but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done
It was at the Cambridge seminar I think, in February 2016, that I realized how much could be done to increase opportunities through vocational training. This was the way the world was heading and, unless someone took the lead, Sri Lanka would be left far behind.
It also became clear to me there, given the reactions to my presentations amongst the more innovative Indians, that I was uniquely equipped to introduce new ideas. I had greater experience of all aspects of education than anyone else in the country, having worked in universities and in the Ministry of Education, and then, while in Parliament, having devoted much attention, as well as funding from my decentralized budget, to vocational training centres. Then there was also the fact that had allowed me to do more to bring English to rural youngsters than others, namely that, with my academic qualifications, no one could claim that I was lowering standards.
Mahinda Samarasinghe was right then in saying that he knew that, once I became committed, I would devote myself to the task. But in March 2016 I had a few commitments, albeit of a personal nature, that kept me from embarking on the massive reforms I have already described.
The first was another trip to India, for a meeting of the Board of Aide-et-Action, organized together with a field trip to visit educational projects they were implementing for tribal communities. This was near the Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, which allowed for a safari into the Park, though once again I was not fortunate enough to see any tigers. But the Park was beautiful, and so was the Lodge at which we stayed, with a couple of stunning sunrises.
But even more impressive were the schools and creches the organization ran, with a couple of bright youngsters from urban areas devoting themselves in this remote outpost to building up teams amongst the tribal communities. It was heartening to see the innovative materials they used, ensuring that the children did not lose their mother tongue, but were also introduced to the tools that would allow them to compete in the future.
At my request, on the way back to Raipur, the capital of Chhatisgarh, where we were due to meet with university personnel to discuss further collaboration, we visited the Boromdeo temple which had seemed the most interesting of the sites described in the brochures I had picked up when we landed at the airport. It proved a magnificient site, an isolated example of intricate art set deep in the forest. And to add depth to the experience, AeA arranged the final debriefing in the grounds of the temple, so that we had a glorious architectural backdrop to the concentration of the teachers and teacher trainers discussing how they could improve the services they offered.
A week later I was due to meet Vasantha Senanayake in Zambia, where he had gone for the Inter-Parliamentary-Union conference. Initially I had planned to go back to Colombo, but I realized that it was much cheaper to fly direct to Lusaka. However there was the problem of how I was to fill in the time.
I solved this by visiting Lesotho, which the internet suggested was the only country in Africa that did not require a visa. This information turned out to be inaccurate, and I was fortunate to have checked it with our High Commission in Delhi while I was in the forests of Madhya Pradesh. The enterprising consular officer there persuaded the Lesotho High Commission to grant me a visa, which I obtained the morning I got back to Delhi, being due to fly out that night, via Ethiopia and South Africa to Maseru, the capital of Lesotho.
More than a quarter of a century previously, when I had visited Bangladesh, and told the friend I was staying with at the time in Bangkok why I was going there, he told me not to be silly, the only reason anyone visited Bangladesh was to tick it off their list. This was not quite true, but I was delighted to find that Bangladesh was even more interesting than I had thought it would be. The same, I found, was true of Lesotho, as to which my expectations had been even less.
The guest house I got to that first night seemed bleak, but the young lady in charge called up a driver who promised to come round next morning to discuss a tour. He proved to be a delightful chap, though he started by saying that, for the strenuous driving I proposed, his car needed some fine tuning. But he found me a friend who took me out to what was described as an old Trading Post, where the family that had settled there at the beginning of the last century had established a delightful hotel. I not only had a rondavel to myself, but the whole hotel it seemed, with a delightful cook producing the most magnificient dinner, including a tiramisu which she said she had tried out for the first time.
The next morning the first driver turned up and took me exploring, beginning with a wonderful waterfall, and going on through magnificient scenery which I could see would have reminded British settlers of the Scottish highlands. Other attractions included dinosaur footprints and cave paintings, which we had great adventures and strenuous climbs to find, and also a cave dwelling of an enterprising missionary of the 19th century. On the last day, after a rough drive to the appropriately named Gates of Paradise, a pass giving entrance to an enchanting valley, I walked up to the clifftop refuge of King Moshoeshoe, with tombstones of the dynasty perched on the heights, some distance from the huts that had passed for the royal palace.
