Mahaweli River: Maduru Oya Dam is Built with Help from Canada

The signboard at Maduru Oya dam showing the key facts and players involved

Sri Lanka is proud of its ancient “hydraulic” civilization. King Prakramabahu in Polonnaruwa famously said that “not a single drop of water that falls as rain should reach the ocean without benefitting man”.

Modern engineers follow in the footsteps of those building thousands of years ago, as Canadians supporting the construction of Maduru Oya dam discovered when they dug up an ancient sluice structure. Centuries ago, earthen bunds or dams were built to perfection, a herculean task using elephants and manual labour.

The Mahaweli is the longest river in Sri Lanka with a watershed covering one fifth of the island. Its tributaries are dammed and provide 1000 square kilometres of irrigation in the dry zone and 40% of the country’s electricity. Decades ago it was one of the biggest multi-purpose river basin development projects in the world.

Mahaweli is a Sri Lankan story but Canada’s $100 million contribution and cooperation with Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau of Mahaweli played a part.

Everything about the project was complicated including the Canadian participation, which involved the Canadian International Development Agency funding of six different companies, as well as FAKJ, a consortium of four construction companies.

In February, 1983, Canada’s Justice Minister took time out from a Commonwealth Ministerial Law meeting and, with Sri Lankan Lands Minister Gamini Dissanayake, placed the final corefill on Maduru Oya, one of the five Mahaweli dams.

There is no consensus on the success or failure of the Mahaweli scheme but the varying views on things that worked and others that did not, makes it a fascinating case study.

Much has been written on the Mahaweli project and its outcomes in each of the five constructed reservoirs –Victoria (UK), Kotmale (Sweden), Randenigala and Rantembe (Germany) and Maduru Oya. Many Canadians have taken part in the debate and pondered big issues of human rights, ethnic conflict, attacks on contractors, and the role of aid that dogged downstream irrigation planning for system B of Madura Oya.

Resettlement issues are frequently fraught with controversy. It took decades for a national resettlement policy to be finalized with help from the Asian Development Bank and Canadian consultants.

Canadian economist and resettlement planner Martin ter Woort, was involved in the 1980s in Maduru Oya and subsequently in other resettlement projects. He was keenly aware that the Maduru Oya project ran through an area with both Sinhalese and Tamil communities, with the latter predominant. The issue of who to resettle on the newly-irrigated lands was never resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

Ambitions for the Mahaweli scheme were huge in the 1980s when Lalit Godamunne was Secretary General of the Authority. He wanted much more than rice paddy subsistence. He was sure that commercial crop diversity was the key to success. The government was keenly aware of the pent up demand for land to cultivate and for this reason there was intense pressure to fast track everything. The major 1983 and 1987-88 riots set those ambitions back as investors balked.

Today it is possible to visit the ancient sluice and tour the Maduru Oya downstream area while meeting some of the 130,000 people living in the catchment area. Farmers cultivate rice paddy and other field crops and raise livestock.

Engineer Navaratne, Executive Director of Technical Services, joined the Mahaweli Authority in 1978. When queried about Maduru Oya’s outcome, he expresses satisfaction with the results because of the livelihood provided to so many families that were resettled on scrub land. The full promise of Maduru Oya was never achieved but Maduru Oya dam was an important step to meet the enormous needs of rural farmers.

The site of the ancient hydraulic precursor to the modern dam


Gratiaen Trust: Product of a Gifted and Gifting Ondaatje Family

Michael Ondaatje at Bawa Architect Award ceremony in Colombo 2011

Internationally famous, the Ondaatje family is also a big name in the promotion and encouragement of Sri Lankan English language literature. Credit must go to the Gratiaen Trust, named after Doris Gratiaen, mother to the Ondaatje siblings.

The Trust has operated since 1993, dedicated to the support of English language creative writing in Sri Lanka. It is funded by Canadian Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 Booker Prize winnings for The English Patient.

From over 50 manuscripts submitted annually for the Prize, there is a short list event with readings in April, followed by announcement of the winner in May. Over 200 people attend the party to talk about reading and literature in a celebratory atmosphere.

As long time Canadian resident of Colombo, School Principal (The Study), Jill Macdonald, says, “it’s a far cry from the initial musing aloud in 1993 when Michael Ondaatje in the company of a few people talked about getting the prize going”.

