Shaping Our Future: A Few Rays of Hope

Renton de Alwis in Daily News, 21 September 2011

In the village of Kiula in the Deep South, 21 kids and one adult formed a new theatre group called ‘Kiula Warna Ranga Players’ this week. That was the culmination of a six weeks free theatre workshop they had during the school holidays. Turning part of theKiulaJuniorSchoolground into their stage or karaliya their performance was much better than any of us expected, proving how skills and talent combined with rigorous practice and rehearsal can do wonders for children in learning. Manjula Ranasinghe of Janakaraliya of whom I wrote about in an earlier column, gave his know-how and skills to make the workshop an educational experience for the kids. They went through physical exercises, breathing exercises, meditation sessions, drama exercises and games, voice training, team building efforts and the like during the workshop sessions.

Dealing with adversity: The play they chose to perform Andara Mal was a story of a dance teacher in a remote village school who effectively mobilizes the children and creatively uses the broken guru putuwa (teacher’s chair) and tit-bits like bottles, pieces of metal, tin plates, wooden sticks etc. to make harmonized music and to teach dance-steps to it. The school is given two drums (daula and tammattama) with a request from educational authorities to prepare a dance item to welcome a minister who is to come for a function in the village. Immediately after the completion of that event the drums are taken away from them and the children are left in sadness and dismay.

The children respond this time with a message even for the teachers on how to cope with the situation and demonstrate that adversity can be dealt with using what little one has, without being ineffective in hope for things to be perfect.

For me personally the workshop, the interaction we had and the learning we did were of immense value and it was a wonderful experience. It brought back memories of my own childhood and the many encounters I had from individuals and groups that influenced our lives at the time.

Guru and friend: One such was Ray Forbes who lived about a quarter of a mile away from by home atWaidya Road, Dehiwela. Ray was a government servant and a foreign services (FS) officer who later worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a long period of time. In the early sixties, I got to know this gentleman when he once spoke with me on the road, when I was on my way to school.

He was dressed in immaculate white, soft-spoken, carried a long umbrella, a leather bag and each weekday morning walked from his home in front of what was then the ‘People’s Park, Dehiwela’ through Park Street onto Waidya Road and then on to the bus stop at the Dehiwela junction.

Simple man: On that first encounter he asked me which school I went to and in return told me that he was also a past student of St Peter’s College. I later learnt that he was an accomplished pianist and the then famous singer Bill Forbes of the humorous Oh! To be in England and the more serious Believe in me fame, was Ray’s first cousin.

He was a simple man without any airs and we struck accord immediately. I, a student in my senior (OL) form and Ray, a cub-diplomat who went on to become Deputy High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in India and Chief of Protocol at the Foreign Affairs Ministry as we both moved on in later years.

English on the move: I remember vividly how I asked him if I could walk with him to the bus stop. Each week day thereafter I would wait for him at the T-junction wherePark StreetmetWaidya Road. Some mornings when I was late, I found him standing out there for me to arrive. Such humility and desire to help out a student, for I had told him I wanted to speak with him in English.

I explained that I was weak in my English, coming from a household where no English was spoken. I picked up most of the mumble I had then of the spoken language, on thePeoplesPark’s cricket field playing with Burgher boys in the neighbourhood. He nodded approval and we were student and teacher in a daily free English class on the move.

Besides our spoken English lessons, I learnt of the eventful life in the University from him. He had read English there and shared with me his excitement of writers, dramatists and poets. Our encounters continued even when I was in the Advanced Level class and coupled with the influence of some great teachers we had and my father, Ray was the other critical external factor that made my interest in entering university to read English in my G.A.Q year.

Decades later recently, on inquiry as to where this gentleman is, I was told that he had retired from the FS and was living in Anuradhapura teaching English at the Rajarata University. I made a visit to his simple abode in the outskirts of the Atamasthana area to see Ray. In his usual simple style he welcomed us with much warmth and affection. His quarters had something striking and that was the piano that stood right next to his bed in a modest living environment. With a cup of tea, we spoke of my old school days, of my daughters whom he later met, of tourism, English writing and, of Buddhism on which he had profound knowledge.

It was several months ago and I owe him another visit, to take some books he wanted me to bring him. In the meantime, I remember him for he was inspiration, motivation and role-model all in one. Like Manjula, the volunteer was I am sure, to the village kids who went through the theatre workshop with him.

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