Udawalawe: A Rural Village in Transition

A case study on MJF Charitable Foundation run community-oriented projects in Udawalawe

Back in 2007, the rural community living in the village of Koul Ara, in close proximity to Udawalawe National Park in South Eastern Sri Lanka witnessed a reawakening in their village with the introduction of the groundbreaking Mankada pottery project by the MJF Charitable Foundation to train rural female folk in the art of producing unique pottery products of international fame. For a rural community that originally depended on brick making to earn a living, and later switched to the seasonal sugarcane farming, this novel pottery project gave a unique business model as much as the tools, training and guidance to earn a sustainable income.

The Mankada pottery project herald a new beginning for Udawalawe and the villages adjacent, for its success inspired the MJF Foundation to initiate several other self-sustainable projects of similar worth – the modern pre-school namely the Asirimath Iskole (School of Inspiration), paper bag upcycling project and cloth bag project –both cottage industries generating a steady flow of income for rural female who were hitherto languishing in abject poverty in want of dignified empowerment.

The MJF Charitable Foundation run projects in Udawalawe also have the underlying vision to supplement the national agenda on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through an integrated approach towards achieving, some of the key priorities therein, such as quality education, combating poverty, decent work and economic growth.

Anoma Jayaratne, a villager of Koul Ara for the past 30 years, vividly recollects the inception of the pottery project- the starting point of her life changing journey. One of the first individuals to have come on board, at the project commencement in 2007, Anoma recalls her encounter with the master potter Ajith Perera who informed her of the new venture and how, she got together with a few villagers to clear up the land to put up the Mankda Crafts Workshop. Today Anoma is seen as a role model in the village. She supervises all Dimah projects in Udawalawe- mainly the bulk tea bag upcycling project which was introduced to the village of Koul Ara in the latter half of 2016.

Following the introduction of the paper bag upcycling project to design and develop eco-friendly paper bags for Dilmah t-Lounges using bulk tea bags, Anoma received training. Having identified her own team – around 15 village housewives who could put in a few hours from their daily routine to the bulk bag manufacturing, Anoma, taught her team the basics she learnt during the training– from getting the right measurements to the art of cutting and pasting the bags and putting the final touches to create a beautiful end product. The women involved in the project are provided the resources and raw material – bulk tea bags, tools, etc., to manufacture the products, based on the orders they get.

As a part of her daily routine, Anoma goes from house to house, in the scooter she had bought investing her hard earned money, to see how her team members are progressing with the orders assigned to each of them; to help them if they face any difficulties and to ensure they are able to meet their targeted delivery date. At the point of collection, quality checks are done to detect the defects with instructions to her team members to re-work on the bags, if required.

Getting involved in the project was a life changing experience, Anoma says adding that the women involved now have the potential to earn around Rs.20,000 on average, per order.

“This came to me at a time when I was desperately in need of a steady income to support my husband and the two small kids. With the money I earned over the years, I was able to build my house, and invest in a motorbike. Growing up, I endured many hardships; working in sugarcane fields afterschool to earn an extra buck to support my family, and even giving up my education half way through Advanced Level after my mother’s death as I had to take care of my father who was sick. Earning one rupee was a huge deal for me, back in the day. The opportunities I got here gave me financial security and independence,” says a smiling Anoma.

“I never knew I would come this far. Now I have a good understanding of everything I do from starting a project to running it independently,” she adds.

While the upcycling project is aimed at empowering a group of rural women by providing them equal opportunities and sustainable income while increasing their employability, its underlying objective is to create a model individual who could in turn become a source of inspiration to the rest of the villagers and thereby effect a transformation in the village.

Motivated by Anoma’s success is Shriyani Priyadarshani – a 36 year old with three school going kids aged 6, 12 and 15 whose husband is a labourer. A committed member on Anoma’s team, Shriyani works around the clock to meet the deadlines, she says.

The first income she received working in the bag project was invested in buying a gold pendant for her daughter. The first ever piece of gold she ever bought on her own, informs and emotional Shriyani.

“This keeps me occupied. All this time I was just at home. I am happy that I can use my spare time to earn an additional income. I sometimes repay the installment for the tractor my husband bought,” she adds.