The Trust’s prize of Rs 200,000 is not enormous but its impact matters in terms of visibility and credibility. The process is highly competitive and brings the author into the company of previous winners, many of whom have important followings.

A particularly successful winner, The Road to Elephant Pass, by Nihal de Silva, had eight editions and was made into a popular movie. Other well known Gratiaen prize winners include Carl Muller and the beloved children’s author, Sybil Wettasinghe. Gillian Ratnayake, Michael and Christopher Ondaatje’s sister and former trustee of the Gratiaen Trust, has her own favourite Tissa Abeysekera’s Bringing Tony Home.

Besides its founder, the Trust has other Canadian connections, including that current Trust Chair, Professor Walter Perera, is an alumnus of the University of New Brunswick.

The Three Wheeler Publications, inspired and funded by Michael Ondaatje, funds trilingual translations of Sri Lankan literature.

Michael Ondaatje’s speech when launching the Gratiaen Trust acknowledged the difference money and visibility could make to a national literary capacity. He spoke of the need to have a “voice of a country that is not English or American” recognizing that there was a need to “find our own place” so that “we are no longer invisible” and the “self is doubled”. He recognized that this surely happened in other countries and cited the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salmon Rushdie as examples. Canadians could argue for their own home-grown authors too.

Gillian Ratnayake points out that “the arts are not like politics where the winner takes all; the arts are a true democracy”. Being a Gratiaen Prize nominee is nearly as important as being a winner for book sales and readers.

Galle Literary Festival – Canadian content

Perhaps there is a causal linkage between the Gratiaen Prize and the annual Galle Literary Festival (GLF) founded in 2007. One of the Festival’s aims is to put Sri Lankan writers on a better footing vis-a-vis their international counterparts.

In 2010 and 2011 the GLF was curated by award-winning Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai, himself Sri Lankan born. The author of Funny Boy, Cinnamon Gardens and Swimming in the Monsoon Sea used his Canadian connections to ensure a strong Canadian contingent attended the GLF, including Randy Boyagoda (The Governor of the Northern Province and Beggar’s Feast), whose Sri Lankan parents emigrated to Canada a few years before his birth.

Royal Ontario Museum – South Asian and Sri Lankan content

A Canadian friend, newly arrived in Colombo and hearing about the Gratiaen Prize of Michael Ondaatje made the observation that the family is remarkable for having given culturally both ways, to Canada and to Sri Lanka. Not only is Christopher Ondaatje an author who has written stories set in Sri Lanka and others drawn from his experience working in Canada and abroad, but he is perhaps better known as an arts benefactor. The Sir Christopher Ondaatje South Asia Gallery at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto has received generous funding to educate Canadians on South Asia’s diverse communities. Gifting seems to be in the family blood.

Roloff Beny: A Canadian Photographer Records his Travels in Sri Lanka in the 1960s

Beny, in his Rome apartment, selects negatives, colour transparencies and prints (Roloff Beny / Library and Archives Canada)

One of the most prized items in a rich collection of photographic books in the library of the Sansoni family is Island Ceylon featuring a Canadian photographer, Roloff Beny. The Sansoni family owns “Barefoot”, a well known Colombo store that features regular art exhibitions in a lovely outdoor patio setting. Dominic Sansoni is a recognized photographer and judges that Beny’s book was “extremely important…as it was one of the first of its kind and was beautifully produced”. His lens captured the so-called “cultural triangle” from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa, Sigirya and the Kandy Perahera.

Beny was born in Medicine Hat, Alberta and the University of Lethbridge houses his permanent collection. Beny was a painter who went east to the University of Toronto and then to New York. He got a big break in 1947 when his colour engravings won a prize from the Brooklyn International Museum. He moved up quickly and travelled the world on the strength of initial recognition from Peggy Guggenheim and art agents from the Boston and Harvard Museums. By the age of 30 he was one of Canada’s well known modern painters. In Spain he lost his painting equipment and turned to his camera to capture sketches. Photography quickly became his main artistic passion. Beny created 16 remarkable books after the publishing of his first book The Thrones of Earth and Heaven in 1958. He settled in Rome and lived there for many years before his death in 1984.

