Monday, December 10, 2007

Elmo Jayawardena

Ginger Tea and the Candle Man

This is not a tale about an airline Captain who flew above the clouds, but about a one who touched down in the 'land of the forgotten', nor is this about an author who writes to win prestigious awards but about how he helps write new life stories for those who cannot afford to buy even a pencil and nor is it about a man who hands down nickels at the stop light and drives away to another world, but about a man who drives the kinder to light the darker world.

This is about a man who has done his very best to find time to help the needy by making people get up from the "do nothing" seat to 'do something", about an ordinary man but who is an extraordinary human being.

The cool breeze sweeps over the moonlit Moratuwa Ganga and kisses his grey lined chest and the silver beard. Sitting in his balcony at 'Waypoint 9', in his most preferred attire, the sarong, tied low with a half a knot almost loose that it had to hug precariously to its dear master to protect him from any potential embarrassment, Captain Elmo Jayawardena knew these moments when he and his beloved 'Dil' would have a relaxed chat over a cup of ginger tea are fast becoming very rare. Life has got busier by the minute even after his retirement from flying to sign-off the Big Jumbo captains for Singapore Airlines. He was pensive thinking how the day had been. The smile said he was happy and content as life has got busier for the right reason.

It was a Saturday, when usually life takes a slower pace in Sri Lanka, for some it is the weekend to relax, for the others it is to execute the plans plotted through the week for that great escape. Elite husbands test each other in a cricket bar on who knows most about the Duck Worth Lewis system or how to punish Darrel Hair for not allowing Murali flex his wrist while their wives banter about the latest twists in Santa Barbara, Bold and the Beautiful soaps or how fast their daughters read Harry Potter. For the more down trodden it is into a bush hideout they tread to enjoy the organic pot arrack or a 'Buruwa' card session to test their intellect while their better halves exchange ideas over the shrub lined fence, how to crack their husband’s pot luck and other means of punishments for the common offences. For the more pious, it is the church or the temple they head to.

But it does not matter to Elmo Jayawardena what day of the week it is, he seldom distinguishes between the Gregorian norms of working days and weekends. For him every day has to be spent with the best use of time, with every minute counted. His normal day always starts before the rooster doodles at 4.30 in the morning. After a big glass of water he steps into their purpose built office facing the beautiful misty river. The office wall adorns a picture of him smartly dressed in the Captain's uniform with 4 bars on the sleeve and on a stand nearby is a scaled model of a Singapore Airlines Mega Top Boeing 747. A querying eye would find a few books on aviation nicely stacked in a rack. Those are about all one would find in this office to say he flew aero planes. More captivating is a picture of a little girl in a blue frock standing in front of her little mud and straw house. By the old hut is a new brick house in white with a neatly tiled roof. Her beautiful smile tells thousand stories, the caption in the picture says 'you have a beautiful home, she needs a home too'.

Captain Elmo Jayawardena has a beautiful home. Now this little girl of Indigaswewa has a beautiful home too.

Elmo and Dil have their two desks side by side facing a line of lap tops, printers and fax machines. Stacked on a desk are files with stories of all types of people known to some but unknown to many. Old, young, male, female, retirees, primary students, university students, sick, physically handicapped, visually impaired etc…., they all had something in common. They are the poorest of the poor. In a country where middle class is an endangered species and fast evolving to being poor, the poorest of the poor have little chance of anything but hope. These files are about them and this office is all about how to help them see the light in some way. From this office Elmo and Dil operate the command center of the charity they founded 12 years ago in 1995. He believes one should not blame the darkness but light a solitary candle, the theme of AFLAC International 'Association for Lighting a Candle', passion of their life to alleviate poverty in Sri Lanka.

From this office they get in touch with the world. They would have an unending litany of e-mails to write. It is not to reply to junk mails of lotteries promising to share million dollars or to forward numerous e-mails flying around the cyber world in the name of different Gods, promising favors only if it is forwarded else threatening with their wrath as if all these Gods have no better use of their time but counting forwarded e-mails, No, he always writes to someone with a purpose, to help someone from the stack of files. He doesn’t care which God they worshipped or what was written in their birth certificate to fill that (somewhat obscene) four letter word “Race“, he knows anyone can be poor, and he cares because they are poor..

For him the secret of success for anything is timely communication. He always respected the time of another who had written to him. He knew that person had spent some time as well and always replied back with at least a few meaningful sentences. If World Wide Web, Microsoft and other Silicon Valley giants have their own Emmy/ Grammy/ Oscar like awards, Elmo Jayawardena would easily win the award for 'Best Performing e-mail artist' for his purpose, punctuality and speed of e-mail communication. One of the best and most effective exponents of this powerful communication tool, he would write to discuss various subjects with people from all walks of life, from all nooks and corners of the world, different nationalities even from Punta Arenas, Anchorage and Greenland, some people he had met in places where he had flown his big Jumbo and spoken how to help the poor of his country, the others he had not seen at all yet it didn't matter as most of the time it was to discuss his passion, how to light another candle.

