Visiting Jaffna

George on Bike Jaffna
Me, cycling around Jaffna

We were flying low over the forests and jungles of Sri Lanka to Jaffna. It was a six seater plane – and that included the pilot’s seat. I was in the copilot’s seat and I thought to myself, “I had better watch how he flies the plane, because if he has a heart attack I will have to land it myself”! In the back of the plane was my wife Christine, and Pastor Leslie and Shanthi Matthews.

Although the first time I went to Sri Lanka, I was not able for health reasons to visit Jaffna, six months later I travelled again to Sri Lanka, this time with Christine as well. I’d heard so much about this town in the north, so I was looking forward immensely to going there.

Jaffna is in the Tamil north of the country and has been under the control at various times of the LTTE (Tamil Tigers), the Sri Lankan Army and the Indian Peace Keeping Force.  When we visited Jaffna in 1988 the army was in control but the area was in a high state of alert. When we landed at the Palali Air Force base, we had to pass various checkpoints before we could drive into Jaffna town.

Leslie and Shanthi Matthews

Lesley Shanthi and Roshani Matthews
Leslie and Shanthi Matthews and their daughter Roshani

I first met Leslie and Shanthi when they came to England for a Kings Church conference. We quickly became friends and this friendship has stood the test of time ever since. They are major partners in the work of Kingscare (now Karuna Action).

When I first met them in Jaffna, Leslie had the title of “Evangelist” at Calvary Church (or Calvary Full Gospel Church). The pastor at that time was Pastor Joseph, but he was old and died soon afterwards, at which point Leslie became the pastor of the church.

We met many people in their homes. Now, back then, bottled water was hard to get hold of, and Shanthi, having heard of my stomach troubles in Colombo, was determined that nobody but nobody would offer me any other drink but Fanta Orange. So as we went around, we had Fanta and biscuits, Fanta and cakes and even Fanta Orange and curry! We visited houses some of which were nice, but small, suburban type houses and some which were made from bamboo and palm leaves.

Child Sponsorship for Education

However the purpose of my visit was not just to drink Fanta Orange; it was to find out ways that we could help some of the poorest people in Sri Lanka. The same story that I’d heard in Kandy, I heard again here in Jaffna. Although schooling was theoretically free for everybody, in practice the poorest families were discriminated against. If they could not afford to buy school uniforms, shoes for the children’s feet, exercise books, pencils etc they were often sent home and dropped out of the education system.

Without education, these children from poor families, would not be able to get decent employment, and so one poor generation would produce another poor generation. We asked, “How can we break this vicious cycle of poverty. What could we do to help these children go to school and at least have the same opportunities in life as the children from better off families.”

Some of the first Sponsored Children
Some of the first Sponsored Children

Out of these discussions, the Kingscare Child Sponsorship for Education project was born. I had heard of many other organisations offering child sponsorship, many of whom use it as a way of generating funds for the whole community. But the purpose of the Kingscare system would be primarily to ensure that the sponsored children could go to school and receive a good education. When we arrived back home, we would try to find families to sponsor individual children in Sri Lanka and produce a partnership between family in England and the child in Sri Lanka.

We started small. Just eight children were selected in Jaffna, but before long, we are asking for another eight, and then another eight, and now there are over 200 children being sponsored from Jaffna. The original children, have of course grown up. Some went to university, some to Bible College and some created small businesses for themselves. Naturally, some did not take well to an academic study, and some no doubt wasted the chance to improve their life. But at least every child we sponsored had the opportunity to do well.

Trumpets Sound church

Welcome, Dowdell and Christine
Welcome, Dowdell and Christine!

Christine and I went to lunch with Pastor Mervyn, and his wife. The custom in Sri Lanka is for the men sit down to eat, and the women to eat afterwards in the kitchen. However, whenever I travelled with Christine, she would be expected to sit down with me and the men. We joked together and said that she was an “honorary man”.

They had obviously read that in England we liked fish and chips, and so the meal started with fish and chips. We tucked into this with relish not realising that the main course was yet to come! Next came an enormous pile of rice which was piled onto our plates. When we could eat no more, we were presented with ice cream and then an enormous cake arrived.

Sri Lankan pastors never quite knew how to address me. I was called, “Reverend Dowdell” and “Pastor George” but I always insisted my name was just George, so they settled on “Brother George Dowdell”. I had just written to them saying that I was coming and bringing my wife Christine with me. The cake we were about to eat was decorated with the words, “Welcome, Dowdell and Christine”, which brought us great amusement.

Fishing boat
The first Kingscare fishing boat

Pastor Mervyn was keen to show me his new church building which was under construction, and he needed funds to complete it. However this was not within the remit of Kingscare, so we sat down and talked about other ways we could help.

He told us about a group of men who wanted to support their families by sea fishing. They did not have a fishing boat and would have to hire boats from other people which would diminish their income. They needed about £3000 to buy a boat, motor and suitable equipment including fishing nets. We had just been given a donation of £7000 and so I decided that we could use some of this money to buy what they needed.

Pastor Josiah, Zion Church

Pastor Josiah, Joy and Johannan
Pastor Josiah, Joy and Johannan

We also visited Pastor Josiah Philip and his wife Joy. Again the whole matter of children and education came up and we agreed to set up a sponsorship scheme with the church. He was also keen to help some very poor families with income generation and so we decided to set up a micro financing project under his control.

Josiah is a great administrator and both the child sponsorship for education and the micro financing projects were excellently and efficiently run by him.

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.

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