Beny travelled to Japan, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Iran and India as well as Sri Lanka. In his introduction to Island Ceylon (1970), Beny explains his strong feelings for Sri Lanka and its attractions compared to the chaos of capital cities in Europe and America. As he writes, “Now the West is going East”. He was known for his great love of ancient and classical art. He dedicated his book to the Canadian High Commissioner and his wife, James and Carol George, “whose love and understanding of Ceylon encouraged us to undertake this book”. James George, who lives in Toronto and remembers Beny says “Roloff was a dear friend of ours and followed us around Sri Lanka, India and Iran – with books to show for it”.

Canadian publishing legend, Jack McClelland, was the head of the Roloff Beny Foundation and a friend of Beny and called him “one of the world’s greatest photographers”. The Royal Ontario Museum named a gallery after him. He was the friend of Tennessee Williams, Henry Moore, Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier and photographed many of them including Fellini during his filming in Rome of the revolutionary film La Dolce Vita.

Sarvodaya, Sewalanka and Sanasa: Grassroots National Organizations with Strong Canadian Links

Sarvodaya, Sewalanka and Sanasa each have their own personality but they are all rich in development history and national scale development efforts in Sri Lanka. They also have early and ongoing connections to Canada.


One of the oldest and largest of the national organizations in Sri Lanka is led by Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne. He has won too many international prizes to list, including the Roman Magsaysay, 1969 and the Gandhi Peace Prize in 1996.

Sarvodaya started in 1958 with its first work camp. Working today with more than 100,000 people in 15,000 villages throughout the country of 20 million, its signboards are in every isolated corner. It supports preschools, community health centres, libraries, cottage industries, village banks, well and latrine construction, as well as solar energy and rural cyber cafes.

Dr. Ari walks newcomers through his Moratuwa-based headquarters south of Colombo and interprets the large mission statement signboards that decorate the plaza. He speaks of five stages in development forcefully making the point that economic development is not enough. He speaks of the importance of the psychological aspect of development or “self realization” that is too often the blind spot in development. Sarvodaya’s vision includes work with neighbouring villages and a commonwealth of village cluster republics, described as the Gandhian ideal.

Dr. Ari is clear in the value he places on early Canadian funding. In the early 1980s at the Canadian International Development Agency’s  Non Governmental Organization’s (NGO) Division, an important book circulating was Survival with integrity, Sarvodaya at the crossroads written by Canadian Denis Goulet. There were at the time many Canadian groups working with Dr. Ari, including but not limited to the International Development Research Centre, Oxfam Canada, CUSO, Overseas Book Centre, Toronto and York Universities, Plenty International and World University Service of Canada (WUSC).

It speaks to the strength of that partnership that Dr. Ari cites all the Canadian NGO and CIDA people with whom he sparred, laughing all the while today, even while acknowledging his previous frustration.

One of the early sparring partners, Ian Smillie, returns the compliment, recalling the difficulties for Sarvodaya that accompanied the creation of a donor consortium to replace its fragile and uncertain project support base.

It was no surprise, therefore, to have Dr. Ari at the WUSC 20th anniversary celebration in Colombo in 2010, making a keynote speech about a close partnership in vocational training. WUSC’s former Director General, Bill McNeill, is particularly cherished by Dr. Ari probably because they spent considerable time in each other’s homes. Yet Dr. Ari also remembered a WUSC seminar for Canadian students in 1953 in Colombo which formed long lasting personal relationships. Decades later Dr. Ari was bringing Sri Lankan “Caravan on campus” handicraft products to Canadian university campuses to sell.

In 2010 there are new players and young Canadians such as Rushini De Zoysa working with Sarvodaya. A Sri Lankan Canadian development student from York University, she was in Sri Lanka with her family in May 2009 as the war came to a tumultuous end. She was shaken by seeing the “protests in Toronto and the parades in Sri Lanka” in the same month. After working closely with Sarvodaya for a year, she came to appreciate its power in building local capacity. She says it also helped her move from theory to practice.

Sarvodaya has also played an important role in that the key players for the other two national organizations were connected to Dr. Ari in their early days.