Few houses away from Shriyani’s residence you find the humble abode of the 34 year old, Upesksha Sandamali. In a quiet corner of her partially built home, you find her workspace– a rickety old chair and a study table belonging to her children which she uses while they are away at school. In the front part of the house is a storage room for bulk tea bags, raw material and the finished products. For Upeksha too, the paper project brings a supplementary income to what her husband earns working as a farmer.

“Before I got this, we used to borrow a lot from others, but now we don’t. Getting this income improved our living standard. I purchased a few household items; a gas cooker and a rice cooker with the money earned,” Upeksha explains.

“I wake up at 4 a.m. finish all my house work and be prepared to start the work after my kids go to school. Seeing the final products makes me happy- to know that I am able to make such quality products is rewarding. Lot of villagers inquire from me how they could get involved in this project,” says this young mother who anticipates on saving some money to complete the construction of her home, in time to come.

While several families in Koul Ara took to this innovative eco-friendly upcycling paper bag manufacturing project, those in the village of Thimbolketiya in Udawalawe have been assigned Dilmah’s cloth bag manufacturing project- a project generating an income for around 36 females in the village. In addition to the cloth bag, the community here receives standard orders to stich garments on a regular basis from outside markets.

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Rasika Nilanthi, living in Thimbolketiya village who oversees the cloth bag project started off with just three machines. Three years after, her business grew considerably to provide employment for around 12 village females. More machines were bought and her house, which is also a part of her factory, expanded to accommodate her ambitious venture.

“There are restrictions for rural women. We are expected to stay at home and look after our families. But that is not practical, given how poor we are. Being able to earn something help improve our living standards. That is why we need assistance to engage in some kind of an income generation activity like this. We do this, while attending to other household commitments. This is the biggest advantage of this project,” says Rasika.

The starting point of this transformation taking place in rural Udawalawe is the Mankada pottery project – an initiative that empowers the village female folk – school leavers and housewives alike. The MJF Charitable Foundation introduced the people of this village to an innovative pottery project – to create exquisite pottery ware of intricate designs which are inspired by the adjacent Uda Walawe National Park and today the project is generating a steady income for around 15 village females.

The story of Mankada is interlinked to the poverty and lack of opportunities experienced by the communities in Udawalawe. Despite the revenue generating National Park in the vicinity, the profits seldom trickled down to the adjacent communities, who lived in abject poverty – living by engaging in various forms of manual labour or eking out a living through unsustainable forest practices. This was the prevailing situation when Dilmah intervened to support community empowerment by setting up the pottery centre.

Today, the exquisite items such as terra cotta figurines and pendants, tea pots, mugs, tills, plates, tea bag holders, produced by these rural women receive the guidance of Ajith Perera, a master potter who collaborated with the MJF Charitable Foundation to get the Mankada project off the ground. Products at the Mankada MJF Foundation Centre for Empowerment through Sri Lankan Traditional Arts & Crafts at Udawalawe are purchased by people around the world through the Dilmah marketing network.

The group of female potters working at the pottery workshop built by the villagers themselves, are driven by the dedication and passion to master the art. Over the years the village has produced a line of skilled craftswomen and among them is 42 year old Priyanka Pushpalatha, who is more popularly known as Thushari amongst her colleagues, who has been a part of the project since 2013. At the beginning Pushpalatha only handled the small tasks – such as creating tea bag holders or clay pendants but tried her hand at making more intricate designs on the wheel at leisure to become the skilled craftswoman that she is today.

A spouse of a sugarcane farmer; a mother of three, Pushpalatha says the income she earned here was channeled for multiple avenues beneficial for her family- completion of the house construction, sponsoring a vocational training course for her daughter, commencing a family run spice business and opening a savings account.

The story of the school leavers K.P Pushpamali, encompasses how young girls in the village value having a work place such as this.

“We do not have any opportunities; only a garment factory in the village to seek employment. Our parents would not allow us to step out of the village in search of jobs either. If we go, we would have to bear the cost of lodging and meals. I was just at home after Advanced Level, when I got this opportunity. Going to the university was my dream but I did not go for higher studies due to financial problems at home,” she says.

Two years of exposure on the creative side, Pushpamali has now learnt the ropes to become the design lead at the pottery centre.
Running parallel to efforts on providing dignified empowerment for rural women, facilitating early childhood development in the rural village became an area of focus for the MJF Charitable Foundation from 2016 onwards and the outcome of this effort being a gift of knowledge for the rural Koul Ara.

