van to school. Kasun’s mother says okay. Adam approaches the Rohana principal for permission. The Rohana principal says a birth certificate is needed to enroll Kasun in the special school. Adam asks Kasun’s mother for birth certificate. Kasun’s mother goes to the principal of Kasun’s current school to ask for birth certificate. Principal refuses to give Kasun’s mother the certificate. Adam is shocked. Adam asks for the name of the school. Kasun’s mother gives it. Adam gives the name to the Rohana principal and asks if the phone number could be found from some government dictionary. A few days later, the Rohana principal says the phone number could not be found. Adam asks Kasun’s mother to go back to the school and find out the phone number. Kasun’s mother reports that the school has no telephone, and thus, no phone number. The principal of the current school says Kasun can transfer, but he can never come back to his old school. Adam is concerned about this because he wants Kasun to have a safety net should the transfer to Rohana ultimately fail. Adam asks the Rohana principal if it is okay to admit Kasun knowing that he can never go back to his old school. The Rohana principal says what the other principal says is illegal, but not to worry about it. Success! Adam asks Akalanka to contact van driver. Can he pick up Kasun at the top of the hill every day at 6:30 AM for Rs. 1300/= per month? Akalanka confirms this. Adam tells Kasun’s mother to prepare Kasun for his first day of school at Rohana. Adam buys eight new exercise books, six new pens, three new pencils, two erasers, a compass and protractor, and a pencil case. Adam and Ginette–the new New Zealander volunteer with a knack for rapid-firing transformative ideas and disarming hostile hostel matrons–get into a three-wheeler on Monday morning at 5:30 AM. They buy 12 fish buns for Kasun’s family. They arrive at Kasun’s village at 6:15. Kasun’s family has moved into a brand-new home. There appears to be 15 people living in a two-room house. They drink tea. Kasun, Kasun’s mother, Adam, and Ginette sit outside anticipating the van at 6:30. 6:50 and the van still has not arrived. The four of them pile into a different three-wheeler and ride the 10 kilometers to school. Kasun is very shy and will not leave his mother’s or Adam’s side. The van driver is also at the school. Ginette and Kasun’s mother talk to van driver. Van driver says he cannot pick up Kasun at all; he has no time in the morning to add another student. None of them have any idea how to find another van driver. The Rohana principal is not there; the vice-principal is unsurprisingly unhelpful. The teachers are wary of accepting an almost-13-year-old student with nonexistent language skills. “He cannot learn,” they say. Finally, Kasun is placed in Grade 1. Kasun’s mother says she is waiting for the government to issue a new birth certificate because the principal of the old school will not hand it over, and the vice-principal says it is okay to have Kasun in the school for now. Kasun attends class, but he keeps walking outside to find his mother who is sitting outside nearby. Kasun learns how to sign the first four letters of the Sinhalese alphabet. Adam leaves Kasun to his work and approaches the mother again. Mother speaks, but Adam cannot understand her. Damayanthi. the girls’ head matron, comes over to interpret. They discuss the van driver. Soon, Adam realizes that the van driver has no time to pick up Kasun because he doesn’t want to go up the hill. Adam asks Kasun’s mother if one of the village boys can walk Kasun down the hill. The mother says yes, and calls the van driver to confirm. Van driver says he will pick up Kasun daily at the bottom of the hill. Kasun looks overwhelmed by the four letters. Adam takes Kasun outside to play on the swings and teaches him the signs for tree, grass, rock, flower, motorbike, bicycle, car, school. Kasun drinks it all up. Kasun returns to class feeling refreshed. Adam talks to Kasun’s mother some more, with Damayanthi interpreting, and teaches her about ten signs. They discuss how the van driver will be paid; Kasun’s mother will pay Rs. 300/= per month, while Adam (via Heather) will put in Rs. 1000/= per month. Kasun has no shoes, and the Grade 1 teacher says Kasun needs more school supplies, so Adam gives her a 1000-rupee bill to buy shoes and supplies. Grade 1 and 2 ends at 11:30, and Kasun and his mother leave school by public bus. Tuesday morning, Adam stands with the students, worrying if Kasun will show up by van. Van pulls up and lets out Pubodha, Yeshanthi, Dilupi, and finally, Kasun. He is wearing a pair of brand-new black shoes. The Rohana principal is here. He says Kasun’s mother absolutely needs to give the birth certificate to him before Kasun can keep attending school. Adam does not want Kasun to skip Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday just because the birth certificate is a little late. Suddenly, Kasun’s mother shows up, with birth certificate in hand that she has managed to extract from the old school principal’s selfish hands. Kasun’s name and admission number is immediately entered into the Grade 1 attendance book. Kasun is now the newest student of the Rohana Special School. Kasun learns three more letters, and a few more signs. His learning continues unabated. He plays carom with Damith later that day, and makes his first friends.