Dr. Ariyaratne founder of Sarvodaya shows a visitor their preschool


Harsha Kumara Navaratne leads the organization deemed the dean of civil society by the UN and is in many ways a disciple of Sarvodaya. He is in fact related to Dr. Ari. Sewalanka has much in common with Sarvodaya. Its efforts have been relatively greater in the North and East. It works in all of the country’s 25 districts and had a staff of over 800 in 2010.

Sewalanka has made a remarkable effort to document its community-based organizing approach. If less overtly Buddhist in character, it is nonetheless spiritual in the importance it places on working in villages with people. Accompanying, rather than leading or telling people what to do, is part of it. Sewalanka has given active support to expand networks between different religious leaders.

The range of activities is broad, from livelihoods to environmental and youth activism, and is captured in an operations field manual which is well articulated in several languages.

Sewalanka has a long history of Canadian partnership funding and people connections. The Canadian Hunger Foundation (CHF), with CIDA funding, is the most recent Canadian group that has worked on livelihood efforts with them. Lakshi Abeyasekera is the Director of Special Projects and spoke appreciatively of CHF’s expertise in livelihood and income generating activities being a good complement to Sewalanka’s ability to communicate and organize effectively at the community level.

Sanasa Development Bank

Sanasa reorganized in the late 1970s under the leadership of P.A. Kiriwandeniya. His daughter, Samadanie, worked for many years by his side as Deputy General Manager.

Sanasa has had two Canadian cooperative partners, Desjardins International and Canadian Cooperative Association, both CIDA funded, working with them since 1990. Canadians, Uwe Foehring in 2010 and Ingrid Fischer before him worked within Sanasa. Ingrid published the Sanasa model at the University of Saskatchewan’s Centre for the Study of Cooperatives in 1999, calling the annual general meeting of its membership, a movement that is one of “the most powerful and interesting social and economic movements in the world today”. Samadanie Kiriwandeniya was educated in Saskatchewan so the learning has gone both ways.

Thrift and Credit Cooperative Societies were established as early as 1906 but Sanasa’s financial cooperatives had a more defined social dimension. In 2007 there were over 8000 registered primary thrift and credit cooperatives with an average of four staff each. It is particularly strong in the south and in rural areas.

A thorough study of microfinance institutions in Sri Lanka in 2009 by the Ministry of Finance and Planning concluded positively on the high degree of competition and significant savings culture and also saw many opportunities to strengthen micro finance.

Mary Heather White, Program Manager (Asia), Canadian Hunger Foundation in the field (courtesy of CHF)

World University Service of Canada (WUSC): An Education and Training Organization


International Women’s Day 2011 – 100th anniversary with tea pluckers at WUSC office (courtesy of WUSC)

WUSC is one of Canada’s oldest development organizations and is one of the largest in terms of volunteers sent abroad. It came out of the International Student Service movement in Europe after the First World War and the World University Service movement after the Second World War.

WUSC started its history in Sri Lanka in 1953 when it sent Canadian students to take part in a one month international seminar in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India. Some of those Canadian students went on to become big names in international relations, politics and government including Senator Eugene Forsey and Warren Allmand.

Senior government officials today remember World University Service (WUS), a home-grown Sri Lankan group affiliated with other similar groups abroad, including WUSC. A WUS Secretariat in Geneva provided support to them all. WUS Sri Lanka engaged on campuses in Colombo, Peradeniya, Moratuwa and Sri Jayawardenapura. WUSC Canada engaged more closely with WUS on scholarships in the early 1990s and both chapters worked with Sarvodaya for decades.

A book was published in 1976 by the Sri Lanka National Committee of WUS at the University of Sri Lanka, Colombo after a regional workshop with 81 participants and one Canadian, Carol Malette of the University of Toronto, was held to discuss non-formal education. The very first line of the book states, “Education hitherto has meant formal school and university education. Changing requirements…necessitate the introduction of new and non-formal types of education” and this included workers education and family life education. The Minister of Education Dr. Al Haj Badi Ud Din Mahamud wrote that “WUS is not so rich, working on a low budget and on a self help basis”. The book also described WUS as “an independent organization made up of students and staff in universities throughout the world and its purpose is to bring these persons together to work for economic and social development”. Chancellor Siriwardhane spoke of his memories starting a bookshop in a section of King George’s Hall, later expanding its activities to canteens and hostel facilities.

