A can-do spirit

Sri Lanka, August 17, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    The organic garden Mercy Corps helped build at Sandunika's school is "a very big deal," she says, "because we are using compost, which means we're reusing something we already had, so it saves us money and it's organic." Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Shanti Weerasooriya teaches math to students at Nalagama Sinhala Junior School, an open-air school in tropical Sri Lanka. Mercy Corps helped instill a new cleanliness ethic with new latrines, handwashing taps and an organic gardening system. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

Nalagama Sinhala Junior School operates on something less than a shoestring. There's no library, no computers, no science lab. Recently, the older students performed a chemistry experiment involving oxygen using a plastic bucket rather than a glass beaker.

But the school does have a can-do spirit.

Mercy Corps recently rehabilitated what was the school's lone latrine and built two more toilets just behind the classrooms. We also installed two water taps and roof gutters, cleared land for a playground, established organic gardens and a composting program, and helped school officials instill a new cleanliness ethic with handwashing posters and a student-led committee on hygiene.

It's all part of an effort to improve access to clean water and sanitation in five impoverished communities along Sri Lanka's still-recovering southern coast. Across the island, which is about the size of West Virginia, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed 35,000, destroyed 50,000 homes and caused an estimated $1.5 billion in damages.

"This is a very poor village," says the school's principal, Premasiri Galapati. "In general, people do something daily just to make some money, mostly paddy farming, some masonry, some general labor. Only a few people have state jobs, and nobody has a lot of land."

The one-building school is arranged in a long, narrow space with temporary walls dividing the classrooms, and a couple of offices on each end. About 70 students attend.

Sandunika, a ninth grader, says she's happy she can now use a clean, girls-only toilet right on school grounds. And thanks to the new water taps, she and her peers wash their hands religiously before and after eating or working in the school's gardens.

"Of course we knew about handwashing before," she says, "but we didn't know as much as we know now: about mosquitos and waterborne diseases, and how to clean your nails — things like that."

The father of a third-grader at the school, E.P. Pemadasa, says he's seen a big improvement. "There are toilets children can use, good water supply, and a proper playground. We didn't have these things before."

And has he noticed a difference in his son? "Yes, he's cleaner now, and he wants to adjust his habits to what's being done in school. The children are very enthusiastic about doing the things the school teaches. It's made a huge impact."