It’s two in the afternoon on Poya Day or Full Moon Day in Sri Lanka, thirty one degree heat, and I am surrounded by children’s laughter and constant chatter. We are circling the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, one of the most significant Hindu temples in the Jaffna district, studiously taking photos of the things we think are beautiful. For me, it is the sheer vivid bright yellow of the temple that draws my attention the most.
My group of ten girls and boys from the Kokuvil area of Jaffna district are beginning to express their ideas through photography. “I am going to take pictures of the Jaffna library because there are many books there and if you read all the books you will have much knowledge”, Sobana (13 years old) tells me. Rajendini (12) decided she wanted to take pictures of the Nallur Temple because “the Gods are beautiful inside”. “I love the flowers in the garden, there are many different colours and it makes me smile” says Luxan (13).
The project that I have started is called “I love Jaffna …..” and groups of children from three villages have been taught the basics of how to use digital cameras over the last few weeks. They are using photography for the first time, and from the huge smiles and laughter it is undoubtedly igniting their imaginations alongside a fascination of what they look like in their own photos.
After nearly thirty years of conflict children from the North and East of Sri Lanka have faced tremendous hardships in their lives. They have not had the chance of having an innocent and carefreee childhood that is open to the majority of children in other countries. On the contrary, they have grown up with a different experience – constant fear, continuous displacements, being witness to unbearable suffering and sometimes loss of loved ones. As a result they are demotivated and frustrated and in many cases experiencing psychological issues.
Displacements and school closings during the conflict have adversely affected an important asset, their education, and not just their formal education. War affects children in all the ways it affects adults, but also in different ways. For many there is a disconnection with their ‘roots’, their culture, their history. They have problems with social relationships, either being excessively dependent or isolated; a loss of trust, hope and a sense of personal agency is obvious in many; and a lack of participation in preparing for the future.
And I am beginning to understand why. These children come from impoverished families who have been displaced from their homes, have been housed in Government refugee camps or are living with host families or relatives. Personal space, personal safety, and personal possessions have been absent from their formative years. In the aftermath of the war, families are trying to rebuild their lives but having lost all of their possessions, their attention is focused on finding work and providing shelter, water and food for their family – wellbeing, positive mental health and feeling connected to where they live are not high on their barometer of need.
“I love Jaffna…” is a project designed to help promote civic pride, to capture the imaginations of the children we work with, to empower them, building confidence, self-esteem and hope in who they are and where they are from. Through photography this project will also improve their wellbeing and mental health. We know from our work and research in the UK that there are some simple actions which can improve wellbeing in everyday life. Like taking notice, being curious, catching sight of the beautiful and being aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. Or trying something new – like photography! Learning new things make us more confident as well as being fun.
Working with a local NGO called CORD Sri Lanka (Chinmaya Organization for Rural Development) we have given thirty children cameras, shown them how to use them and simply asked them to take photographs of something, someone or somewhere in Jaffna that tells us what they love about their local area. These photographs will be exhibited during the annual festival of the temple we are at today. This festival is the most important festival of the Jaffna Peninsula held during July and August (26 days before the August new moon). The event brings together hundreds of thousands of Jaffna natives living across the world and is known to be the island’s longest festival. Through the lessons and funds raised through the sale of their photographs during the exhibition, I hope that a world of opportunity can begin to open for these children to pursue an education, enhance their wellbeing, and allow them to imagine their futures for the first time. Today, I love Jaffna because of the ten beautiful beaming faces that are smiling back at me as we take our photos of the temple.