By Dayan Jayatilleka –
I didn’t need a map to get there. Elmo had helpfully sent a Google Earth graphic together with the invitation. The location was St Sebastian’s College, Moratuwa, just off the road down which my maternal grandparents had lived. Captain Elmo Jayawardena, aviator, master mentor of pilots, award winning writer, is Moratuwa’s Hemingway or more accurately, the Hemingway that Moratuwa produced for Sri Lanka. This time it wasn’t about his books, though. The man does more than fly planes and write fiction. Thanks also perhaps to his amazing wife Dil, he also helps people, as the head of a charity known as CandleAid.
I had seen some of it on April 28th, when I was invited to speak at Peter’s College, Colombo, at the graduation of a group of students who had completed a course in the English language. I should say a large group of students, because my wife Sanja and I had expected a few dozen when we got there on a busy morning on our way for the anti-hate speech Rally for Unityopposite the Nelum Pokuna. Instead, one of the auditoriums at St Peter’s was full. The teachers that CandleAid had tapped for the course weren’t those who gave tuition in spoken English. One was a respected young academic and writer, Dr Vivimarie VanderPoorten. In my remarks I said that having lived as long as I have and having visited around thirty countries, I have concluded that the most significant difference in terms of life chances, is not that of poverty or the place you come from, but the dividing line between those who were proficient in an international language (or whose mother tongue was one such) and those who were not. CandleAid had opened up the doors of another destiny for a batch of youngsters and would continue to do so.
One might have thought that this was achievement enough for CandleAid, but to assume that is not to know Elmo and Dil Jayawardena (though one is never sure that their names should be listed in that sequence). Yesterday, Tuesday May 14th 2014, they, their organisers, partners, well-wishers and friends pulled off a miracle.
I do not use the term miracle loosely. When the event they had organised was over, the thought that rose into my head was of a paradigmatic miracle said to have been performed by Jesus, when he told Lazarus to take up his bed and walk. Of course Lazarus had died, which put the Nazarene carpenter some considerable altitude above the Moratuwite aviator. It had been proclaimed that Jesus would make the lame walk, the deaf hear and give eyesight to the blind and it was attested that Jesus had indeed done so during his ministry.
Cuba’s volunteer pedagogues not only teach literacy in many countries but their doctors perform restorative eye surgery for the poor. In a deed that will surely be blessed as a shining example of the humanistic and humanitarian ethics of the Cuban revolution – which should have been the ethics of socialism—Mario Teran, the Sergeant of the Bolivian Army who drunkenly, and on orders from those higher up, fired the bullets that murdered the captive Che Guevara, had his failing eyesight restored by Cuban doctors. Such ethics are sadly an exception as social systems go.
Here in Sri Lanka with its increasingly parasitic and predatory ethos, it is itself a miracle that anything remotely resembling that exercise would be organized by private citizens; by civil society volunteers.
What CandleAid did on May 14th at St Sebastian’s College was to teach disabled children, most significantly, visually impaired children, to swim. We saw it happen. At the heart of the thing, it was all about the children; dozens of them in clean uniforms escorted by their more fortunate peers; a young boy spoke at the podium of his gratitude for the chance of learning to swim and a young girl spoke in sign, excited at the prospect of competing and even winning at an event someday in the future.
And then the moment of the miracle, when they arrived in their swimming gear, and coached by a wonderful woman, slipped into the swimming pool and made their way across to the other side. It was as close as human beings can come to making a miracle happen.
The pool at St. Sebastian’s college was donated by CandleAid in the aftermath of the Tsunami, when it was discovered that most people drowned due to their inability to swim. In a programme named “Swim for Safety”, the brain child of yet another member of the Jayawardena family, Mevan, CandleAid has trained over 5000 young people to swim since they commenced the programme in 2007.
This year, the programme was extended to include visually, hearing and speech impaired children to swim, in a programme called DAS (Differently Abled Swimmers). This is what commenced on the 14th of May at the pool at St. Sebastian’s. Sameera de Silva, the 26 year old volunteer who runs the programme for CandleAid, had organised the event flawlessly. There were no politicians and no religious rituals. The short speech by the priest who is the school’s head, wasn’t the opening address of the evening.
The Chief Guest at the CandleAid event was the most distinguished of Sri Lankans alive today, Judge CG Weeramantry, whose immediately post-war advice that Sri Lanka’s victorious leadership be inspired by the sagacious generosity of spirit of the post-WWII Marshall Plan rather than that of the spitefulness of post-WW I Treaty of Versailles, was ignored (if it had ever been read), to our collective cost. His gracious and elegant wife Rosemary was, as Elmo reminded his listeners, from the neighbourhood, Uyana, Moratuwa. Dignified and yet deeply engaged, Judge Weeramantry said that what was fundamentally wrong with the world was that those who were more fortunate, better endowed, did not care, or care enough, or even if they did, did not do anything about, the less fortunate. He said that by its deeds, CandleAid had by contrast, lit a little candle that should shine throughout the world.