Tuesday 24th January 2006 was a day which marked a turning point in the lives of the many families in Balapitiya who were so devastated by the Tsunami wave when it struck their small fishing village on 26th December 2004. In the presence of the President and other dignitaries from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Dr A.T. Ariyaratne, Dr Vinya Ariyaratne and 150 villagers, the groundbreaking ceremony for the villageâ€™s new Community Arts and Cultural Centre took place.
Everywhere I looked as we prepared for the ceremony, welcomed our VIP guests, joined in the older childrenâ€™s Perahera welcoming procession and watched the wonderful traditional dance performances by pre-school children, there were smiles and a sense of hope etched on the faces of everyone.
This new facility, which should open this coming autumn, will provide the villagers with the opportunity to develop new skills, access preventative healthcare, communicate with others through a new telecommunications facility, grow their knowledge through a library and resource centre and, for the children, enjoy a new state-of-the-art playground and pre-school. It is one of five such multi-purpose community centres being constructed through the generosity of one of Sarvodayaâ€™s key post-Tsunami partners, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
This centre has a difference â€“ it will also provide an opportunity for the villagers to develop their own livelihoods and secure income to support their families. The centre will feature tuition for the children in traditional southern dance, drama and music with teachers, costumes, musical instruments and an open-air auditorium generously provided by Give to Asiaâ€™s Chefs without Borders Fund.
The children will give weekly dance and music performances to paying visitors â€“ and at the same time, the village women will have kitchen and restaurant facilities from which to provide traditional Sri Lankan food and drink and sell their handicrafts. The site is on the south west coast, directly on the main Galle Road which runs from Colombo to Galle – in easy striking distance of the popular tourist spots such as Hikkaduwa and Bentota.
This project is part of the Sarvodaya Community Tourism Initiative (CTI), a new development which aims â€˜to enhance sustainably the income and cultural value of Sarvodaya and its village communities at grassroots level by sharing our natural resources, village culture and vision with paying visitors from home and overseas who seek meaningful and enlightening experiencesâ€™. Experiences will include village home stays, interactive community centres in rural villages, â€˜Shramadana Weekendsâ€™ for companies to engage in team-building voluntary work alongside villagers to create a new facility such as a pre-school, a handicrafts vocational centre with a shop and restaurant and an eco-lodge.
The Balapitiya Arts and Cultural Centre was conceived by the community in a number of consultative meetings and, most importantly, it will be run by the community for the community. The CTI will provide assistance with marketing and training support. The sense of empowerment can already be sensed and there is a great spirit of â€˜one familyâ€™ developing within the various sectors of the community such as its youth, the elders, the Motherâ€™s Union.
The last words should be about the incredible children in Balapitiya â€“ on Saturday 21st January, the village held a Shramadana day to complete the clearance of the site before the contractors move in. Everyone donated their labour for the day â€“ and the children were not excluded. A four metre white canvas, 30 pots of poster paint and the simple theme of music, dance, drama were the tools â€“ and by lunchtime, children from the ages of 5 up to 14 had worked together to create a stunning mural. Parents were amazed that we didnâ€™t draw the pictures for them â€“ this was the childrenâ€™s mural and they did it all themselves. They were thrilled, proud and excited to be responsible for creating something so beautiful and it will be the centrepiece decorating the new Balapitiya Arts and Cultural Centre when it opens later this year.
To register your interest in the Community Tourism Initiative, please email [email protected]. We will keep you informed about our various projects as they develop and advise you when our website is open. We are still seeking funding for one or two of our projects â€“ please contact us if you are looking to support similar projects.
Catherine Leech, Community Tourism Initiative
25th January 2006