by Bandula Jayasekara
President Mahinda Rajapaksa starts his day very early. All his days are very busy and his meetings and other engagements go on till late. But, there is one thing that has caught my attention and touched me immensely. That is his love for children.
One day after a meeting in the cabinet room, ministers and other officials were invited to lunch by the President in his traditional hospitable style. They all went in and waited but the host was missing. I decided to look for him as he was nowhere to be seen. My search inside the whole building drew a blank and stepped out to make inquiries from the security personnel. There I saw him, surrounded by scores of little children. He had scooted away to meet a group of school children who had come to see him while the VIPS were awaiting him.
Children usually wait for the President under the araliya trees in blossom. At a glance, I saw about 200 children with their teachers and parents from schools near and far. He was seated among children clad in white.
They proudly posed for a picture with the President in the middle. The President always has trouble when he is photographed with children. He keeps telling his little visitors to look at the camera and not at him and reminds those who stand behind him that they would not be seen in the picture. But they often do not hear what he says; they fall over themselves touch or tug at his arms. Once the photograph is taken, they swiftly encircle their smiling guest. Children fire questions at him one after the other and he asks them about their studies and hobbies. He takes them around his garden proudly showing them vegetable plots to get them interested in horticulture. The feedback is quite encouraging; most children emulate the President’s example when they return home.
Children and their teachers make use of the opportunity to relate their problems and hardships to the President, who listens to them attentively. Letters are given to the President and he reads them carefully to see what he could do to help them. Appeals are then passed on with minutes to presidential aides for further action. He gifts school books worth about Rs. 60,000 to the children present.
Once he attends to one group of children, he repeats the process with another school present. All this happens while the VIPs are waiting for him inside. They must be thinking the President is attending to some urgent official matter. But, for the President children come first—always. His fatherly association with the children becomes manifest when the time comes for him to leave them. The kids do not like to let him go. They want to hold him and worship him. He does his best to prevent them, but in vain.
The President has no escape. Children wouldn’t let him through. Finally, he has to break free and run laughing all the way to join the elderly guests waiting for him. I wouldn’t know how many children he has met during the last five years and how many children he would meet in the coming years and how he finds the time for his little visitors. But, meetings with kids are high in his agenda. He meets them like a prayer. And he is determined to continue with these meetings despite official calls thereby making an impact on the future generation of our country, giving them wonderful memories to carry home, of a time spent with the head of state.
I wonder how many other world leaders would find time for children like President Rajapaksa.
I haven’t written this piece because I am the Director General of the President’s Media Division. I decided to pen it because I was moved by what I saw during the last two months. It is true that he is the President of the country, but when he meets the children of this land, I do not see him in the shades of a politician but of a caring father and dear friend.
(The writer a former editor of the "Daily News, Consul-General in Toronto and deputy permanent representative to the UN in New York is currently Director-General of the President's media division)