Shira Ben-Simon: The road less travelled or how I learned to work with a hoe (Glocal, blog 1)

Kendawa villagers enjoy the spectacle of our ad-hoc hoeing techniquesDecember 2011: Halfway into our four-month internship in Sri Lanka we have finally encountered the much-dreaded threat of physical labor. Up until now we have been working in the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement’s head offices, but have managed to inconspicuously avoid any manual work, which would surely expose our embarrassingly poor physical shape.

This week, the organization is celebrating its president and founder A.T. Ariyaratne's 80th birthday by conducting a Shramadana (literally a 'gift of labor') work camp, in which members of the Sarvodaya Movement gather in a village and work for three days to improve its infrastructure. The village chosen is Kendawa in the Sabaragamuwa province of Sri Lanka. Our mission is to build a new road connecting the village to the main road and to inaugurate the new drinking water well, sponsored by JAFS.

07:00: Making our way to the village in a minibus. Present company includes two Americans, one Canadian, five Netherlanders, two Japanese and two Israeli students from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Hopes to blend in the crowd quickly dissolve as I realize we look like a United Colors of Benetton ad.

12:00: Arrive at the village and receive a warm welcome from the locals. I'm relieved to realize that they are mistaking my anxiety for enthusiasm. Also, I seem to be overdressed for the occasion. No one had told me that shoes are optional.

13:00: We are led to the worksite; it's a muddy pedestrian path that needs to be widened to accommodate vehicles. We get our tools and start digging.

13:30: I clumsily flail my hoe around, trying not to sever any vital or non-vital limbs. For every foreigner working there's a pack of Sri Lankan youths standing idly behind, much too fascinated to do any actual work themselves. This is very distracting, not to mention terribly counterproductive. I'm surrounded by elderly people, who are working faster and better than I am, cosmically avenging me for all the times I made fun of my grandmother for not knowing how to write a text message.

16:00: Work is over for the day and we take our sweaty, tired selves to lunch, after which we are distributed to our host families. They have accepted us into their homes voluntarily out of sheer hospitality.

20:00: The villagers, volunteers and other guests are gathered in the decorated village hall for a long list of speeches, translated from the original Sinhalese to both Tamil and English. After which begins the cultural show with the locals' native songs and dances, as well as the occasional satirical skit which, unfortunately, does not transcend the language barrier.

22:30: Exhausted but in high spirits we retreat to our provisional homes for a hard-earned rest, and contemplate the events of the day. Back home, just getting through our Shabbat family dinner alive is considered a triumph — and that mostly involves just sitting around and eating. While the good people of Kendawa can't even afford a decent road, they do have a closely tied community who work together to better themselves. To us, that seems nothing short of priceless.

Shira Ben-Simon, 27, is a student in the Glocal Community-Development Studies four-semester master’s program at the Hebrew University which includes an internship during the third semester with an international NGO. She and fellow Glocalist Na'ama Gorodischer are doing their internships with the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, Sri Lanka’s largest non-profit organization. She has a BA in philosophy and French from the Hebrew University, has worked as a reporter for Ynet, Ha’aretz and various magazines, and has volunteered with Ethiopian immigrants.

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