I was in Sri Lanka from 3-8 November 2006 and warmly welcomed to the Salesian Provincial House in Negombo by Fr Anthony Pinto (Provincial) and Br Gabriel Garniga (Provincial Economer). Both were anxious for me to appreciate that while a major project at Ahungalla, near Elpitiya, in the south west of Sri Lanka, was proceeding slowly, it was central to the future development of Salesian work in Sri Lanka.
Since the December 2004 tsunami the Salesians in Sri Lanka have organised a large relief and rehabilitation program that has included:
* the construction of more than 700 new homes and apartments;
* the manufacture of 284 new boats for individual fishermen;
* 248 sets of fishing nets;
* 210 bicycles;
* 244 engines; and
* the repair of 32 boats and 99 engines.
Funds to support these projects have been collected worldwide (including from Australia) and have come to the Sri Lankan Salesians via Salesian headquarters in Rome.
The nature and scope of the Elpitiya project have evolved over time as different people and groups from the southwest of Sri Lanka provide input.
The initial concept was for an orphanage with school facilities; in the next stage of thinking the project was to be a Skills Training Centre with a hostel. Finally agreement was reached that the project would be a Skills Training Centre with a Boarding House/Hostel to cater for orphans/semi-orphans and students undertaking skills training.
Initially, the Skills Training Centre will have facilities to teach welding, machining, dye and mould making, the repair and servicing of inboard and outboard motors, and information technology. Meanwhile, the Freemasons of Australia and New Zealand have offered to help with this project.
On the afternoon of 3 November, Br Gabriel and I travelled to Elpitiya. Because of heavy traffic, the journey took more than five hours.
The two priests in the parish at Elpitiya, both Salesians, are Fathers Dixon Fernando and Vincent Kabilai. A dynamic duo, they will be in charge of the Skills Training Centre and Boarding House Hostel development at Ahungalla, three or four kilometres away.
Alongside the parish house is a boarding facility currently home to about 20 tsunami affected orphans/ semi-orphans.
The next day we visited the site of the project at Ahungalla. The four classrooms near the entrance to the property were occupied by children participating in tuition or coaching classes.
In Sri Lanka it seems that most parents feel compelled to send their children to private after-school coaching to be prepared for examinations. This can be a very expensive undertaking.
There were approximately 200 youngsters (Years 6-10) diligently working at their studies. I was told that with involvement on other days, the total number of participants at this centre exceeds 750. The tuition is provided free of charge to the students as the Salesians have received funds (from Italy) to pay the teachers - at least for the current year.
My overall impression is that after a number of setbacks the Elpitiya project is now back on track for completion in early May 2007.
Br Michael Lynch SDB is director of Salesian Missions (Australia).