Waves of compassion

Among the thousands who had poured into Sri Lanka in the weeks following the tsunami in December 2004 was Ian Botham, the larger-than-life England cricket great, who arrived as part of a team from the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation to see what role sport could play in the healing process. The visit sowed the seeds of Laureus’s Sport for Life project in Seenigama. Over to Karthik Krishnaswamy.

It is a humid afternoon in Peraliya, two kilometres north of Hikkaduwa, a popular tourist haunt on the south coast of Sri Lanka. The sun glints off the railway track that runs parallel to the beach, and all is quiet, almost tranquil. It’s hard to believe that five years ago, this was the scene of the worst carnage wreaked by the December 26 tsunami — a whole train, the Queen of the Sea, making its way from Colombo to the beach resorts that dot the road to Galle, washed away, killing over 1500 on board.

Among the thousands who had poured into the island in the weeks following the tsunami was Ian Botham, the larger-than-life England cricket great, who arrived as part of a team from the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation to see what role sport could play in the healing process. The visit sowed the seeds of Laureus’s Sport for Life project in Seenigama, a village not far from Pereliya. Laureus, in partnership with the Foundation of Goodness, a Sri Lankan NGO, aims to get boys and girls between 6 and 20 to play sport and participate in inter-village leagues, to help the communities torn asunder by the tsunami to re-unite and work towards moving forward.

Five years on, with a knighthood attained in the interim, Sir Ian is back on a two-day trip, to see how far the project has progressed. He speaks to a group of journalists, who look into the distance at the train track’s vanishing point. “The train had stopped here after the first wave, and people clambered aboard to shelter from it,” he says.

Minutes later, another wave came along, 30 feet high, toppling the train and ripping the track right off its moorings.

Five minutes from Peraliya, at the Tsunami Photo Museum, we see on the walls images of the twisted remains — not just of the track but of the lives and livelihoods decimated all along the Sri Lankan coast. Conceived by Jacky van Oostven, a volunteer from the Netherlands, the museum tries to tell the story of the people affected by the disaster through photographs and artworks. “I have chosen for a museum with a personal touch instead of a museum that shows all the facts,” reads the message Van Oostven has left visitors in sheets of paper that Kamani De Silva, the museum’s caretaker, hands us. “For me the personal stories are more important than the facts.”

A section of the museum, titled ‘The Art of Innocents,’ is devoted to paintings by children. All of them, in the manner that children given brushes and paint unfailingly manage, pare the event down to its chilling essentials — angry swirls of blue, flailing stick figures swept helplessly about. Botham’s brow creases. “Can you imagine the kind of impact living through something like that must have had on these kids?”

In what way can sport hope to heal wounds as deep as these?

It is a question that Laureus has continually sought to answer, in each of its 70 projects around the world. Whether it’s delinquency in the streets of Naples or the lack of opportunities for the differently-abled in Rajasthan, Laureus has worked with local NGOs to try and use sport as a means of social change. Its 46 Academy members, each a bona fide sporting legend, play ambassadorial roles, visiting the projects regularly to help increase their visibility and attract more funding.

Last year, Edwin Moses and Tanni-Grey Thompson, icons of the Olympics and the Paralympics and chairpersons of Laureus, visited the West Bank to lend their support to PeacePlayers International, an organisation that tries to get children on both sides of the Israel-Palestine divide to connect with each other through the game of basketball. World Cup-winning English footballer Sir Bobby Charlton travelled to Cambodia, where Spirit of Soccer, a grassroots charity, teaches children both football and the dangers of the landmines that litter their country.

“It’s very easy to sit in front of a TV camera and say, ‘Oh, we’ve had a tsunami here in Sri Lanka; can you please send ten pounds; thank you very much.’ What does that achieve?” asks Botham. “It might achieve a little bit, but coming out here and banging the drum, to be seen to give up your time to come here repeat times ... It’s about commitment — commitment from the people who built this, commitment from the people who’ve come over here — the volunteers, they come from Australia, China, Europe, all over. They come here and work for a period of time and help make this work. You can talk the talk all day long, but somewhere along the line, you’re going to have to start walking the walk, and Laureus has done that, and I think what they’ve achieved here is quite amazing.

“The communities have come back together. When we were here 5-6 weeks after the tsunami, villagers 200 yards apart weren’t talking, everyone had gone insular, traumatised, and all had their grieving to do, their losses. There was no communication from here to that scoreboard,” says Botham, pointing across the expanse of freshly-mowed green in front of us.

We’re in the pavilion of the Seenigama Oval, a cricket ground ringed by coconut palms and clear blue skies, completed two years ago with funding from Surrey County Club. Where the distinctive Gasometer squats next to the Oval, Surrey’s home ground in London, a 25m pool with six lanes, donated by Canadian pop singer Bryan Adams, sparkles alongside its Seenigama counterpart.

Botham was present at the opening of the Seenigama Oval. “The difference between what we’ve got now and what I saw two years ago,” he says, “is that two years ago, all this was here, but now, it’s up and running and working, and the rewards are being reaped.”

The rewards are visible, and well-documented in the local newspapers.

The ocean claimed both of Ashan Pulina Tharanga’s parents — the mother by the tsunami and the father, drowned at sea in a fishing boat a few weeks later. In May, Ashan was part of the Sri Lanka Under-15 Schools’ team that toured Malaysia.

Meanwhile, the Seenigama Ladies made the final of the ‘B’ division women’s championship, beating teams from Colombo, Kandy and Anuradhapura on the way. J.G.G. Dilanjali, who trains at the Bryan Adams pool, won the women’s race at the Annual Six Mile Open Sea Swim at Wellawatta. Thotagamuwa Wijayabahu and Seenigama Sri Wimala Buddhi, schools from neighbouring villages that benefit from the project, have contested the final of the All-Island under-12 volleyball championship for the last two years, each school winning the title once.

The successes haven’t been restricted only to the playing fields. Laureus’s involvement has attracted swathes of other donors to the Foundation of Goodness, whose activities span not just sport, but over 20 sectors that include education, women’s enterprise, healthcare, housing and psycho-social counselling.

“When credible donors join, others follow — it’s like a disease that spreads, kindness catching on,” says Kushil Gunasekera, the founder. “We were lucky that Laureus got involved very early, right after the tsunami. And so, when you say that Laureus supports us, others think, why can’t we come in too?”

The Marylebone Cricket Club is the central sponsor of the MCC Centre of Excellence in Seenigama, which serves as the headquarters of the Foundation’s activities, boasting a school, a pre-school, and centres for English, business skills and computer education, a women’s enterprise centre and the Rainbow Clinic, which offers free medical care. “We now cater to 20,000 beneficiaries from 25 villages,” says Gunasekera.

Apart from Laureus and the MCC, a number of the Foundation’s benefactors are rooted in sport — cricketers like Steve Waugh and Shane Warne, and the cricket associations of New South Wales and Surrey. Other sponsors include the state government of Victoria, USAid, Planet Wheeler Foundation, Children Action, Nokia and Aviva. Gunasekera puts it succinctly: “We’ve managed to secure waves of compassion, which in my view overpower the waves of destruction.”