WUSC’s major development work in Sri Lanka really got started in 1989. WUSC was galvanized into action by young Sri Lankans searching for meaning for their lives in a culture that valued knowledge but where often practical skills were lacking to find employment or start businesses.

From the beginning, WUSC was determined to work with communities in many regions but by 2012 there were fewer district offices in Colombo, Vavuniya, Jaffna, Batticaloa, Badulla and Kandy. A steady flow of Canadian young volunteers (32 from 2006-2012) to Sri Lanka has helped keep the organization directly engaged with youth. Since 1994 a variety of Canadian volunteers, not just youth, were active.

WUSC partnerships are key to its approach – with government, local civil society, private sector and donors.

This includes the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Skills Development as well as the Tertiary Vocational Education Commission, Vocational Training Authority, National Apprentice and Industrial Training Authority, and National Youth Services Council. Without their involvement young people’s dedication to demanding vocational training course work would not be recognized in the national vocational qualifications certificates many of them currently receive.

The national partner organizations, local peoples organizations and private sector regional plantation companies are also critical to delivering results in 17 out of 25 districts in all regions of Sri Lanka. Local partners are nearly always located “out station” meaning outside Colombo and in the rural districts. Finally, WUSC’s partnership with UNICEF in particular, as well as the major funding from the Norwegian and Canadian governments round out further the WUSC partnership portfolio which has involved over a dozen donors at any one time in the past, including the Saskatchewan Council for International Cooperation.

WUSC’s longest running vocational training effort celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2009. The Project for Rehabilitation through Education and Training has helped an estimated 30,000 marginalized youth and women enter the labour force. It also helps women enter non-traditional trades such as electric wiring and carpentry while opening up to the private sector and supporting self employment opportunities in the areas of engine mechanics, construction, computer/IT, tourism services, photography and jewellery production.

The Plantation Communities Project works in four hill districts with tea plantation workers and managers. A dialogue has grown that has seen notable improvements in relations involving needs, rights, grievances, capacity building, and mutual understanding. The Regional Plantation Companies, Plantation Human Development Trust and local organizations including Estate Workers and Cooperative Societies are the most important players in this empowerment effort which tackles some of the historically worst poverty and discrimination in the country. Street dramas are one of the small but most colourful of the activities sponsored and it is a means to highlight a big subject – gender based violence and alcoholism.

Women Defining Peace was a WUSC consortium effort (2007-2012) that included MATCH International and Cowater and focused on preventing gender-based violence. The work demanded creative solutions ranging from lofty legal and justice interaction to very practical, street level, innovative communication work with radio stations and tackling harassment on public transport.

With UNICEF, the Youth in Transition Projects, started with post-tsunami work with traumatized youth in the South then moved to conflict-affected youth in the East years later and finally in 2012 moved to the north to work with youth job creation. Meeting young people who were part of the leadership and confidence building dialogue reinforces how important life skills are to awakening potential and eventual success. Technical learning tends to be the focus of traditional schooling and class work but is rarely enough to really help young people think through their future career options. Researchers know that resolving this mismatch between youth skills and the needs of employers, is important to resolving youth frustration and conflict.

There are so many stories to tell but what really encourages WUSC’s longest serving field manager in Sri Lanka and now WUSC Program Director worldwide, Doug Graham, is the “impact that WUSC’s programming has had on the lives of people in all communities. It is rewarding to meet former trainees who now run their own business and hire others to work for them. Equally, walking into a partner organization to see them continuing to support youth in an effective programme without ongoing direct support from WUSC, also makes the work worthwhile”. Change can happen and make a big difference.

Female oriented training in the North with female trainees (courtesy of WUSC)

International conference in Colombo (courtesy of MYASD)

Canada World Youth: One of the Earliest Youth Exchange Programs

One of the last CWY groups in Sri Lanka, 2004-2005 (courtesy of Iroshan)

One of Sri Lanka’s longest running youth exchange programs was a partnership with Canada. It involved 1400 youth, half of them Sri Lankan and half, Canadian. The impact on many young people was life altering.

Canada World Youth (CWY) is an organization created by the late Senator Jacques Hebert. It has operated since 1971 and remains active in 17 countries. Its objective is to help young people “experience the world for themselves, learn about other cultures …while developing leadership skills”. There is considerable emphasis on non-formal education in this model, “learning by doing”, with young people getting involved in communities in Canada and abroad.