I flew then to Lusaka, where Vasantha had arranged for us to stay with our enormously helpful Consul, and next day we took a bus to Livingstone. Vasantha had booked a delightful hotel, and the Consul had arranged for a Sri Lankan settled there to meet us. Sensibly enough Roy took us straight away to the river, so we were in time to enjoy a sunset cruise on the Zambezi, above the falls. We only got to see hippos in the distance, at dusk, but the scenery on the banks, and the blazing sunset, were joys enough.
The next day Roy sent his car for us to visit the Park on the river bank to view giraffe and eland and gnu, and then we went to the Falls. They were unbelievably impressive, thunderous in sound and coruscating in the bright sunlight. Unfortunately we did not hire raincoats, and were soaked, and my IPad died there, being less resilient to the drenching. But I suppose it was a great place to expire, and I was able the next day to buy a replacement from a charming rascal who persuaded me that that was better value than the simple camera I had set out to get.
We had dinner at Roy’s house that night and took him and his hospitable wife out to dinner the next evening. That day we visited the evocative Livingstone Museum, with another trip to the bridge to Zimbabwe, so I could get a few more pictures of the Falls. The day however was gloomy, so we had clearly been lucky the previous day, and I was even luckier in that, though the IPad did not recover, an expert at home managed to winkle out my pictures from its insides.
The next day we bussed back to Lusaka, and stayed in a hotel I had chosen, the Consul being away. This was a popular place with lots of footballers from country teams staying there for a tournament, but it was a disaster since a car blared music all night, and it was only when, at the end of our tether, we asked reception to deal with it, did the party obligingly shut up shop and drive away.
The next day was another long ride by bus to the North Luanga Park, where we were met by an enterprising South African called Gavin, who had arranged a splendid safari. We were housed on the bank of the river, which allowed for a splendid sunset that day, and several splendid sunrises, including one which also saw an elephant swim across the river and clamber up the bank.
And the safaris provided all we wanted and more, lions on the night safari and in the distance during the day, giraffe and zebra aplenty, leopard and elephant and also the rare wild dogs. We saw impala and warthogs and vultures picking clean a carcase, birds in profusion including a hammerhead and Maribou stork and wheeling eagles. One evening Gavin took us to an archaeological site near salt pens, and on the last day we stayed out all day, with a magnificient picnic, on the excessive lines of those I had enjoyed with my aunt Ena at Yala in the old days, before the Park became too crowded for such excesses.
Gavin’s safaris included drinks at sunset, and he realized early on that we enjoyed Amarulla, and the more so when we were near water. We lingered late the last evening, and then, having tracked leopards, got a flat tyre and then discovered that there was no spanner. But there is much camaraderie amongst the safari operators, and we were duly rescued.
I had a complex journey from Mfuwa, the nearest airport to the Park, since while I was in India I had been invited to a Conference in Lahore, beginning the day after I was to get back to Delhi. I responded that I was travelling and that it would be difficult but the enterprising organizer said, when he knew my schedule, that I could fly direct to Lahore from Doha, where I was to change planes. He sent me the ticket, and then I had to convince the Qatar Airlines Staff in Johannesburg (after getting there via Lusaka) that I could use the ticket rather than the ticket on which I had got to Johannesburg. But they permitted this in the end, and I duly arrived in Lahore late on the night of March 31st.
Arrangements there turned out to be smooth, with a host of earnest students looking after us from hotel to conference venue to lavishly hosted meals. On the first morning we had a lovely tour to see beautifully restored monuments which had not been on any agenda when I had visited Lahore before. Then there was lunch at the house of an impressive woman who had been in Nawaz Sharif’s cabinet in the nineties but had then got on well with Benazir Bhutto and been close to her in her last campaign.
Astonishingly, when I asked after a good friend of my sister’s at Oxford, whom I had seen on my two earlier visits to Lahore, it turned out that her son was hosting the first night dinner. The little boy whose Ordinary Level results his mother had been awaiting with bated breath way back in 2004 was now a prosperous businessman.
It was super to see Shaistha again, and then the next night a few of us were hosted to dinner by Nadeem ul Haq, the imaginative IMF Representative in Sri Lanka at the turn of the century. And the Conference itself was a delight, with a superb list of speakers on various subjects having been put together by a young Professor newly returned from Oxford.
It was a marvelously stimulating three days, after which I got to Delhi to get my multiple times postponed return flight to Colombo. After such range of sights and experiences, I felt refreshed enough to get down to the hard task of trying to transform the vocational training sector.
Ceylon Today 21 Jan 2017 – http://ceylontoday.lk/print20170101CT20170331.php?id=13498