ChildFund Ambassador and well-known New Zealand actor, playwright and director Alison Quigan travelled with ChildFund New Zealand to personally meet the children and families in Sri Lanka that need our help and witness the progress that ChildFund and New Zealanders have made possible. Alison travelled round New Zealand last month to talk to supporters. This is her speech.

Alison and her sponsored child Vithusha

I had a wonderful and hectic and amazing time in Sri Lanka. It was so unexpected. I never expected to travel in 2011 and I certainly never expected to travel to Sri Lanka. I knew nothing about Sri Lanka – well I knew the names of some of the cricket team, I knew how great they were and how difficult they were to beat. I had no idea about their country and the challenges they face.

We were a tight group, Kathy, Kiri, Jehan and I and we were there to see the projects and the people who run them.

Our first day was in Colombo and even though it is a big city it takes a bit to get used to. It was hot, and dusty. There seemed to be a film of red dust over everything. And chaotic. The traffic is loud and busy with people in vehicles of all shapes and sizes. The trishaws are everywhere – little scooters with a cab on the back. Big enough for three of us or about five locals if they squeezed in.

On Monday at 7.30am we set off.

We travelled with Dinenthe, ChildFund’s Regional Sponsorship Manager and our driver, Sarat, up to Nuwara Elyia (the tea plantations) A windy narrow road for 7 hours through Kandy up into the hills.

The driving was out of this world. I mean – what side of the road do they drive? BOTH!!! Thank goodness for Sarat, our driver. He was amazing on all sorts of roads. The city roads were incredibly busy and without controls – maybe three sets of traffic lights in Colombo! Big army presence with machine guns. Trishaws everywhere and bikes. Huge buses that drive through anything – they just barge through. It’s a real horn culture. The louder the horn the faster they go. When we first set out on the Monday we would wince and squeal at the near misses. Especially rounding a corner to see two buses coming towards us. One bus passing a trishaw and the other bus overtaking the first one but then just before impact they would all swerve back to the left and we would all continue. By the end of the week we didn’t blink. Somehow throughout the chaos they seem to get through.

After seven hours we arrived in Nuwara Elyia. It’s an Alpine resort town that some families visit when it is too hot on the coast. We met up with Saman who is the Area Manager and he guided us to the plantations. This is something I was really looking forward to seeing. I’ve seen the tea adverts and I like drinking tea and even though I knew there were problems nothing really prepared me for the reality. The tea plantations look amazing – like very neat hedges on hill after hill. But the shanty towns that surround them are so depressing. The roads are also almost impassable but we travelled on them anyway. They are completely destroyed by the heavy trucks that transport the tea and by neglect. Saman also took us to the housing that the pluckers and their families have lived in for generations. We were made very welcome everywhere we went. Each time we visited a new place, we were given a ceremonial welcome of flowers and special oils. And this is when we met the pluckers and their families, we met children in the schools and we saw their homes.

The pluckers are all women. They wear a heavy apron-like garment and they carry the sacks for the tea on their heads. 16 kilos a day. It is hot, back breaking work and they are paid $2.50 a day. It is a long day from 6am to 6pm for women who then go home and cook a meal for their families.

Five years ago ChildFund entered their lives. The difference this has made to their lives is dramatic.

Alison with school children on the Dessford Tea Estate School

When the women told us how their lives were changed by the tap and the toilet they wept. Their children were so much healthier, they had more time – they had a life. And children had ambitions now. After generations of children repeating their parents lives now they see themselves as doctors, engineers, teachers. They can see a future away from this cycle of early pregnancy, low wages and poverty.

The next day we moved to Batticoloa on the east coast. Where the tea plantations had been green this was a dust bowl. Barren. Three years ago this was a war zone. Huge army presence. Check points everywhere. The floods had wrecked everything. Ninety per cent of the rice crop destroyed. And that on top of being displaced and having had to live in camps, these people are truly poor. They have nothing.

This is where I met Vithusha, my sponsored child. Eight years old, very shy and very beautiful. And thin. Too thin, but a smile when it came that just breaks my heart. I met her mother Meenadchi (48) and sister, Uma who is 16 and they very graciously showed me their home. It must have been very daunting for them with all those people there.