Speaking to Sri Lankans who were involved at the start, is to go back to an era when many young Sri Lankans belonged to independent youth clubs. The clubs had a keen desire to reward outstanding young people with education that was community-based.

Charitha Ratwatte is former Finance Secretary and current Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre and Member of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. He was the Chairman of the National Youth Services Council (NYSC) when these exchanges took place. In his words: “it was a ground breaking concept, to bring young Canadians and place them in Sri Lankan village households to undertake community service projects with young Sri Lanka counterparts, giving them an overwhelming culture shock. The young Sri Lankans going to Canada on the second leg of the exchange program later at least had some mentoring and preparation from the time they spent with their Canadian counterparts here. But it was an enormous learning experience for the youngsters and seems to have had a lasting impression on all the participants and the hosting households and communities in Sri Lanka and Canada. What stunned us, the managers of the program, was the inherent adaptability and resoluteness of the youngsters adapting to completely new conditions. It reaffirmed our faith in the future”.

The NYSC and its Directors General and Chairpersons worked hard to keep rural youth involved, which is why village displacement due to conflict became a constraint to the operation until it closed a few years ago.

An early participant, Canadian Chris Eaton, lived for months in the rural south during JVP demonstrations. He remembers the challenges and notes how very complex Sri Lankan society remains. He left Sri Lanka to work in Africa and Afghanistan, working for the Aga Khan Foundation for years before taking up his current position as Executive Director of the World University Service of Canada.

Canada World Youth started in Sri Lanka in 1978 and ran successfully until 1988 before succumbing to security concerns. Another start up in 1996 ran for a decade and then stopped, also due to security.

Devika Rodrigo worked for the NYSC from 1979-1982 and was a program youth services officer in Puttulam district. She worked with rural young people in setting up national youth service projects – renovating tanks, roads, canals…as well as pursuing cultural and sports programs, working alongside young Canadians, some of whom were city kids with no knowledge of rural Canada, let alone tropical Sri Lanka. At a youth vocational training exhibition held in Vavuniya’s Technical College in May 2012 another CWY participant and group leader remembers fondly his experience from twenty five years ago and how it now shapes his NYSC work with youth clubs.

The Canadians, ages 17-20, lived with village families who were poor and earned some additional money housing them. Most of the young Canadians enjoyed the experience although some struggled to cope with travel on crowded buses, sleeping on the floor and handling mosquitoes with malaria and dengue which were new experiences for them.

Of course the young Sri Lankan villagers struggled to cope in Canada, too, when they settled in Ontario and British Columbia. They usually had no English and little familiarity with urban settings. An orientation before their departure tackled urban life skill challenges such as eating with utensils. Sri Lankan girls found the Canadian independence and lack of chaperoning odd. Weather was a big shock, too, with skin irritated initially by the dryness. Yet the young Sri Lankans adapted quickly and their confidence in “speaking out” grew until they were soon “very forward”, recalls one official.

Iroshan, a young man from Anuradhapura who took part in one of the last exchanges, and who now works for a development education and training organization, recalls his work placement at the Muskoka Art Gallery in Bracebridge, Ontario. He was involved in a number of cultural exhibitions there which he found rewarding. He talks about how diverse his own learning was from the experience. He had to translate to fill awkward gaps in understanding of some delicate subjects, undertake an education day presentation on Canadian indigenous people with his Canadian partner and he spent time in downtown Toronto’s Chinatown. It all impacted on him. The actual work in the community, both in Ontario and then back in a working hospital in Sri Lanka, seemed to be the easiest part. What were his toughest moments? It was the differences in food that took their toll. When his host family learned of this, they offered to buy the ingredients he craved so he could finally have rice and curry again with some spice.

In the early years the selection process was extremely rigorous to meet the criteria of independence, gender equity, an open attitude to learning English as well as a hands on, practical work ethic. The local youth officers who knew the village people nominated for interviews in Colombo. Later some of that rigour was lost and this ultimately hurt the programme.

