A brighter future through cricket and bikes
The Southern Expressway has halved the drive from Colombo to Galle to one and half hours, and has opened up numerous possibilities for those based in Colombo during the World Twenty20. A day trip down south is now feasible.
Galle Fort is one of Asia's premier holiday destinations, teeming with history and quaint cobbled streets. It has museums, galleries and dreamy views over the Indian Ocean, as well as some of Sri Lanka's finest hotels. It is also a perfect pit-stop for those driving to Hambantota.
Just to the east is Unawatuna beach, the party capital of Sri Lanka, and the next village, Talpe, has some of the best seaside restaurants on the island. For those who don't have access to a car, it's better to take the train rather than the bus. Get on at Colombo Fort for the three-hour journey to Galle.
Away from the costal resorts, southern Sri Lankan stills revolves around the village, family and temple. Thick palm jungles and rivers stretch as far as the eye can see to the east, and the beaches that make Sri Lanka such a popular tourist destination to the west. Even though tourism is an established industry, there are miles of undeveloped stretches of sand, offering privacy - your own slice of tropical paradise. Make sure to check with the locals, though, before going swimming.
The south west coast of Sri Lanka was ravaged by the tsunami in 2004, and there are numerous reminders of the destruction when you look out of the train. But for a quirk of fate, Muttiah Muralitharan would have been driving into the brunt of the sea's fury that day. His agent, Kushil Gunasekera, was not so lucky and had to seek refuge in a local temple, having just witnessed the destruction of his family home in the village of Seenigama, 25km north of Galle.
From the tragedy emerged a mission "to narrow the gap between urban and rural life in Sri Lanka, by tackling poverty through productive activities", and Murali joined Gunasekera in managing the Foundation of Goodness, which the agent had first set up in 1999.
Eight years later, the results are startling. Thirty empowerment centres benefitting 25,000 people and covering 50 local villages, all free of charge, have brought hope to a part of the world that needed it badly. Projects include business and computing classes, healthcare and emotional support, language development programmes, and of course sport, which lies at the heart of the foundation, in the form of the MCC-sponsored cricket ground, built on Gunasekera's ancestral land
While a dedicated team of local "stakeholders" runs the foundation, the support and generosity of volunteers has played a huge part in the continued success of the project, according to Gunasekera. "Many volunteer for up to a month, but we know through experience that even a day or two of volunteering can change for the better the volunteer and the beneficiaries. It can be a life-changing experience, and many volunteers and visitors who have come for the day have become long-term friends of the foundation."
Volunteers or day visitors can expect a warm welcome and a personal tour from one of the stakeholders. Basic accommodation can be provided if the foundation is pre-warned. It is advisable to speak to them first about what aspect of volunteering you would like to get involved in.
To get to Seenigama, take the exit for Hikkaduwa on the highway. Those travelling by train should get off at Hikkaduwa and take a tuk-tuk, which will cost around $5. Signs on the road will lead you to the foundation.
For those coming from Colombo, the languid pace of life will be in direct contrast to the capital. The family-friendly watersports hub of Bentota lies about 15km north and Hikkaduwa, a livelier, surf-dominated place, which was the original 1970s Sri Lankan hippy hangout, is to the south.
One of the foundation's most tangible success stories is Pulina Tharanga, who was born into a poverty-stricken family and was orphaned at 11 when his mother died in the tsunami and his father, a fisherman, drowned two weeks later. Through the guidance of the foundation and with an MCC scholarship (the MCC has been a vital and long-standing supporter of the foundation), Tharanga is now establishing himself in top-level Colombo cricket and has represented his country at numerous age-group levels.
"Cricket provides me with the reason to live and fight," said Tharanga. "This game is all that I have. I do not allow my ghosts to haunt me on the field. But the moment I step off it, I become the same scared boy who lost everything at a very young age. Murali is my hero and friend, and the foundation has given me a chance to succeed in the game I love. I will repay him by giving every ounce of effort I have to representing the full Sri Lankan team."
On the occasion of Murali's retirement, his team-mate Kumar Sangakkara said of him: "He is a national hero for more reasons than just his wickets. The greatest tribute I can pay him is that I have met no finer man. He's great as a cricketer and even better as a human being."
Murali and Sangakkara have been instrumental in the foundation's new and even more ambitious project in Mankulam in northern Sri Lanka. When the war finished in 2009, the inhabitants of the areas that saw the brunt of the fighting were still faced with poverty. The foundation's work started with the supply of essential equipment to schools, and then gained momentum with Sangakkara's and the foundation's "Bikes for Life" project, in which so far 2000 bicycles have been handed out to people in the northern communities.
"In the short-term, the aid relief has enabled us to empower 7000 beneficiaries through our many programmes," Gunasekara said. "Mid-term, we have helped to develop the infrastructure of Mankulam Maha Vidiyalam, including a computer training centre and many other requirements of the school. The long-term project is to replicate the Seenigama rural holistic community model in Mankulam on the land gifted by the president to Murali."
The inaugural Murali Cup last year brought young cricketers from Sri Lanka, Malaysia, England and Australia to compete at the foundation's picturesque ground. This year, though, it is all about integrating school children from the north and south of the island.
"Hosting the Murali Harmony Cup in the north [just before the World Twenty20] is yet another initiative to foster goodwill and unity through the medium of cricket, building bridges of friendship between the south and the north, and promoting further reconciliation and peace. Such an event may attract others to support, as nothing multiplies so much as kindness," said Gunasekera.
If you would like to be one of these supporters or would like further information on the Foundation of Goodness, visit their website.