My first visit to Sri Lanka

Church in Kotena
A Church in Kotehena, Sri Lanka

The room was dimly lit, the temperature must have been 40°C with humidity around 100%. It was 1988 and I was visiting a church in Colombo in Sri Lanka. The Pastor of the church had got together a group of elders and I was there to talk about ways that we could help their congregation and their community.

How did I get here? I had no real experience of poverty relief and development and thought I was ill-equipped to fulfil the vision I had to see the church really blessing their communities. I was in for a big surprise!

The day before I visited a number of homes with Pastor Sanna in the slums of Kotehena,  a district of Colombo . Poverty is not very photogenic, and tends to be well hidden from the tourists who come to Sri Lanka for the beaches and sunshine.

I remember sitting on a stool in a home which made my garden shed look big, sharing a cup of tea with the family. I was shown a tree which was thought by the residents to be possessed by an evil spirit. I was told that many of the poor people worked in the port as general labourers, carrying goods on makeshift carts.

Meeting with the elders, everything I said had to be translated into Tamil and Sinhala. I would ask a question, this would be translated, then the elders talked amongst themselves, and eventually the translator would relay the answer to me in English. This would be followed by another question, and so the process continued.

I suddenly began to chuckle to myself.  I realised that what I was doing now, I had been doing for many years! I had just left a career as a systems analyst for a computer software house. In designing new computer systems, I would often find myself in a room with representatives from different departments of the company, who were there to talk about features they would want in the new computer system. I would ask a question, and this would usually be followed by a discussion, or argument, and they would eventually relay the consensus to me. My experience was problem-solving, so in fact I had been training for this job for many years!

Micro Finance

Sewing Machine
Proud owner of a sewing machine

One of the projects which came out of that first visit to Sri Lanka was micro financing. We agreed to set up a revolving loan scheme which would lend small amounts of money to individuals to help them improve their income. The poorest people do not have access to banks. There are money lenders, or loan sharks, who charge exorbitant interest rates and seek to enslave people in debt. The purpose of the revolving loan scheme was to give access to the poorest of the poor loans at reasonable interest rates.

For instance, there was a man who worked at the dockyard as a porter. He had to supply his own cart, but his was in a poor condition and he needed a new one. He would borrow a modest sum to buy a new and better cart and as his income depended on the amount of goods he could carry, his income would improve and he would be able to repay the loan. The money would then be available to another family.

A stay at home mother, with a skill at making clothes, could borrow money to buy a sewing machine. The sale of clothes would then supplement the family income and the mother could repay the loan and could be passed on.

We all learn from our experiences, and this scheme did not work well. Although micro-financing has been very successful in certain situations, in a city there is a great deal of mobility, and no accountability to other members of the scheme. After a number defaulted the fund quickly dissipated and the scheme came to a grinding halt. But we set a similar scheme in the town of Jaffna and this worked very well.

Adopt a cow

The first cow given by Kingscare in Sri Lanka
The first cow given by Kingscare in Sri Lanka

I met two men from the hill country in the centre of Sri Lanka. This area was developed in the British Empire days as a major tea-growing area. Although the British plantation owners have long since left, the tea estates are still flourishing and tea is a major export from Sri Lanka. Most of the tea plantation workers are descendants of Tamils shipped from India over 100 years ago. Most of the tea-pickers are women, and the men work at the factories to process the tea. Unfortunately for the men, there is now more automation in the factories and so many men from the area are unemployed.

The suggestion put to me was that if we could supply money to buy a single cow for a number of families, then the unemployed men could look after the cows and the family incomes would be improved. I have no agricultural background, and coming from England, I was picturing fields full of cows. In the United Kingdom I knew that no farmer could economically just look after a single cow. I was concerned about the economics of the scheme which only provided one cow per family, but they explained to me the realities of the situation.

Tea-pickers in Sri Lanka

For a start, tea plantation workers lived in a single story block of “houses” known as the lines. Most families would own no land or at the most a small plot. They would put up a small shed for the cow and if they had a plot of land would grow grass for the cow to eat. The owner of the animal would also collect grass from the sides of roads, paths and the edges of the tea plantations and bring it back to feed the cows.

Now I know very little about cows, but I know that they produce milk and dung. They could use the milk for their own families and sell any surplus to their neighbours or to the local wholesaler. If they had a small vegetable plot then the dung could be used to make the plot more productive in producing food for the family. If they had land of their own, I discovered that there would be a good local market in dung to be used as a fertiliser by the community. Going through the figures we could show that the ownership of one cow could actually double the family income.