The ‘School of Inspiration’ (Asirimath Iskole), as the name suggests, is truly a place of inspiration for the poor village kids. The modern pre-school, with focus on creativity and discipline, provides the kids with an encouraging environment to nurture and develop so as to enable them face life with strength and dignity.

The new pre-school building was partially built when the MJFCF assisted with funds to complete the construction. From a dilapidated state, the new school is now a place of inspiration as the kids are encouraged to be creative with proper guidance and discipline towards studies. The actual construction work was carried out by the parents of the children and volunteers from the area to make this a truly community project, one that the residents have complete pride in.

Build on a 55 perch land set against the lush greenery, the spacious new school building; well equipped with modern class rooms, play area and other facilities, has the capacity to accommodate around 40 children. The school creates the much needed space and environment for the young mind to learn and develop to reach their full potential under the guidance of two dedicated staff members, who work hand in hand with resourceful Ajith Perera who is the driving force of this creative project.

The ‘School of Inspiration’ (Asirimath Iskole), as the name suggests, is truly a place of inspiration for the poor village kids. The modern pre-school, with focus on creativity and discipline, provides the kids with an encouraging environment to nurture and develop so as to enable them face life with strength and dignity.

The new pre-school building was partially built when the MJFCF assisted with funds to complete the construction. From a dilapidated state, the new school is now a place of inspiration as the kids are encouraged to be creative with proper guidance and discipline towards studies. The actual construction work was carried out by the parents of the children and volunteers from the area to make this a truly community project, one that the residents have complete pride in.

Build on a 55 perch land set against the lush greenery, the spacious new school building; well equipped with modern class rooms, play area and other facilities, has the capacity to accommodate around 40 children. The school creates the much needed space and environment for the young mind to learn and develop to reach their full potential under the guidance of two dedicated staff members, who work hand in hand with resourceful Ajith Perera who is the driving force of this creative project.

The enthusiasm with which little children come to the school early morning, attired in uniforms with polka dots of vibrant blues, reds and maroons; or the echo of the giggles and the occasional bursts of laughter coming out of the classrooms are all indicative of the carefree environment the school creates for these little village children.

The learning methodology followed at the school to teach the standard curriculum stipulated by the Government, is quite out of the ordinary – a home theatre system playing English nursery rhymes first thing in the morning for the children to sing along with, skateboards and modern toys for fun learning, practice sheets to learn alphabets and numbers are what make this village school somewhat extraordinary.

The school consists of a craft workshop, constructed by the villagers themselves for children to do art and craft. This is also where a new entrant to the preschool spends the initial three months, preparing for the formal classroom sessions to come. Child’s discipline – dining etiquette, punctuality, environmental cleanliness, personal hygiene are aspects that receive a great deal of emphasis here.

The Pre-school Teacher, Chama Gunaratne who has been in the teaching profession for 15 years says School of Inspiration is an asset to the village. Having taught in the old pre-school which was conducted at a dilapidated Community Hall in close proximity, this pre-school teacher reminiscences the hardships they face at the old school building.

“Kids were given holidays at least three days a month when farmer society meetings, or the other community meetings are held here. It was a huge inconvenience as we had to clear up all the tables, chairs and the cupboards. There were lot of disturbances – the roof was leaking, there was no fence around the school and dogs kept coming into the classrooms. It was no pleasant environment for the children to learn,” says Chama adding that changing face of the pre-school environment gave a boost for the entire village.

“Everyone knows that our School of Inspiration is very beautiful. Some of the other schools in the division has requested the Divisional Secretariat office to arrange a visit to observe the premises and how we do the activities here so that they are able to replicate this model in their respective schools,” she adds.

The activities of the school, be it day to day affairs or special events, receive the fullest support of the parents and villagers.

“We help out in whatever the way we could to keep this place clean and beautiful. Two parents volunteer each day to clean up the premises before the school starts at 8.30 a.m We help colourwash the buildings, do the lawn or repair the roof when required, says the young mother Hansini Isurika, informing that she has even brought flower pots and plants from home to the school.

To think that her young son is safe at school is a great comfort for the mother Indika Malkanthi. “I can drop my son and go home now without hanging around here because the school has a lot of security with a proper fence built around the premises,” Malkanthi says.

Supporting the pre-school education apart, the School assists underprivileged village children in their G.C.E Ordinary Level school curriculum through an afternoon educational support programme to improve the quality of life of the next generation of children in rural Udawalawe.


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