I arose early the next morning to catch the fisherman launching their boats and mending their nets. It was a glorious day, glorious, and after a hearty breakfast we set off to visit more of Dilmah's initiatives. First up was the Gemi Aruna Agro Production Society where the society's president, a man by the name of Samantha Rajapaksha, met us to show us around.
The society consisted of a group of 52 registered farmers, 80% of which were women. They specialized in orange cultivation and our tour started off at an ex-government building that had been procured by the MJF Charitable Foundation for the society. Samantha showed us inside and explained what the different spaces would be used for. I say 'would be,' because the building hadn't been officially unveiled in its new capacity yet. Inside there was a meeting area, a teaching area, an office and a place for the children to play was being built. There were also three rooms for government use and plans were in place to create a society of 19 SEPs (Small Entrepreneur Program) which would also use the space. It was a very ambitious project and I could tell by the way Samantha and Shantha talked about it they were very excited about its future. The creation of this society was a great way to pool resources and the building would serve as a great focal point and social gathering place for all its members and their families. Once again thought was being directed at community development.
From the society's HQ I jumped into Samantha's Tuk Tuk and he took me to his very own orange orchard. As we entered I could see it was yielding good fruit and while we walked Samantha shared tree planting and cultivation techniques with us. Much of the conversation revolved around water supply issues, as even though Sri Lanka receives an abundance of rain water, it still needs to be collected and stored for later distribution. Dilmah was helping in this area as well with the construction of water towers to feed the orchards. During my short time with Samantha we passed two such towers and there were more in the area. It seemed each time we visited a different initiative there was a solid understanding of what was required to succeed, and a plan in place to make it happen. It was very impressive from a 'business plan' stand point.
From the orchard we made our way to a small collection of houses where I was introduced to a group of women, all wives of farmers that were off working in the paddies. The women were members of the society and had their own orange orchards. There were some children present as well and I could sense how tightly knit the society was. There may have only been 52 registered members but with spouses and children the numbers swelled dramatically and when those people worked together a powerful farming force was created.
After our 'First Wives' meeting we walked to a neighboring house and met G.G. Sriyani Alvis who had a 'Manioc Bite' business in her home. She had a quick smile, a jaunty gait, and went about her business in fine form. The wood fired deep fryer was out back while the packaging took place in the front room with equipment provided by Dilmah. The 'bites,' made from yams, were delicious, and as we parted company she sent us packing with our bags of snacks, like a mom sending her kids off to school. What a gas.
Then it was lunch at a neighbors house, and what a lunch it was. I am often at a loss when I experience these kinds of occasion. Obviously I want to engage as much as I can, but all the while in the back of my mind I absorb my surroundings and think of how I take things for granted back in Canada. The houses here were homes in the traditional sense and my hosts were as happy a family as I'd ever had the pleasure of meeting. It's only when one looks for the 'creature comforts' that a different picture emerges, a simpler one. We sat at the table in the front room where a lovely meal was laid out, but we sat without our hosts. Instead, they waited on us enthusiastically and cracked huge smiles and laughed when we complimented them on the food. According to some customs here, guests were doted on during the first visit and only on the second visit would the hosts sit at the same table. It was very important to them that guests feel totally at home, in their home. It is events like these that make me question my own social graces and my thought process regarding wants and needs. We took our time eating and when we were done collected outside for some parting photos and laughs. It was a very gracious visit, and a humbling one.
As my time with Shantha wound down he asked me if I'd like to see the Inginiyagala Dam. Dams are a big thing in Sri Lanka and it sounded intriguing, so away we went. As we drove toward the embankment the rain began to fall very hard, but it didn't matter. If anything the clouds cast a mysterious spell over one of Sri Lanka's largest lakes, or 'tanks,' as reservoirs are known locally. Again I was reminded what a huge role water harvesting plays in Sri Lanka. The lake was enormous and dotted here and there by islands that looked like bizarre ships making their way across its surface. It was the perfect end to a beautiful day, but before I go I would like to thank Shantha for an incredible two days. He really was a very impressive person, his knowledge of what he was doing, his intellect, and his passion in helping those around him shone through during our time together. I am sure these same traits contribute greatly to the success of the initiatives he's involved in.
Thank you Shantha Devapriya.