The bus rolls into Mannar town at 4.30am, where save for the passengers disembarking and a few tuk tuk drivers lying in wait for customers, there is no movement anywhere. Once we’ve flagged down our tuk guy, we take a quick ride to the home of kind lady named Kavitha, our house for the next two days.
We’re half-asleep, the jerking motions and loud music playing on the bus not allowing for much rest, so after mumbling hellos to Nadeesh, who invited Building Bridges to Mannar, we drop down for a nap before the fun starts.
Two hours later, we’re rested and fed. With a suitcase of paints, paper and art materials in tow, we board a Mannar- Jaffna bus and take off on a speeding ride through the open landscape dotted with palmyrah to a small town named Illuppaikadavai. A few small shops are spread a few meters from each other along a quiet ‘main road’ and we see a few children running excitedly through a creaking blue gate, into the OPEnE Hub.
The Hub is an initiative by ZOA, a Dutch NGO with a focus on education in conflict-affected areas. Their funding provides an office space, a breezy classroom and a play area that keeps the children more than occupied before sessions start, the noise from their energetic play filling the air as we are shown around.
OPEnE Hub functions as a complement to the traditional school system in Sri Lanka, where rote learning is practiced across the grades and students are expected to repeat what they have learned back to the teacher, all culminating in exams that are drummed up as all-important for success in life, pressuring students into memorising perfect answers to achieve a good result.
The programs at the Hub are designed to show children that there is more to education than what’s inscribed in their school textbooks. Their curriculum extends with additional classes in English, maths and science; however these aren’t like the standard ‘tuition’ classes most students run to after school hours. Instead, through creative teaching methods, they are meant to get students excited about learning and open their minds to think outside the confines of rote learning.
In addition, OPEnE conducts workshops of music and drama, favourites among the kids as the theatre component provides them an additional outlet for their creative energy. These engaging activities keep children motivated to learn and develop a more wholesome individual who understands the value of learning through different media – art, craft, interpersonal interaction, humility, friendship and love.
The Hub is staffed and programs are facilitated by a group of dedicated young volunteers who commit their time and energy to ensuring that the children learn in a nurturing and positive environment. Kalpana, Vijitha, Niranjana, __________, __________ & Nadeesh teach the kids everything from English to creative writing and sometimes even cooking. It’s important to note the value of having volunteers from the area interacting and educating the kids – they understand the context of the region and in sharing that experience, they are able to connect with the children in a meaningful way.
It was these great people who helped facilitate our workshop – they explained the activities as well as supervised the kids as the group was entirely Tamil-speaking.
We started with an exercise that engaged the kids’ imagination and employed some creative writing, an activity the volunteers said the kids had enjoyed when they last tried their hands at it. They were presented with prints of iconic artworks that Irfadha and Nushelle had chosen – Dali, van Gogh and beyond, colourful and surreal, inciting question and thought. The kids were tasked with telling us a story that they’d written based on their own interpretation of the paintings. They spent 15 minutes furiously scribbling out their tales on white paper, rushing to erase as the storylines changed. One narrator was appointed per group and they each told us their story. It was great to see that the kids had linked all the elements of the pictures together with a narrative, some more dramatic than the others. However, I feel like we were thinking that we would have seen more imagination in the stories the kids told – they seemed to stick closely to just narrating the items existing in the picture strung together with a simple plot line. We’re not sure if both of us have just high expectations for stories or if it’s the safe rote learning methods of their regular school that came into play when faced with having to conjure something up on their own.
One of my favorite activities that we do with kids at art days is the Mirror Portrait. It involves them being paired off and given a few guiding questions to interview their partner. The premise is to get two children to get to know each other better, through the little details that come together to make a bigger picture. The bigger picture, at the end of the activity, is a portrait of sorts that each child has drawn of the other.
We’ve experimented with this activity in the sessions with the kids, tweaking as the time goes, and one thing we’ve realised is that while the question is meant to act as a prompt for conversation, it often gets prioritised too heavily. The children will ask us for more questions to ask their partner instead of going ahead and just asking them anything they feel. Even if they don’t ask us, they limit their drawing to the answer that they got from the first question they asked their partner, not going beyond that.
This isn’t always the case, some students do make an effort to communicate – breaking language barriers, in the case of our previous Kurunegala workshop. In that case, students used their [admittedly limited] English vocabulary to communicate with one another and produce beautiful drawings. Nevertheless, we’re still debating the impact the prompt has on limiting the scope of the portrait and what we can do to give the kids some inspiration without confining them to a box.
We see the culmination of this activity in the exchange of drawings, when one child gives the drawing they have made of their friend to that friend. It was meant to be a gift of sorts but we got some feedback from the volunteers that made us rethink how this works. Having worked on a drawing for half an hour, putting so much work into it, some of the kids don’t want to give their pictures away. This isn’t out of spite for the other person but purely because of the energy they invested in the work, which is completely justified in our opinion. We left thinking we should maybe introduce this at the start of the activity – tell them that end result – so that it’s not too upsetting. We can’t tell if that will mean they take less care with the work but I think it’s important to account for the children’s feelings at the end of the activity so we’ll put more thought into how we frame the activity when we do it again.
The final activity was the collaborative drawing. We tried something different this time and played an art version of musical chairs, almost, with the children sitting in a huge circle, beginning with a single blank sheet of paper each, drawing in their component and passing the paper to the person on their right when the music stopped. This sounded great in theory but as the rounds progressed we realised that the focus had shifted from the artwork to the switching game and kids would haphazardly add to the drawing, sometimes scribbling over the previous person’s work. While some of the pictures came out beautifully composed, some were rather messy. During a debrief of the session, Irfadha asked the kids what they had learned and quite a few mentioned that it was important to respect the other person’s work. This knowledge is present in children, which is important in itself, and I suppose a small reminder before the activity began would have helped.
We rounded off the day with a spirited game of dog and the bone, something kids never seem to tire of, and they enjoyed themselves immensely. After the heat and dust of the game, they all still had energy left in them to contribute to the mural we had hung up on the wall. Squirting of paint tubes into open palms followed by vigorous slapping onto the paper resulted in colourful clouds along the white background. The only prompts left on the paper are ‘write!’ and ‘draw!’ which gives the kids free reign to do whatever they like – it all ends up a messy jumble and that’s where the beauty is, in my opinion.
This particular art day gave us a lot to think about in how we execute activities and giving thought to some of the children’s thought processes around them, aside from the creative activities alone. I think the lessons of ownership and respect as well as sharing and understanding are what we need to teach first; prioritising these values before the actual art will allow everything to fall into place after that.