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April 29, 2005

A Lesson In Community Spirit & Cooperation




By Catherine Leech, Travel and Tourism Consultant

I joined Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka a few days ago as a professional volunteer consultant for six months and yesterday was my first experience in the field, witnessing first hand Sarvodaya’s village movement and programme of post-Tsunami rebuilding and rehabilitation. We were to lay the ceremonial foundation stones for 200 new homes, a pre-school and community centre to replace an entire village which lost 48 people and all of its buildings.

As I stepped out of the car, the expressions of hope and joy on the faces of so many men, women and children from the Tsunami-impacted village of Vaddavan were my first and overwhelming indication that I was about to witness and share in something special. The day was long, hot and tiring but I would not have missed it for the world.

The bright colours of the traditional sarees, the immaculately uniformed schoolchildren, young pre-school kids playing musical instruments with faces intent with concentration, the heady scents of garlands of jasmine and incense and the richness of the Hindu ceremony were assaulted my senses and helped to imprint this day in my soul.

The founder of Sarvodaya, Dr.A.T. Ariyaratne, first came to this village over 45 years ago – this was an especially significant day for him. The Executive Director, Dr Vinya Ariyaratne and a small team from Sarvodaya’s HQ and district office were there too together with Mr.Christopher Temt, from IICP, Austria – his organization is facilitating the rebuilding of this and two other villages destroyed by the Tsunami.


Vaddavan is a small Tamil village on the east coast of Sri Lanka in the Batticaloa district in the Eastern Province, itself impacted during many years of armed conflict between government forces and LTTE. It has been a Sarvodaya village for over 20 years. Fishing was the commercial backbone of Vaddavan and, as in all Sarvodaya villages, there was a thriving self-governing community, school and pre-school, women’s movement and community health services.

Vaddavan East was a fishing community right on the lagoon edge; post-Tsunami, nothing remains except the surviving village families who are now accommodated in temporary dwellings. Vaddavan West was relatively unaffected physically but many buildings need reconstruction and repair and then there is the incalculable challenge of working with the villagers from East and West to help them rebuild their lives and community.


The temporary village for Vaddavan East’s homeless was established swiftly by Sarvodaya together with IOM, Oxfam and the UNHCR. Children’s schooling has been able to continue and, whilst conditions are harsh, there is food and water and the community structure of self-governance has prevailed. All of the agencies were present yesterday in a spirit of cooperation.


As in all Sarvodaya’s work, a consultative process within the village and Sarvodaya’s team of technicians and external donors, has resulted in the foundations of the new village to replace Vaddavan East (some 200 metres from the sea now) and repairs to the relatively unscathed Vaddavan West. Designs are sensitive to the cultural traditions and include the all-important community centres and school buildings which are central to Sarvodaya village life.

During our few hours there, several from the village pored over the plans in more detail and final adjustments are being made – and budgets adjusted! I saw first-hand Sarvodaya’s philosophy of self-help and self-governance with a support network as required.

The new homes should be completed in six months and all of us recognised the need to ensure that work progresses each day to fulfil the hopes and expectations written on everyone’s faces.


This Tamil village is one of three in the eastern province of Batticaloa which a group of Austrian donors have earmarked together with Sarvodaya to be rebuilt. One is Tamil, one is Sinhalese and one Muslim – a simultaneous programme is being developed to encourage inter-village cooperation, sharing and learning in the Sarvodaya spirit of peace and reconciliation.

I found the day’s lack of politics (with the exception of one speech) refreshing but it was the Sarvodaya spirit of community, self-help and progress which will stay with me.

Thank you to the people of Vaddavan for sharing your special day.

Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement for the People in Need.