There was our group of four from NZ and Dinenthe and at least half a dozen from the local office including our interpreter. Meenadchi and her daughters live in a mud hut made by her older son before he died. It has been damaged by the floods so has a gaping hole in one of the side walls. It is small, they are all small, I’m 5’ 3” and like a giant beside them. I bumped my head when I entered the room. There were three rooms. One bedroom, a room with the hole in the wall and a kitchen. There were no doors, no windows, just gaps and the kitchen was a bare room with a fire in a ring of stones on the floor at one end. Meenadchi earns a very meagre living grinding and selling rice flour but of course after the floods the rice crop was all but destroyed there would be precious little of that soon. I asked about water and she said there was a well in walking distance but I couldn’t see it and a toilet? She just waved her arm – anywhere in the area.

Outside Vithusha's house

I showed them pictures of me with my two children and Meenadchi told about the tragic death of her husband and daughter during the war and more recently her son. Her sorrow and despair almost overwhelmed us both, but she has a strong spirit and a great love for her children that keeps her going. I knew I wanted to make a difference in her life. My connection was really with Meenadchi because she was the one carrying the burden. I wanted to help her and I knew I could do it too. This family is not the only one that needs help. There are many more. I want to help them all I just can’t do it alone. If we can get more child sponsors from New Zealand to make a small investment in Batticaloa we can make a life changing and a life saving difference in that area.

The ChildFund people were inspirational. Practical, generous and funny. Bernard and his team in Batti have done so much for these people. Entirely funded by New Zealand they are working to make real improvements for the people of Batti. No sponsors out there yet*, but they have started with small loans to start modest businesses. Twenty-thousand rupees ($200) to buy chickens to start a chicken run and have an income. The loans then get paid back. Little group of goats the same. The women out there have formed their own committees – the Child Well-Being Committee – to motivate and provide leadership in these ventures. They arrived dressed identically with perfectly ironed saris. And we were there straight from a hotel, bleary eyed and wearing crumpled clothes. Their dignity and determination was a sight for sore eyes.

That was the night we stayed in the worst hotel of our trip. It did have air con – although it was so loud and strong it blew the mosquito nets off the bed. And the jumping frogs in the bathrooms. Not an optional extra.

Then back to Polonnaruwa and a series of projects that had been running for ten years, where people had electricity and fridges and a phone and their projects had produced success – Here we saw a woman who had used her loan to buy an oven. She now provided baked goods to the school and her whole community. She was now helping her community by taking in a boy who had lost his parents. We also met a woman who had been given cows and she created produce from those cows. Another who had a herd of goats, another with chickens. it was good to finish with an area that was clearly on its way.

We did do some sightseeing. On the last day Indra took us to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa from the 12 century – amazing architecture with toilets and drainage and ancient civilization. This is a very old culture. It was pointed out that in these great cities there was no permanent housing for the workers. Only for Kings and priests.

Back to Colombo. We drove for 42 hours in those six days. The best of the roads were normal country roads but the worst were severely damaged by flooding and were like waves on the shore so we travelled very slowly (3 kms an hour) and we were literally thrown around the van and cheered when we found flat roads.

When we returned to Colombo it was the Sri Lankan Pakistan game and Sri Lanka lost on the last ball. The cricket was a good thing to talk to the kids about. And because of my constant education on the game from my son Freddie I was able to have halting discussions about their favourite Sri Lankan players. Sangakarra is your favourite, isn’t he? No, Dilshan! With the Dilscoop! This from a boy who lived on a tea plantation, with one tap in the middle of nowhere.

Children of Batticaloa, Sri Lanka

Did I have a good time? Of course – in so many ways. So many experiences. In spite of their challenges, we met so many delightful people. The children seemed like all children, bright and cheerful. Their parents and teachers were watchful and thankful. When I looked into the eyes of Vithusha’s mother, Meenadchi, we understood each other. We wanted the same thing. Two women wanting the best for our children.

Sri Lanka is a wonderful country with a strong sense of who they are. They have much to offer the world. We are very lucky in New Zealand. Things we take for granted these people don’t even dream of. It is good to see the progress very obvious after two years, after five years and after ten years. It’s up to us now to make sure we do make a difference right now.

*Alison was the very first sponsor. Since we travelled there we now have more than 100 children sponsored by Kiwis – but we need 1,000 to start making a real difference. Eventually we need 3,000 kiwi sponsors. Please help us today by sponsoring a child in Batticaloa (The Singing Fish Project) as Alison has done. Thank you!

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