47. Nadeesha Fernandez

30 Apr

47. Nadeesha Fernandez b

Overseas volunteering attracts a lot of criticism. It often centres on the dangers of volunteers landing in faraway villages with an exciting ‘whoosh’, only to shortly take off again in a puff of dust.

Nadeesha Fernandez spent almost four months volunteering at the SOS Children’s Village in Piliyandala, Colombo District, Sri Lanka. She tells me of how she left Australia amidst the above criticism from the people around her, with many expressing serious doubts over whether her volunteer work would be effective at all. Though valid concerns, the rigorous assessment processes of the organisation’s staff, in conjunction with Nadeesha’s own determination to offer practical outcomes rendered the probability of becoming a ‘helicopter volunteer’ impossible.

A prominent reason for this is that Piliyandala is an unsuitable place for voluntourists looking for light-hearted fun. The area is separated from the city and is certainly not a tourist hotspot. Nadeesha describes the SOS Children’s Village in Piliyandala as comprising of roughly 10 houses in a village-type commune, where about 160 children orphaned from the tsunami or the civil war now reside. Nadeesha explains that these children are cared for by village ‘mothers’, who welcome them into a SOS family and send them to the local SOS primary and secondary schools where other children from the local community also attend.

The bulk of Nadeesha’s time at the Children’s Village was spent teaching English to the local children, women and adults across various settings and her students often came from very poor or violent backgrounds. She recalls the jolt of nerves on her first day of teaching after abruptly being told, “Okay, here’s your class, do what you have to do”. Nadeesha initially had no idea what she ‘had to do’, but worked it out quickly in a very unfamiliar environment. She resisted the temptation to simply play games with the students, and ensured each English activity was practical and relevant to their everyday lives. Walking past Nadeesha’s classroom, you could often hear her telling her students, “No no no, we’ll do work and then we’ll play”.

In kindergarten, Nadeesha wrote scripts for children’s plays which she used as a practical way to teach the children English. Nadeesha remembers when the children performed a play she had written in English, telling me, “It was a really proud moment… it was a continuous period of time that I was training them to do something…. It was great to see that they had actually succeeded”.

Her desire to teach English stemmed from its practical use within a Sri Lankan context. English is incredibly useful in Sri Lanka – it opens opportunities for employment, community engagement, education and even overseas employment opportunities. So, Nadeesha also taught teenagers, adults and mothers about the application of English for job interviews and worked on their confidence in applying it to various situations. Incredibly, she also learned the local language, Sinhala, in order to connect to her students more.

Though the thrill of this new experience was exhilarating, it carried its fair share of challenges. Nadeesha became very sick and suffered from constant heat headaches and a complete depletion of all energy. She tells me she also felt uncomfortable at times. Despite having a Sri Lankan background herself, she says she “Stuck out like a sore thumb” because of her unusually short hair which she had cut short to make it easier to wash. Language miscommunications similarly resulted in moments of awkwardness, for example when she accidentally told someone “Don’t worry me!” instead of “Don’t worry”, only to find out about her error later on. Nadeesha cackles with laughter as she reminisces over this. She also tells me that despite these challenges and many others, she was determined to persevere in her teaching.

Here the murmurs of critics come to mind… ‘But do these English classes actually pay off?’ one can imagine them asking. The simple answer? Yes, they can. Nadeesha shares the story of one Sri Lankan woman from the SOS Children’s Village who was actually brought over to the UK to work as a nanny by one volunteer because her English was so outstanding. And there are many other similar stories. The staff at the SOS Children’s Village were also diligent in ensuring the English teaching program Nadeesha was a part of was effective. Senior staff and educational directors of the organisation often interviewed her and monitored her classroom teaching.

Nadeesha was also mindful of the impact of her connection to village life regarding the relationships she developed with local community members. She tells me, “We built these amazing relationships… I didn’t think it was fair to just come into their lives and just leave, they are now my family and I need to visit them”. For now, Nadeesha keeps in contact through letter writing and is saving money to return back to the SOS Children’s Village.

I ask her towards the end of our interview why she chose to teach English despite the criticism which so often accompanies it. Her response made perfect sense, “I could have built schools or something…but I chose education… I’m interested in child protection and I want to work with kids. What’s the most important thing for children at that age? Learning.”

To end our interview, Nadeesha produces an equally as effective response to questions of how short volunteering trips can possibly be expected to ‘make a difference’. Her response comes in the form of a story about a boy throwing star fish back into the ocean from the shore. A man notices him doing this and asks, “Why are you bothering to return them when you can only throw one back at a time?”. The boy picks up a starfish, throws it back out to sea, and says, “Well I sure made a difference to that one”.

Words: Stephanie Livingstone

Picture: Sean Porter

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