View from aeroplane on travels about Sri Lanka (image credit: Randima Jayasinghe)
British Council Sri Lanka country director Tony Reilly writes about his recent visit to Jaffna, in post-conflict northern Sri Lanka, where the British Council is opening a long-awaited cultural centre.
After a breathtakingly beautiful flight, heading north along Sri Lanka’s west coast in a ten-seater Cessna aeroplane, we arrived at Palay Airport in Jaffna – once Sri Lanka’s second city. After calls on St John’s College, one of the oldest missionary schools in Sri Lanka established in 1823, strategically linked today with two schools in Northern Ireland under our Connecting Classrooms programme, we visited Jaffna University, followed by a call on the Skills Through English for Public Servants (STEPS) Institute.
This was Stephan Roman, Regional Director South Asia’s first visit to Jaffna, so we wanted to give him a real flavour of the region –- past and present. And so our next call, after lunch, was to one of Jaffna’s most iconic buildings, the Jaffna Public Library. The destruction of the famous Jaffna Public Library in 1981 symbolised the start of three dark decades of isolation for the people of Jaffna, in northern Sri Lanka, as a devastating ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka ensued, leaving the once-proud people of Jaffna, renowned for its rich cultural, linguistic and literary heritage, cut off from the outside world.
We had decided to hold a press conference at the now-renovated and rejuvenated Jaffna Public Library to announce the British Council’s plans to open a cultural centre in Jaffna in 2013. The symbolism of our choice of venue to make this announcement wasn’t lost on the large media gathering who had assembled to hear more about our plans.
The Jaffna Public Library stands proud again today, three years after the end of the conflict, offering access once again to knowledge, information and the rich cultural heritage of this part of Sri Lanka, to a growing membership of 17,000 people. Last year, more than 8,000 visitors enjoyed a joint British Council/British Library exhibition at the Jaffna Public Library called A Return to Sri Lanka. Earlier in the year an enthusiastic audience of 150 literature lovers came to readings by visiting UK-based Sri Lankan diaspora writers Roshi Fernando, Romesh Gunasekera and Jaffna’s own Tamil author Ayathurai Saanthen, at the Jaffna Public Library.
Jaffna is slowly and cautiously opening up after decades of isolation. They say in matters of love that absence makes the heart grow fonder. The same might be said in terms of the impact on communities who have been denied access to cultural and educational opportunities as a result of conflict or civil unrest. I have seen this for myself in South Africa, Ireland and Iraq. People emerge from the dark days of conflict and isolation with an increased appetite and hunger for educational opportunities – eager to engage in cultural exchange, to reconnect with the outside world, to share their own stories and experiences and to learn from others. There is almost a cultural and educational feast that follows the famine and isolation associated with conflict. It is in this context that we have been inundated with insistent requests for the British Council to open a cultural centre in Jaffna.
People want to learn English and to access internationally recognised UK qualifications. Teachers want professional development opportunities. University academics want to share research. School and university students want to connect with students from other countries and cultures. The public wants to visit exhibitions, see new films, read classical and contemporary literature and engage in healthy, open cultural debate.
The Jaffna Public Library is beginning to function once again as a space for the people of Jaffna to gather and pursue their cultural, educational and literary interests. And the people of Jaffna are looking now to the British Council to offer them a safe, neutral convening space (in my view one of our most under-rated assets) where they can acquire new skills and knowledge, engage with the outside world, listen and share experiences and debate and discuss global issues.
The daily Tamil newspaper, Thinamurusu, carried the story of our plans to open a British Council branch in 2013 on its front page this week, welcoming this as an opportunity for Jaffna to start to rebuild its proud reputation as a centre for educational excellence and a region renowned for its vibrant cultural and literary life. I guess we’d better deliver on our promises now. The people of Jaffna deserve nothing less…