Devika Rodrigo worked with Canadian Don Brownell who was a group coordinator in Colombo with CWY. Together they worked with groups in Matara, Puttalam and Kurunegala in villages where Sinhala was spoken and learned by the young Canadians. Don Brownell now heads up the Canadian funded national languages project in Sri Lanka and is one of a handful of Canadians who have remained engaged for decades. Two others learned to speak Sinhala. Calvin Piggott and his wife, Judy Mathews, were both CWY participants and returned to Sri Lanka after the tsunami to work with CIDA. A lot of these relationships were built to last.

Some Former CWY people from decades before, meeting in Sri Lanka in 2011, from left to right, Don Brownell and wife Nisachol, Calvin Piggott and Judy Mathews, Phil Esmonde and wife Kashaliya

Foundation of Goodness and a Bryan Adams Swimming Pool

The ancestral home of Kushil Gunasekera showing the high tsunami water mark on the wall (courtesy of Greta K. Levy)

Five years before the 2004 tsunami, the Foundation of Goodness (FoG) was hard at work providing essential services to the villagers of Seenigama, a few hours drive south of Colombo. FoG founder, Kushil Gunasekera, could not know that his skills would be called upon later to rescue his ancestral village from tragedy.

The FoG website ( describes empowering the disadvantaged seeking a sustainable community model. In practical terms, that means assisting with every facet of life, including shelter, mental health, livelihood, skills development, and youth leadership. All such assistance is delivered in a cultural and religious setting that resonates with villagers.

Part of the FoG orientation includes a desire to develop fitness, talent and life skills through sports. This sports focus is not surprising as Kushil Gunasekera is the manager of Sri Lanka’s famed cricketer, Muttiah Muralidaran. (When a Sri Lankan is asked about Murali they often say “lucky boy”, because he is known to have reached the top from the bottom).

Singer/songwriter Bryan Adams is from Vancouver and his only connection to Sri Lanka prior to the tsunami was a performance he gave in Colombo. Kushil Gunasekera’s only Canadian connection was a Rotary-sponsored group study visit he led to Canada in 1995. Now there are more ties that bind the two and their respective countries.

After the tsunami struck, Bryan Adams offered his help through the Sri Lankan High Commission in London. The initial Rs 14 million+ (approximately $140,000) raised by auctioning his guitar built a 25-metre swimming pool at FoG’s request. FoG wanted to turn “wild swim strokes” or no swim strokes into an exercise in excellence that would have young people winning swim awards where previously there were none (if people could swim at all). Now there are young people from the village winning national races. A village girl, Dulanjalie, won the 6 mile sea swim in Colombo for two consecutive years and joined the national swim team.

FoG also wanted to show that it would meet donor needs with good reporting and accounting. FoG takes some pride in pointing out that the Bryan Adams funding was used to not just build the promised pool but was handled so carefully that land adjacent was purchased for other sports activities. Bryan Adams responded with a further two years of funding for pool maintenance.

Over the years, FoG has raised $10 million from varied donors, including the Marylebone Cricket Club and US chef Anthony Bourdain. External funding may well be attracted to a winning combination: Kushil Gunasekera, a Sinhalese, teamed up with Muttiah Muralidaran, who is Tamil, and together they formed the FoG. Now FoG benefits from five trustees, three of whom are top cricket players. They work together in the south and the north.

The story about that infamous day that the tsunami struck Seenigama is told with feeling by Kushil Gunasekera in the ancestral home where he was when the first wave struck. It was only a few feet high but enough to sweep away before his eyes elderly village women he knew. Subsequent waves would be much higher and even more devastating in their impact. His ancestral home, since donated to FoG, bears the mark showing the high water of the waves. It is a day he will never forget.

Since the tsunami, FoG activities have gone into overdrive with 20,000 people in 25 villages benefitting from a Seenigama Diving and Training Centre, a Marylebone Cricket Club Centre of Excellence and Sports Academy.

More recently, FoG has gone north to establish a Learning and Empowerment Institute because they recognize the needs of the poor and national unity are island wide. The Government of Sri Lanka made land available in Mankulam, Mullaitivu.

While FoG has benefitted from external and home grown assistance, it guards its independence. There is a strong environmental thrust to FoG’s approach that may caution them from dependence on any one interest group. They have learned the hard way the damage to Seenigama of coral harvesting to make chunam for construction which was the primary livelihood before the tsunami and increased their vulnerability when the waves came in.

The Bryan Adams swimming pool built inland near the town of Seenigama