Continuing the Search for a New Humanity

Thoughts from Uduvil Girls' College, Sri Lanka

Thoughts from Uduvil Girls' College

Oodooville .......this is how this village in the North of Sri Lanka, cushioned amidst the soft paddy fields and flanked by palmyrah trees, was known by the missionaries who arrived here in 1816. Within a few years of their arrival (in 1820) the missionaries entered the abandoned parsonage of a Fransiscan monk set within a large compound in Ooodooville with the intention of setting it up as a mission station. They set to work making the place habitable, weaving palmyrah leaves that served as windows. Curiosity brought two little girls from the neighbourhood into the mission compound and they would peep into the Mission House daily to get a glimpse of the people and the activities within. Harriet Winslow, a missionary, would then urge them to come over for lessons on sewing, promising rewards of fruit and cloth. This routine was broken on a windy afternoon when the two girls had to seek shelter from a storm in the missionary home. Although the children were sent to their own homes the following morning, their parents brought them back to Harriet Winslow and asked that they be kept in the mission station. The sprawling verandah of the Mission house thus blossomed into a female girls' boarding school in 1824 with Harriet Winslow as its founder principal and these two little ones as her first girl students. The "female central school" was now in place.

It is into this Mission House now set amidst a garden of a riotous clash of colours and a flamboyant tree nearby pirouetting in the breeze to show off its red and yellow plumage that I stepped in early January 2005, as principal of the Uduvil Girls' College. ("Oodooville" eventually changed to a clipped, economical form, "Uduvil") I came into a school of 1,600 children, with sparkling eager, questioning eyes -a mirror image of the girl I was many years ago. In a way it was home-coming for me, for four generations of my family had studied here and Uduvil grew with me from the time I went toddling behind mother as she busily went about her teaching tasks at school, through my youth and then adulthood when we settled down in our tiny cake-shaped house under the shadow of the tall steeple of the old, Dutch church situated within the school premises. The dual ring tone of the Church bell - a reverberating peal which routinely awoke our village (and sometimes the next!) each morning and the throaty boom that tolled to announce the death of a parishioner - always remained a phenomenon to me. Familiar daily sights from my childhood now flash through my mind's eye - the bullock cart thudding on the roads taking the farmer to the fields in the grey of dawn; a little later, the chugging of the dilapidated Somerset car carrying the women traveling to the market, with the door if its boot wide open as seating for those women who could not squeeze inside; the steady swish of the broom heaping up a pile of fallen leaves, then the sharp crackling of burning leaves emanating a stinging, pungent aroma. Sights, sounds and smells which gradually crept into our hearts and remained through our various journeys outside of Jaffna, often caused a gnawing longing in us for the place which was our home.

These memories of my childhood clung to me, painfully pricking me when I worked these past many years on issues concerning gender and development. Each time I drew up a gender strategy, churning up papers upon papers of projects for conflict affected women, I would feel an inner urge to be there on the ground, to be rooted in reality instead of sitting drafting plans. Then finally the day dawned when I just had to go back no matter what. And I did against many odds.....

There had been just seven principals before me at Uduvil - four American women and three nationals. People marvel at this short line of leadership in a period of 181 years which had guided the school through different periods of crises and success. The missionary women of the early 19th century who came to Jaffna, came into a society which was averse to women's education. The missionaries constantly struggled to get women out of their homes to be educated. Although this was mainly with the intention of providing educated women as spouses for the men they educated at the Batticotta Seminary (now called Jaffna College) it paid off well for the women of the times. For together with education they acquired the much needed skill and the sensitivity to question and explore their status in society.

This was a quest for a new beginning for the Jaffna women of the early 19th century. A quest dodged by barriers and obstacles, for they had to struggle to get rid of societal prejudice against girls' education; some had to wrench themselves away from those whom they loved to pursue their newly discovered thirst for knowledge; others had to break away from traditions that restricted them only to the domestic sphere.

182 years since........  

Sadly a conflict which intensified in the last quarter of the 20th century now drags on into the 21st, dealing out different forms of violence including the denial of basic necessities and human rights. Even as I write this article artillery shells thunder overhead as they zoom their way to destruction. Communication and movement restricted, long queues for basic rations and petrol, random killings, arrests and retaliatory attacks are the order of the day.

Life within the Uduvil school community is yet another world which grapples with the tough realities of war as well as the need to give the best kind of education we possibly can under the circumstances, equipping our students to tackle the varied requirements they have to fulfill namely Grade Five scholarship tests, the G.C.E. Ordinary and Advanced level - the results of which give chase for high placements on charts in the divisional, district and provincial level education offices. The importance parents place on these examinations is evident in the following incident. All was deadly quiet on the scheduled day of the Grade five scholarship examination when an all day curfew was clamped in Jaffna. Slowly creeping through the tiny gate of the school was a mother on a scooter with her little one on the pillion, all clad smartly in her uniform, armed with a file which seemed bigger than her. The mother rolled up her scooter nervously and with a diffident smile, hoping against hope that the examination would be held, came up to us to ask whether the Examination was being held. A high score in the Grade Five scholarship would mean free education which opportunity this mother could not afford to miss. An intense desire to lead a normal life and to be able to give an uninterrupted education to children, to give them at least a bit of the opportunities that other children from the rest of the country, of the world have - these are dominant sentiments of school communities here.

Sometimes I in my quiet moments sit back and "allow" myself to look at reality and feel dejected that we are a long, long way from what we have formed as our vision - our vision for our school and the dreams we have built for the children of this community.....but this despondency lasts only a moment for then comes the realization that the efforts of the founders of the school who trudged from house to house in the hot burning sun, down winding lanes urging girls to join school and the toil of those who have served this institution through its one hundred and eighty two years, striving to overcome a variety of crises and problems of different dimensions, will not be in vain. We ride on the vision of our founders, now made our own, waiting for a day when our children will be able to reclaim their right to childhood. Till then we will continue to strive.......

Shiranee Mills
Principal, Uduvil Girls' College

From Vol. 25 No. 4, December 2006 issue of In God's Image, a publication of the Asian Women's Resource Centre (AWRC)

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