He loves to watch the Sun wake up from its slumber to gently chase away the mist from its overnight romance with the river. He would then watch the fisher folk collect their prawns from the bamboo cages they had submerged beneath the Ja Kotuwa the night before with a kerosene lamp on the surface to attract the prawns. But before the prawns come ashore he would always write to staff of AFLAC office to guide them on various issues. He never waits for the sun to rise nor to set to take care of matters of priority. Most of the time, someone’s life would see light, long before the first rays of sun creeps through their windows.

He then has to keep in touch with twenty or more AFLAC branches worldwide and thousand or more sponsors, volunteers, many through e-mail and some through telephone as well. They are from all walks of life and all parts of the world, one cannot comprehend the range of diversity, would be a challenge to a professional writer to complete the list let alone by this amateur.

These good people are the backbone of AFLAC, they keep the candles burning through, hundreds of primary and university student sponsorships, provision of food supplements to hundreds of poor families, caring for patients at two wards in the cancer hospital. They have already helped AFLAC to complete more than thirty very important projects for Tsunami affected people of south and east. Some are behind the success story of AFLAC Swim for Safety program. While some silently coordinate establishing new libraries around the island to help open the doors of the world to poor students the others help the people of 'AFLAC Village' at Indigaswewa Dambulla where they built a house for each family and a self sustenance program to provide some permanence to life disturbed by pachyderms who thought it was their land. These are few programs amongst many others they work so diligently to carry out their duty towards humanity.

Through AFLAC Elmo manages to provide a genuine transparent way for people wanting to give, a link to reach out, and a way for people who could not give financially but wanting to give some how, a way by working with AFLAC as volunteers. With this network of kind human beings around the world and back home this simple man helps to link someone's generosity to another's need.

His charity raised bigger waves of love and compassion towards Tsunami recovery

For this 60 year old, his life revolves around being physically fit. For the last 50 years he has exercised almost everyday. His weight had fluctuated only within 2kg for the last thirty years. He would run 5 km, walk with Dil at Soysa Park or pedal his canoe upstream of Moratuwa Ganga with a dip in the cool waters mid river. Else get into his self styled gym if the skies come down. He always does something to keep himself in shape. The place and time does not matter to him when he needs to exercise. During his active flying days he would land the aero plane and the moment the chocks were in place, he would challenge his cockpit crew for a run or a game of Tennis. The rest is almost history by the time this old Captain in his own words, 'beats the crap' out of a pilot twice younger than him. Even at this age he would still play sixty minutes of intense Basketball with young players at College courts or a good game of Tennis at Carlton, by the Lunawa Lagoon.

A great competitor with a never-say-die attitude he even finds time to row his canoe to corners as far as the stretching waters would take him, even to the foots of hills where the Kalu ganga starts her long journey. Many are such excursions, almost to match the silver grey hair. Being the adventurer he is, he recently rowed the canoe upstream with his nephew in search of an ancient Dutch waterway which had supplied water from Kalutara Ganga to Bolgoda Wewa (Lake). The pictures taken by the nephew do not say much about how they were lost and had to track back for six hours, but the excitement found in adrenaline pumping challenges of navigating through the waterways hidden beneath the jungle canopy. He was grounded after this escapade and an embargo was imposed by the 'mother superior' as he lovingly refers to the role assumed by 'Dil' in these instances. The grounding he accepts with a smile, until the next time.

Navigating his canoe upstream to the waters edge, beneath the jungle canopy

Today was a good start to the day too. He wrote lots of e-mails, one of them to a CEO of a bank who has pledged to sponsor 100 university students as they were convinced that AFLAC is a great partner to fulfill their Corporate Social Responsibilities. He then completed his exercise routine followed by a Kola Kanda (green leaves kanji) usually made at home during the weekend. After a breakfast of his favorite kiribath (milk rice), they attended a passing out ceremony of poor children from the training program of AFLAC Swim for Safety academy at Moratuwa. This was the 10th batch of 100 young swimmers, by this time they have already exceeded the annual target of 1000 children. Plans are afoot to train parents as well. He was much content and happy seeing how these poor children had learnt to tread water without fear. The swimming training program has achieved fathoms in no time. They have given hope to these children and their parents.

His long known friend Siri too had flown all the way from the Canadian Calgary by the edge of the prairies to see how his friend’s Charity works. Siri didn't need much to be convinced, there was proof right in front of him.

