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Teaching, General Teaching Projects in Sri Lanka by Vanessa Strudwick

My pupilsThere’s a big smile on my face. I’ve got the last seat on the Colombo bound air-conditioned bus. The blood-red sun hangs low in the sky and I’m getting lost in the mesmerising bangra beats as we race down the Galle Road, overtaking everything in our path.

It’s late Sunday afternoon and I’m heading back “home” to sleepy Balapitiya on the west coast of Sri Lanka. I’m refreshed and ready for another week of teaching English after two days in a hammock!

My Teaching placement

As the first volunteer on a new project at the Anula Wijerama Girls Home, I’ve been asked to get everyone speaking and writing more English. Keeping things interesting for 35 children aged five to seventeen is challenging, and already I’m fast learning that the best approach is to combine pure English lessons with pure fun.

So, making an appearance in this week’s timetable - the “how to bake a cake lesson”, a tentative journey into my Abba repertoire, a parts of the body word search and, for the youngest ones, a giant game of hide and seek to practice counting 1-30!. And it doesn’t stop there – we have some computers here too, and a long queue for PowerPoint lessons.

Painting with the students

I’m amazed at the unreserved excitement at the daily arrival of the real-life native English teacher! My attempts to explain what we’ll be doing for that day seem to provide endless amusement (I would be lost without the older girls as translators!).

Sometimes nobody is in the mood for learning but despite this, at the end of each lesson, every single girl shakes my hand and says “come again! Vanessa teacher… come again!”. It’s a simple sentiment that warms my heart; especially when I think about how tough life has been for most of these girls.

Living with a host family

Living with a Sri Lankan family is fantastic. My host mum, Senani, has made me feel so comfortable and is more than happy to answer all my questions about all things Sri Lankan, including the constant “how do you say…in Sinhala?” I’m hoping the language lessons will pay off in the classroom! I really enjoy spending time with her nine-year old daughter, Nuhansa, too – she’s my new teaching assistant and loves helping to cut up bits of card and draw pictures for my next day’s lessons.

The Monks feastWith thoughts never too far away from food, I’m in heaven when the lunchtime and evening feasts appear on the kitchen table - devilled fish, pumpkin curry, red rice, beetroot with coconut, hoppers and kottu are already in my top ten, together with the unending supply of fresh tropical fruit. However swapping a knife and fork for fingers means it takes me a while to finish!

Right now I’m the only volunteer here so have a room and the upstairs of the house to myself. Sleep comes easily once I’m covered by the bright pink mosquito net and large amounts of repellent (the only way to avoid insects with bigger appetites than mine), only to be interrupted at 5.30am by the sound of the pirith, the melodic chanting of the words of the Buddha from a nearby temple. Yes, it’s way too early, but it is also the only cool time of day and a perfect time to hang out on the balcony before breakfast.

Balapitiya TempleThis weekend, something extraordinary is happening! Ten Buddhist monks will come to the house for an alms-giving ceremony to mark the death anniversary of a close relative. Preparations are underway and I feel privileged that Senani has asked me to take part, starting with my new job as a coconut grater (I have been eyeing up the special contraption for this all week!).

There’s been a great sense of anticipation as friends, relatives and neighbours arrive with contributions. Wood fires are burning in the “outside” kitchen, all available floor space is being taken up with more and more pans of curry and table space filling up with offerings for the monks – including home-made cakes and sweets, books, even toilet brushes!

Living in Sri Lanka

Balapitiya BeachI’m slowly falling for Balapitiya with its deserted yellow beaches and bright blue fishing boats, its stunningly beautiful Buddhist temple and antiquated post office.

Being the only westerner in town, and the lucky owner of a shiny new bicycle, has given me minor celebrity status! Daily journeys to and from the orphanage are getting more eventful – as well as smiles and hellos from roadside stalls, I’m getting waved down in the road and regularly chased by one over-zealous tuk-tuk driver who tells me anxiously that he wants to “just normally speaking”.

The same story continues in the internet café and in some of the small shops I visit to satisfy my emerging ginger biscuit habit (the only thing I can ask for in faltering Sinhalese).

So, what about next weekend? Well, after the alms-giving on Saturday I’ll be taking another air-conditioned bus south, just down the road to Hikkaduwa for my alternative Christmas Day on the beach with all the other volunteers. I can’t wait!

It’s taken me no time at all to adjust to the rhythm of life here in Sri Lanka. I love it all and I already know that in a few weeks time I will not be ready to leave.

Vanessa Strudwick

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