The second day we were accompanied by a hard-working (and long-suffering) wildlife officer named Naveen. Not only was it an opportunity for us to meet the parents, but it was a rare chance for dialogue between the community and wildlife personnel, with whom there tends to be a strained relationship in areas where there are conflicts with elephants.
In the morning we received a gracious welcome at Nirmala Sigithi preschool from Ms. Madushani, the teacher. Following long speeches by both Naveen and Ms. Madushani, the families spoke up. Because the building doubled as a meeting place for the farmer’s association, the head of which was in attendance, Naveen was on the spot for answering questions about perceived inadequacies in the system for compensating wildlife damage. Luckily, the positive mood created by the occasion kept the discussion civil and demonstrated to us the value of providing the more of such opportunities for communities to interact with wildlife personnel. Moreover, we were impressed that despite cultural expectations, both senior representatives of the farmers’ association happened to be women. The meeting wrapped up with a song sung by one of the children, followed by a remarkable breakfast prepared by the teacher and community members.
With our support, the pre-school was able to install a proper lavatory, which would be for communal use for any gathering that took place in the building, as well as wildlife personnel charged with maintaining the electric fence. Who thought a toilet could be a symbol of togetherness! They also gave the building a fresh coat of paint both inside and out, as well as installed a new slide for the playground.
At Kekulu the teacher had obtained educational toys, building blocks and other tools for the children as well as electricity and wiring for the building, and a slide for the playground. This teacher, Ms. Indumathie, and her husband were important members of the community as his family had been among the earliest settlers in the area. They were very welcoming of us and even insisted that we come to their house for lunch at the end of the day. At each place, Naveen reiterated the proper procedure for applying for compensation for the losses suffered due to elephants. Unlike the previous school, we felt our audience was mostly quiet at during the meeting. Afterwards, however, one of the mothers approached Naveen to reveal that her sister’s child had been killed by an elephant not long ago. It was a case familiar to everyone in the area, and we felt great sorrow for their loss; of course no amount of compensation can suffice. It was a sad reminder of why we were here in the first place.
At Sigithi Divihuru the children greeted us with bunches of paper flowers. We were cheered up by a special treat – they had rehearsed a little dance for us. Because our entertainers were outfitted in colorful dresses, we were thoroughly amused to learn in the end that all but one were actually boys! Possibly the girls had been too shy? Cupboards, shelves and playground equipment were the chosen investments at this school.
The final school was Rainbow. The smallest class of our entire cohort, the classroom was little more than a lean-to shelter alongside the teacher’s own house. But despite this modest appearance, Ms. Dilrukshi had proven herself quite capable and resourceful, as she had won a set of proper Montessori teaching materials through a local competition. From us they requested only a new sign for the school and a music player for the children’s theatrics. We are optimistic that this school will develop well thanks to the efforts of their enterprising teacher and wished the little school well in all its future endeavors.