This event was scheduled for 9.00 in the morning and it started sharp on time. He never misses the time in any event he is associated with. In his life everything starts on time even when the chief guest is not there on time. This he had proven many times over. He always honors the time of people who are there on time. Most of the players whom he had coached Basketball, specially the team captains would share their testimonies of how much they suffered being punished for the team not being punctual, all for good reasons and life longs lessons. Of course the chief guest and most everyone were punctual and on time today.

He was requested to speak a few words of AFLAC and the Swim for Safety program. Before that there were few other speeches too. Being young as they are the children chat during these speeches and parents get caught up in it as well. So there was general clatter as one would usually hear during these occasions. But he being a Captain, Mentor, Teacher and a Coach, never spoke when people were talking around him. He is invited to speak at various events in different countries. Being the chief guest of an event or a guest speaker to a group of university students, an inspirer in a corporate team work development program or as an author at a writer's forum, even as a winner of an award, he would always demand that everyone listen. He always paid attention when others spoke and he needed them to hear every important word he would speak as well, because he always spoke from his heart. Today too as usual he established total silence amongst his audience before he began to speak and they all listened.

The speaker The teacher

After the ceremony Elmo and Siri were sharing a lighter moment of their long lasting friendship and how much they had kept in touch from worlds apart. Siri could see a man of a darker complex with a mustache dressed in a common man's sarong trying to draw Elmo's attention, (Sri Lanka had different sarongs for different social classes. While the affluent wore the sarongs of the up market brand “barefoot” with their branded hand crafted sandals, the others could only afford the poor man's pallai kaat version which they wore with the old favorite Bata rubber slippers), he wore a white shirt with few patches of stains, definitely not a shirt washed in a whirl pool washing machine with snow white and comfort softener but a shirt, probably like the wearer himself, which has taken it’s fare share of beating from life, sparred against a stone by a well, with a pinch of Rinso. This was a moment to cherish by Siri, in a matter of seconds this Captain who commanded a super Jumbo brought everyone down to simplicity of life. He put his arm around to lovingly introduce this person who very innocently and meekly stood by him as 'Anta' (short name for Anton or Antony named after St. Anthony), he said 'Anta' didn't go to school but was his first friend, his first Co Pilot with whom he flew toy planes made out of coconut leaves,. They didn't have dye cast scaled models those days, could not buy even if it were available. 'Anta' always had time for Elmo and he in turn always had time for 'Anta' and valued that friendship, Could not care less because 'Anta' didn't study nor did a job, he always looked after 'Anta' and many like him. For him a person's class and status did not matter at all and he could be with anyone as one of their own. He didn't worry whether anyone else did so or not, but he did. Today ‘Anton’ helps out at the Swim for Safety program.

He had also reserved two hours in the afternoon for a young cadet pilot who needed help (as this wise old Captain says) 'how to fly an aero plane'. These are all part of a normal day for him. Being very effective and influential as a teacher, he does not essentially need to be in a cockpit or a flight simulator to teach someone the basics. Such is the effectiveness of this coach, this guru, he could even teach someone, physically handicapped from waist below to swim 50 meters in just 3 days. It is a real life story of two resolute men facing a challenge together. One of them is Jayatilleka, a handicapped boy from a poor remote village near Dambulla, who could not go to school until he was 10 years, his friends carried him to school on their backs, but ended up winning a full scholarship at the National University of Singapore when he completed his degree at Katubedda campus sponsored by AFLAC. The other was a boy who left school at seventeen and beat many odds in life to become a much respected airline Captain who never scratched a plane and being so persevering in achieving the impossible himself, inspires others do too. For them together, it was only another challenge.

Today he had planned for his evening Basketball game too. He knew he could fly the Jumbo through the thunder storms and enjoy the ride but as any Captain he too wished for the blue skies. However, the only other time he prayed to the weather God's mercy was when he had a Basketball game in the evening. He enjoyed the evening game at the college so much. Basketball is very close to his heart. He calls himself Magic Jayawardena after the famous NBA star of LA Lakers, Magic Johnson. The game and coaches had taught him and his brother Duncan, to fight the good fight during the days when their life was a rugged, stony path. The courts of Moratuwa has been their sanctuary, the place which taught them the disciplines of managing life with bear minimum, the place they always came back to enjoy the reality and equality of life. He has now completed almost 50 years of playing and coaching Basketball. His coaching skills had more to do with life than Basketball itself. Numerous players who played the game at highest levels but more so became better human beings, bear testimony to this. Today the weather Gods signed off the evening the same way the good captain often does with “Blue Skies”. It did not rain and it was a good game of Basketball.

Dil and Dinel,i his adored fans At 55 he was playing at world masters with 40+

The day for him is far from over. He had another important matter to attend to with Dil. They had to spend the evening at the printer to finalize the launch of his next book, a collection of short stories called ‘Rainbows in Braille’, a book about normal people seeking always that ever elusive ‘pot of gold’ at the end of the rainbow, presented through the pen of a writer with an ability to being unusually natural and unique in his presentation. A brilliant forward to this book has been written by former diplomat Mr. Bradman Weerakoon who works with AFLAC very closely.