Is it perhaps poetic that in the very same week Kasun began school, the Rohana community saw off its very first alumna to attend university? Samantha graduated from Rohana a few years ago, and passed her O/L’s and A/L’s with enough qualifying marks to attend teacher’s college for two years. Two years ago, she became the first and only deaf teacher at the school. And in that week in March, Samantha bid farewell to her community to attend the University of Colombo, studying both demography and Sinhala. It was a difficult farewell for everybody, perhaps most for Mr. Abeygunawardana, the principal, who saw Samantha like a daughter and was moved to tears as he pondered the stupefying, stunning achievement–university!!–of one of his pupils.

The Rohana Special School is nearly fourty years old. Thousands have walked into and out of its gates, like any other school, but there is one difference. Special things happen there. Special stories have their beginnings, middles, and ends within the four walls that enclose the campus. Families find their miracles, and students find their inner voices. Volunteers find their altruism well-rewarded, and donors find their investments multiplied thousandfold.

It is a special place–in all the meanings of that word. And Kasun and Samantha, at opposite but equal ends of their education life-cycles, both know it.

11 Responses to “The Sinhalese of Reason”

  1. Carrie Gellibrand 16. Mar, 2007 at 10:37 pm #

    Simply breathtaking. Thank you for this special story. I am sure there are more like it and I hope to read more in the future. :)

  2. sophie 17. Mar, 2007 at 2:41 am #

    Wow.. What an amazing story Adam, and i was so pleased Lakmal is still coming to school to learn english and computers. Big love to everyone there…There’s no doubt about it, i am coming back- and soon, please let me know when you are leaving as want to make sure we meet!
    x x x

  3. AdamzDad 17. Mar, 2007 at 4:00 am #

    It IS “a special place”…and you’re a very special man. What an outstanding tale, in both style and content.

    Also, I’m not sure the English language has ever seen “hostile” and “hostel” strung together. Terrific phrasing throughout.

  4. Bobby 17. Mar, 2007 at 5:31 am #

    Love how you wrote this in the third person =) You are doing amazing things, Adam! Changing the world, one person at a time, to pull out a tired cliche.

    You now have a duty to keep your fascinated readers informed about Kasun! Language acquisition? Acculturation? Do tell….

  5. AdamzSis 17. Mar, 2007 at 5:46 am #

    This is a very moving piece. I remember you telling me about Kasun when I visited Sri Lanka and how Heather found him and wanted you to meet him. This is a good “gathering its momentum” story as it’s obviously about timing and I’m so proud of you for believing in him. Dad’s right, you’re a special guy. And Rohana too. You continue to inspire me.


    P.S. Great news about Samantha! Even though school is missing a wonderful deaf teacher, it will actually benefit for having its first alumna diving into the bigger pond.

  6. Debbie 19. Mar, 2007 at 4:27 am #

    Great reading this, Adam. Thank you. Am getting a glimpse of your life and experiences, truely remarkable, unique, life changing! What next for you? I hope you will eventually share as much as possible with as many people, as in write a book! AS Liz says, very inspirational!

  7. I_C_Voices 20. Mar, 2007 at 5:34 am #

    Adam.. WONDERFUL message – what you are doing is so important!

    Can you post the exchange rate for Sri Lanka rupees to American dollars?

    Also, is it possible for foreigners to send a few dollars to support the work you are doing? I would love to do that directly, rather than through an Agency…

  8. adamzdad 21. Mar, 2007 at 6:49 pm #

    Hey I_C_Voices (great label) – 1,000 Sri Lanka rupees = $9.10

    Go to Google on your browser and type in “1,000 Sri Lanka rupees in dollars” and the answer appears. In fact, type in ANYthing, whether inches, ounces, pecks, or currencies, in this way, and Google gives you the conversion answer. Enjoy.

  9. Jen 22. Mar, 2007 at 2:57 am #

    Hey Adam,
    I was amazed with the quantity and quality of the work you accomplished while I was with you in Matara and I am no less impressed now. It is not surprising that a caring and competent person in almost any environment with their eyes open will find no lack of projects to occupy their time. Hopefully you can attract another few volunteers over to join the amassing forces of good. I’m glad you posted this story, and I’m glad your efforts, while encountering resistance and frustration, meet success. We all drop a few balls now and again, but rarely do we get the opportunity to make a lasting impact on someone’s life – something I have witnessed you do on numerous occasions.

  10. Jesse 22. Mar, 2007 at 7:11 am #

    Hey!! What you’re doing in Sri Lanka is AMAZING! I think about Sri Lanka all the time, because I was there when the tsunami hit. I also think about the deaf school in Lhasa, Tibet that I visited. There were so many children there that touched me, and it was hard leaving knowing that I won’t be able to make an impact on them (the hearing Chinese staff wouldn’t let me volunteer there).

    Keep up what you’re doing, and I’m looking forward to talking in depth with you about your experiences in Sri Lanka.

    How long are you staying there??

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