Jessica Murphy - Care & Community in Sri Lanka
During summer 2015, I travelled to Sri Lanka with a group of 10 other people from sixth form. Originally, we were meant to travel to Nepal, but because of the earthquake happening so close to our departure, our destination was quickly changed to Sri Lanka. We had spent months fundraising, exams had finished, and we finally set off with plenty of mosquito repellent in hand.
Arrival in Sri Lanka
We arrived in Sri Lanka without knowing too much about the country. My first impression was of the chaotic driving from the airport – I’ve never heard so many horns! We got to our accommodation in one piece. It was just on the outskirts of Colombo, and we were pleasantly surprised; although the rooms were basic as we expected, they were big, and surrounded by gorgeous gardens with a big table outside for us to eat every night.
Care Placements in Sri Lanka
During the week, our group split into two so we could go to two different pre-schools and make the most of our time. On the Monday, we all went to both schools just to introduce ourselves and see what it was like. At both schools we had such warm welcomes! We were given gorgeous paper flower bouquets, and the children were all dressed up and singing songs for us.
Although the teachers didn’t speak the best English, communication wasn’t a problem and they were eager to learn more English, repeating words to make sure they’d heard correctly and then teaching them to the children. The kids were absolutely amazing, so well-behaved and cheeky and clever – we taught them ‘Ten green turtles’ to the tune of ‘Ten green bottles’, and by the end of our trip they knew it off by heart, just from singing it once a day.
The children were all from disadvantaged backgrounds – at the school I worked at, they had to pay daily to come to school, and it was sad on certain days when the children we’d gotten to know didn’t come in, as it meant their parents hadn’t earned enough to send them. Most of their parents had jobs like tuk tuk drivers or fishermen. At the other school, many of the children were orphans or had parents in prison, and so making them smile and bringing some fun into their day became even more important to us.
The children only came to school in the morning, and so during this time we’d spend all morning interacting with them. We’d start with songs like ‘Old McDonald’, which they found hilarious doing all the animal sounds, and ‘Heads, shoulders, knees, and toes’ which they knew extremely well and loved. After that we read them a story such as ‘We’re going on a bear hunt’. Sama, the head teacher (who was also the only teacher), would translate the main parts to them so they could learn new English words and understand the meaning behind the pictures.
My favourite activity to do with the children was arts & crafts. Projects Abroad provided us with loads of different materials, and we did crafts such as masks and crowns and paper chains. The kids called all of us ‘Teacher’ and would be shouting it as they ran around to get help or find the right colour of glitter, which they all adored. They wanted glitter every day!
Although the children all had cheeky moments where they’d run off and hide, Sama was so good with them. Despite being warned that corporal punishment was still allowed in Sri Lanka, we never witnessed any of this, as the children had a lot of respect for Sama and did as they were told. On our last day we had a little party for them with balloons and party hats, and it was so hard saying goodbye to them.
In the afternoons when the children had gone home, we painted the outside areas. We whitewashed the walls and then painted a mural, which we based on the ‘10 green turtles’ song and painted massive turtles with numbers on their shell to help the children learn their numbers. Although it was hard work, especially in the sun, it was so worth it to see the finished result and know that we’d left a lasting impression.
Weekend trips – and food!
On the weekends we had amazing trips. My personal favourite was to a turtle sanctuary right on the beach, where we learned about how important it was to look after the eggs and help them survive. We saw so much in our two-week project that there wouldn’t be room to write it all, from the incredible Temple of the Tooth in Kandy to the Millennium Elephant Foundation. Visiting the elephant foundation was a real bucket list moment and we got to wade into the river and wash an incredible 80 year old Indian elephant.
While on our trips we ate out at some lovely places, and had Sri Lanka’s finest curries! I’ve never had so much spicy food in my life, and I’m not going to lie, by the end of the two weeks I never wanted to see curry again! It was all delicious and well-cooked though, and it was an ongoing joke about what we could expect for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Impact on me
Leaving Sri Lanka was really sad, as I didn’t want the experience to end. Every single person I met was kind, welcoming, and immensely grateful for us helping them. They gave us food and gifts whenever they could despite us insisting it wasn’t necessary! The Projects Abroad staff went out of their way to make our stay so wonderful, even giving my friend some bracelets for her 18th birthday which she celebrated out in Sri Lanka, and organising music and speakers without us asking so we could have a little party.
I would go back without a doubt and wouldn’t change a thing about the experience, as we managed to fit so much into such a short space of time, and it’s made me realise just how lucky I am.
This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.