The lines, where tea-plantation workers live

We soon got onto talking about calves. I was wondering about the practicalities of taking a bull around the steep hillsides where the tea plantation workers lived. “Oh no,” they said, “We use artificial insemination”. The point was that they had the necessary expertise to look after the cows but lacked the capital cost to buy them.

The cost of a young cow, and enough foodstuff to last until the cow could start producing milk was about £180. This would be given to the family as a gift, but I was very keen that there should be an element of giving something back, by the recipient, to the community. It was agreed that the first calf would be given back to the community to be passed on to another family. This scheme lasted for over 20 years, and I have lost count as to how many cows were given and how many families were helped but I guess it must be over 200.


Jaffna, Sri Lanka
Jaffna, Sri Lanka

I wanted to travel to Jaffna, the second largest town in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is divided ethnically into the North, which is largely Tamil and the South which is largely Sinhala. There has been much tension between the two communities eventually leading to civil war. The Tamil minority felt they were unfairly discriminated against, and many of them wanted independence from the Sinhala majority. At the time of my first visit to Sri Lanka the army was in control of the North but the LTTE (the Sri Lankan Tigers) were creating problems for the government.

In order for me to travel to Jaffna, I had to get permission from government authorities, and because I wanted to fly, and the Jaffna airport was controlled by the Sri Lankan Air Force, I had to get permission from the Air Force authorities also. So I spent the first two days whizzing around in Bejajs, or three-wheeler taxis from my hotel to various government offices.

I arrived in Sri Lanka early in the afternoon and having a settled in a hotel in Colombo had some time to myself to prepare the tasks to come. I ordered a fish curry from room service. Now I like fish, and I quite like curry but I had never eaten a fish curry. Basically, I’ve never had a fish curry since because the effect on my system was quite disastrous. I was violently sick and suffered from diarrhoea for many days afterwards.

Eventually I got permission to travel to Jaffna, but failed to get permission to fly there. My guide wanted to take me on an overnight bus. The roads back then were very bad and I’d heard reports of how difficult the overnight trip might be. The diarrhoea had failed to put itself right and I had to reluctantly decide not to travel to Jaffna. I felt very bad about this, because my guide was quite willing to undertake the journey and I felt that I too ought to have been able to take it. But my physical condition was such that I had no alternative in the end. Visiting our contacts in Jaffna would have to wait until a future visit.


The lake at Kandy, Sri Lanka
The lake at Kandy, Sri Lanka

Kandy is the cultural and Buddhist centre of Sri Lanka and I travelled there by train to meet Pastor Chandy and Pastor Bongso of the Lighthouse Church. Kandy Is about 1500 feet above sea level with a more moderate climate than Colombo on the coast. It is built around a lake and is surrounded by hills and forests.

I was shown around the area, visited the tea plantation of in the hills and a community on the edge of town where some of the poorer people lived. I remember one morning visiting an area, and although it was morning, there were many children playing in the open. Now I was led to believe that education in Sri Lanka was free and so I asked, “why aren’t these children at school?” It was then explained to me that the poorest people couldn’t afford the school uniforms which were required, had no money to pay for school exercise books etc and the transport was problem. It seemed that there was an unofficial rationing system in place that disqualified children from the poorest families from attending school. I began to formulate some ideas of helping these children to attend school and greatly increase their chances in life.

Community concern society

Tom and Sryani Tidball
Tom and Sryani Tidball

On my first visit to Sri Lanka I was greatly blessed by visiting a Sri Lankan organisation called the Community Concern Society. This organisation was formed by Sryani and her American husband Tom Tidball. Their vision was very close to my own and was based on Isaiah 58.

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?

Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

Over the years, we have formed a close partnership arrangement with the Community Concern Society and have helped them with a number of their projects. These have included:

  • Helping them with their tuition school and sponsoring some of the students.
  • Creating a shop to help local people buy things cheaply.
  • Help fund a children’s home.
  • Help to fund a drugs rehabilitation unit.
  • Building homes for people who lost their houses in the Tsunami.
  • Helping them to develop a self-help scheme making costume jewellery.

Author: George Dowdell

I was the founder of Karuna Action (formerly Kingscare) and was the director for 24 years. I have now handed control over to younger people but continue as an advisor and trustee. My passion is to see extreme poverty eliminated and to see justice for the powerless.

4 thoughts on “My first visit to Sri Lanka”

  1. George, this is so informative. Your listening and letting them tell you what they need and what works is a key tenet of Bob Lupton’s book “Toxic Charity.” We all need to listen and understand what could be most impactful. Thanks for sharing. BTG


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