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Marist volunteer from the Province of Brasil Centro-Sul

09/05/2014: Sri Lanka

We share an interview with Gabriel Bernardo da Silva, a lay Marist from Brasil Centro-Sul, conducted by the local newspaper Folha de Londrina. He is a lawyer and a social scientist. Two months ago he went to Sri Lanka with the Secretariat for International Missionary Collaboration, and his experience there will last until September. He describes it through a blog in Portuguese: http://daquiprala.com.


How did the opportunity to work in Sri Lanka arise?

I’m part of a new volunteer program conducted by the Marist Group, but other people have volunteered in other countries before me. It all started when I moved to Londrina, ten years ago. Since then, I have participated in different volunteer outreach activities promoted by the school’s pastoral team. After these experiences, I felt “called” to a new volunteering journey.

What are your impressions of the country?

Sri Lanka is a very young country. It won its independence in 1948, and went through almost 30 years of civil war that ended in 2009. In the meantime it was ravaged by the tsunami that killed about 50 thousand people in 2004. The country brings together two main ethnicities (Sinhala and Tamil) and four major religions (Hinduism, Islam, Catholicism and Buddhism). Culture and society are very different from what I’m used to in Brazil, beginning with the way people dress, eat, and the language they speak. Everything is very different, but very cool! People in Sri Lanka are very nice and friendly, always smiling and caring.

And what is your mission?

class=imgshadowI work in a house/school together with the Marist brothers, in the town of Kalpitiya, northwestern Sri Lanka, teaching English to the local children, and being at the same time a meaningful and transformative presence in their lives. Basic education here goes up to 16 years of age, and the teaching is in Sinhala or Tamil. To access high school education, the student must take a test, a sort of entrance exam. If they pass, they have the chance to go on studying. But it turns out that this entrance exam is in English. In this place, the teaching of languages at school is rather poor and, if the students fail the exam, they have no alternative but to engage in fishing or cultivate coconuts, as their parents do. Kalpitiya is a very small village and the local economy revolves entirely around these activities.

How does it feel to be out of your “comfort zone”?

Well, it’s quite challenging! Everything here is a big challenge. Absolutely everything! Nothing here is “easy”, so I have to outdo myself every day. Things that are normal in Brazil, spontaneous, become a major challenge here, like the simple fact of saying “good morning” to someone. I’m trying very hard to learn the language, but even the alphabet is different. The food is also very challenging. Traditional Sri Lankan dishes – in this area of Asia in General – are very spicy, with lots of seasoning, lots of pepper, and I wasn’t used to that.

Are you homesick?

Missing home is also something I’ve been dealing with. I left my family, girlfriend, and friends in Brazil, and I really miss the contact with them. But I’m sure they’re very happy for me, and looking forward to the day when I return with many good stories to tell. At the end of the day, leaving your comfort zone involves a real rendezvous with yourself, with your limitations and potentialities. When you “empty” yourself from yourself, from your culture and customs, you can see better who you are.

What have been the most striking experiences so far?

There have been many striking experiences in these two months here. Day-to-day sharing with the students is always a nice time. The kids are now used to my presence here but whenever they see me, they want to talk and ask something in Portuguese. Being Brazilian, they always want to play soccer with me. My first class was a striking moment. There were only seven students, in a very simple classroom, but their interest and stamina made an impression on me. Another striking experience was this visit to an orphanage for children who lost their parents during the war or in the tsunami. These children have been marked by horrible disasters, and yet they have this sparkle in their eyes, this purity, you know? I thought I was coming to “give” so much, but in these first two months I’ve realized I’m “receiving” a lot more, thanks to the experiences I’m living, the self-knowledge I’m acquiring, and the positive feelings in my heart.

What are your plans and projects?

For the time being, I plan to stay in Sri Lanka as scheduled, doing my job with the kids the best way possible, whether teaching, spending time with them, or playing soccer and cricket, which is the national passion. Many times we need to “do, do, and do” in order to feel that we’re accomplishing our work. However, with these children, in this experience, “spending time together” counts a lot, and you become a significant presence in the lives of these children and young people.

Folha de Londrina, Paraná - Brasil

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