Elmo Jayawardena, the author, has worked so hard in life to earn this great talent. During his days in school at St. Sebastian’s College, Moratuwa, he could not afford the two rupees to read English books in the school library. He wouldn’t give up though. He borrowed books from friends and read it overnight to return the next day. His English master ‘Earl Sir’ (Mr. E.N.S. Fernando) recognized the desire and drive of this boy to read books. This kind master paid the two rupees and got the books for Elmo. This made a big impact in Elmo’s life that he now got to read books because someone else sacrificed the daily two rupees to read. He made the best use of this magnanimous gesture and never let his Master down. The day Elmo Jayawardena launched his second book ‘The Last Kingdom of Sinhalay’, his English master who was spending the evening of his life was there in his usual simple whites. Elmo in his speech paid a fitting tribute to this master and threw a total surprise when he presented the first copy of the book to his ‘Earl Sir’. He had always been grateful and he had always remembered his roots. He did not seek glory for writing this book after 10 years of challenging research, which won him the State Literary Award in 2005, but glorified his teacher for being there for him when he needed to read English books.

His first book probably offers the reader the best reflection on how naturally Elmo Jayawardena writes. ‘Sam’s Story’ presents a fascinating tale of a village boy who comes to Colombo to work in an airline Captain’s house and how he is caught up in conflicting states created by the people of the house due to the ethnic issue. This book won Elmo the coveted Gratiaen Award in 2001. ‘Sam’s Story’ is now presented through the cinematic version in Sinhala as ‘Samige Kathawa’, directed by Priyankara Vitanachchi.

Every book he writes is sold at a very reasonable price as the idea is for many to enjoy reading them. Also true to his nature, he doesn’t take any profits, all of it is diverted to AFLAC to help a poor child somewhere who is deprived of access to books so they may read free of charge.

The author who writes in both English and Sinhala, to help poor children, read free of charge with his profits.

So the day has been good and well spent, he pondered. He was thinking of Dineli their daughter, Roshan her husband and the mischievous grandson Navik. He would see them soon. Mevan their son and wife Abi too would come from Melbourne to join them at Dineli's place in Singapore. It would be nice. The thought of Mevan brings a sense of pride to his heart. He was grateful to Mevan as this young man had done so much to carry the entire load of AFLAC projects to help the Tsunami victims by taking nine months leave without pay from work.

Before he could enter into a deeper thought he is drawn to the strong aroma of ginger brewing in tea. He turns his head to find 'Dil' with her enchanting familiar smile. Dil’s smile & Ginger tea has been his favorite combination for as long as he could remember. Dil, his beloved wife and his partner had stood by him as they climbed and descended through many a mountain to discover life's plains and plateaus. She has become the nucleus of AFLAC and carries a great load by herself. He calls the load bearers the 'log carrying Elephants ' and himself, the 'Elephant in the pageant'.

Next day Elmo and Dil went to the AFLAC Office at Rawatawatte in the afternoon. There was a young man seated there, helped by the staff to fill a form. He has traveled from Borella by bus, in the rain to seek a sponsorship. He hails from Vallavaya - father is a farmer, Chandana reads an arts degree at the Colmbo Campus. He had not had lunch. They brought him home and he had something to eat and then he went away. That evening a friend dropped by and Elmo told him about Chandana and the friend immediately said he would sponsor Chandana.

Dil & Chandana, a visually handicapped Uni student A family whose dream of a new house realized, with

who trekked a long way to see his rainbow in Braille Mevan, AFLAC Chief Coordinator Tsunami Relief

Elmo Jayawardena is an ordinary man who epitomizes simplicity but such an extraordinary human being for what he has given back to the world with so much compassion and love, without expecting anything in return.


By Priya Cooray, 20November’2007

This was not to write everything about Elmo Jayawardena as it would require few years and many volumes to capture all the episodes in his life, but to present this simple man of extra ordinary human qualities as an inspiration to the reader. My life was first touched by him 35 years ago, when I ran like a bat out of hell after breaking a window in my school lab. I never ran away from anything after that day.

Edited by Gerard Wijeyeratne and Jaliya Pilimatalawwe

Gerard is the AFLAC representative for North America. His Wife Monique introduced the e-mail message feature to propagate the cause of AFLAC. They started working with AFLAC when they had all the invitees to their wedding, donate their gifts towards AFLAC.

Jaliya and Tehani are based in Hongkong. Jaliya is a budding poet and an author. They compile the “Candle Factory”, a periodical e-magazine to tell the stories of AFLAC people.

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