Language is optional

Blog post by: Josh Clarke

Blog post by: Josh Clarke

Guest post by: Josh Clarke, based on his experiences as a volunteer with Volunteer Sri Lanka*

Communication: our ability to transfer ideas and beliefs is what defines and drives societies. It is when communication becomes difficult that groups can thrive or die. Things like fatigue and tiredness can make communication difficult; hunger or thirst, discomfort and loud noises can all make a group flounder. Coincidentally, all of the things that inhibit communication are prevalent on a fiercely independent, humid island in the Indian Ocean. An island that is still feeling the effects of a fierce civil war, incredible poverty and corruption: that island is Sri Lanka.

Upon arrival in Colombo two things hit you: the first is the incredible humidity. The second is the sound of unadulterated chaos. The traffic can only be described as laughable, and that is exactly what our 14 strong band of students did. We laughed. In our sleep deprived minds we thought that the throngs of mopeds and trucks weaving, screaming and crashing was deeply amusing; that was until we saw the police armed with Kalashnikovs at toll barriers, and armoured convoys pulled over at the side of the road. Sri Lanka has gone through incredible turmoil over the last 25 years. News reports and Wikipedia were all well and good but we hadn’t really realised what it meant in reality. Being unable to distinguish traffic police from army personnel was a wakeup call.

Sri Lanka is an enigma. After the infamous “Boxing Day” tsunami foreign aid and financial support flooded into the small nation, and it does show. New highways have replaced dilapidated and deeply concerning coastal roads. With sky scrapers towering up in Colombo and a developing tourist trade, Sri Lanka certainly looks the part. However, as clichéd as it may be, looks really can be deceiving. The funding appears to stop a few miles inland. As volunteers in the country, this was one of several issues we hoped to help address, to help those who had lost everything in the tsunami, and to whom the money should really have reached.

Ask Janaka
We were staying with a man named Janaka de Silva, who was unanimously known as ‘Don Janaka’ or, more ominously, ‘the Godfather’. Janaka lost both his parents to the turmoil after the tsunami hit, and since then has devoted his life and earnings with his family to help those who are in dire need. He has established a series of projects such as assisting teachers in a nursery, teaching children with severe learning difficulties or simply colouring with the elderly to bring a bit of fun to their otherwise very dull and uncomfortable lives. He is, without a shadow of a doubt, a most generous and caring person. If you have a problem then “ask Janaka”; want some currency converted? “ask Janaka”; want a SIM card that can call the UK? “ask Janaka”; want to know where to get the best pizza on the beach? “ask Janaka”; need to go to the hospital? “ask Janaka”. Janaka was the fount of all knowledge and all commodities. Just don’t ask where he gets stuff, or how he seemingly knows everyone! Perhaps the Godfather title was more apt than we first imagined.

Learning on the job
On day three after a weekend acclimatising, my first project was to head down to the elders’ home. This was a form of assisted living for those who had lost their family in the tsunami and needed help in the day-to-day, however this was very different from any assisted living group in the UK. I had absolutely no idea what to expect, so I was surprised to learn that a fair few spoke some broken English, although they seemed far more coherent when they realised you were dishing out biscuits.

  • Lesson 1 in communication: getting your point across is far easier when there is an incentive for others, in this case “Munchee Burbons”, a knock off of the venerable Bourbon chocolate biscuit.

As we were soon to find out, biscuits were far more important than we originally realised. The rest of the day was spent colouring with the women, as the men walked down to church. After a lunch of very hot curry, it was time for our main project that we would continue for the two weeks that we were in Sri Lanka: renovating and repainting classrooms for a local school. This was monotonous and often painful work, but fulfilling none-the-less. The real fun was to be had at the morning projects like the nursery.

Fortunately my second project was the nursery but I was utterly, woefully under-prepared. Chaos does not cover it. Hyperactive five year olds jabbering away in Sinhalese were a formidable task to take on. That was until we introduced the universal sign for “well done” – the high-five. At the end of each day at the nursery my hands were red raw from high-fiving hundreds of excited children. It was at this point that the volunteering trip suddenly came into perspective. Seeing a genuine joy from being spun around, tickled, and picked up and high-fived was incredible, all without a word understood by either party.

  • Lesson two of communication: keep it simple, keep it clear. Also, liberal use of high-fives cannot be underestimated.

Janaka’s flagship project is “the Bakery Girls Project”. In Sri Lanka, if a woman is sexually abused she is cast out from society by her family. She is considered a disgrace and quite literally shut away in gated communities. Men are not allowed in, but as I am a qualified first-aider I was granted special access with a few others to teach the girls some basic first aid. This caused much amusement. Teaching them CPR with the “little Anny” CPR doll resulted in them being unable to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation as they were completely incapacitated from giggling. It must have been quite a strange thing from their perspective.
The main point of the Bakery Girls Project is to provide vocational training for 17 and 18 year olds who are soon to have to rejoin normal society. They are taught some basic life-skills including English and how to be very good cooks, so they can support themselves in later life. I can personally testify to their baking skills as they often provided a lunch of bread rolls and various pastries. Watching them learn and progress was magical. It was the small differences we were making that were so rewarding. Even if it was teaching them how to ask for a knife and fork in English, or English words for local fruits, it was stunning. Through the small but constant progress, each lesson revealed a fantastic sense of humour. Ambitious drawings of both the volunteers and the girls were exchanged. This produced an unofficial competition to see who could draw the best impression of the other (see the picture of me above!).

  • Lesson three of communication: find common ground. An ability to relate, even from lives that are polar opposites, works wonders; even if it is just drawing very bad pictures.
  • Lesson four of communication: be flexible. There was a lot of trial and error as we tried to find ways of explaining what we were talking about. Demonstrating what a fork is worked up to a point but the breakthough was the humble whiteboard. Everyone could draw pictures and be involved.

At this point things took a downturn for me with a trip to hospital after a severe reaction to mosquito bites. On my return, I was given the luxury of choosing which projects I’d like to do. It was a no-brainer: off to the nursery I went. I sat down at one of the small colourful tables to lend a hand to some of the kids who were learning the English alphabet (at around age 5 I might add). I was immediately claimed as a throne for one of the children. He perched on my knee before thrusting a crayon into my hand and demanding I draw pictures of cats. This small child was called Pamadu and over the course of the next week I would become quite attached to the little hyperactive menace. We shared our love for cats through my pictures and his drawings, all without understanding a word either of us was saying. Then we decided that we’d done enough “work” and we should go out and play on the swings. This was to become a sort of routine for us, and we began to develop an un-spoken way of communicating using pointing, mime and of course, high-fives.

  • Lesson five of communication: language is optional. It is not needed to really connect with someone. If both parties are interested in what is going on, such as in this case, our mutual appreciation of cats, both can easily understand it without a word being exchanged.

The country was amazing, the climate indescribable, the people incredible, the sea warm and the beer cold. However, one of the things that I’ve taken away from Sri Lanka is that none of the aesthetics matter. On the surface it may bedysfunctional, but deep down there is real kindness. It is the people like Pamadu and Janaka that I’ll remember. Against all the odds they always managed to crack a smile, slap you on the back or show you yet another picture of a cat.

*About Volunteer Sr Lanka
Volunteer Sri Lanka (VSL) is based in Galle, Southern Sri Lanka. It is run and administrated by the De Silva family who lost relatives in the 2004 tsunami. VSL hosts multinational volunteers of all age ranges and all vocations: we had theatre nurses next to primary school teachers, even some volunteers had been through Syria a few weeks before our paths crossed. My team consisted of 14 students who raised in excess of £1000. This money is used to support the projects in-country over the course of the year. The projects VSL is involved with range from accompanying the elderly and tending to their care, rebuilding or renovating schools in the area, teaching at a local nursery, assisting in an orphanage (girls only), and helping out at a school for children with learning difficulties and mental illness. However those are only the projects that the team and I worked on. As needs change and the political climate shifts, other projects will become available and ones that we worked on will become more independent and will not need as much support from volunteers.

Fran Bodley-Scott

Fran is a business communications consultant specialising in customer and stakeholder relationship marketing. She started out in engineering and product development before moving into marketing and business development. Fran brings a blend of marketing experience, system thinking and creative design to client projects. She is a thought leader in applying marketing thinking inside the organisation and is passionate about improving business effectiveness and efficiency through relationship marketing.

If you are interested in talking with Fran about your project, please get in touch.