By Maryam Azwer
The musical notes from a flute pierce the evening air, as they float down from a little platform atop a tree, where the sarong-clad flutist sits cross legged, away from the laughter and activity on the ground.
Right below the tree, are benches on which a variety of mouthwatering Sri Lankan village specialties are laid out. A little girl dressed in a mini redda hatta runs up to me and hands me an araliya flower.
It is a Saturday evening at La Petite Fleur, and the Peace Gang is armed and ready for some fun – village style.
The Peace Gang of Sri Lanka is a volunteer group established by the La Petite Fleur Montessori House of Children, and the La Petite Fleur (LPF) Academy. Kicking off in April 2008 with a membership of 24 children and three adults, the Peace Gang is open to all and has now drawn in up to 70 volunteers of all ages. Peace Gang projects are based on the four concepts of self, environment, community and culture, and have ranged from maintaining herb gardens to helping out less fortunate adults and children in several parts of the island.
Founder and Headmistress of LPF, Bernadine Anderson, believes that peace is a concept that should be introduced to young ones at the very onset of their education.
“I strongly believe the child is naturally a spiritual being. If you really look for the phenomenon in children, you see it,” says Anderson, who founded LPF with the aim of solving flaws in the existing educational culture.
“We have brought up a culture in our education where it is the norm to be violent, it is normal to fight,” she says. This can be solved, Anderson believes, by understanding, and teaching children, that peace begins within oneself.
“We are in our fourth year now, and this is the first time we have organised such a ‘Peace Village,’” says Ruweni Weerasuriya, Peace Gang co-ordinator. “The idea behind today’s event is to expose children to the village lifestyle, and by getting a number of them involved, instill the concepts of peace and harmony too,” she explains.
The Peace Village had drawn in many children and adults who were previously not affiliated with the Peace Gang, so a larger number, of around 150 people, were involved in this project, said Weerasuriya.
Another important aspect of the Peace Village was the involvement of LPF’s sister school in the Southern village of Lunugamvehera, Bridge2Peace.
Established in 2005 by Anderson with the help of many others, Bridge2Peace is run on donations and aims to provide under-privileged children in Lunugamvehera a free education of the same quality accessed by children in more prosperous parts of the country.
“There are now 77 children studying at Bridge2Peace,” says Damayanthi Gamhewa, who runs the school, and who was present at the Peace Village. Gamhewa was also responsible for providing the village delicacies for the event, as well as the bags of fresh vegetables on sale, all the way from Lunugamvehera. “We are very happy at this opportunity,” she says with a smile. “Not only do we all get to work together here today, but it’s nice to bring all this village food to show the children here.”
“The Peace Gang is a very unique concept. The kids are young, but able to be a part of something much bigger,” says Maryanne Kooda, whose two sons are a part of the Peace Gang. She added, “It’s good because through projects like this, children are in touch with their culture. They are one big family here. I know it sounds clichéd, but it’s true.”
The children share similar sentiments. Nimna Wickramasinghe (16) said, “This is the first event I am a part of the group, and I’m really enjoying myself. It always seemed so interesting, and I’ve wanted to join the Peace Gang for some time now.”
Holistic Learning, The LPF Way
Two days after the Peace Village, the students of LPF are back in school, and back at work. The older children are engaged in an English lesson based on their experiences at the Peace Village, as Bernadine Anderson leads me through the school building, which was once her own home.
“Everybody here shares the same passion for educating young ones,” she says. Anderson has been an educationist for 25 years, a part of that time which she spent in the West, before she decided to introduce what she calls ‘a truly holistic education’ to her home country. The LPF Montessori, presently in Ratmalana, was founded in 1993. Anderson’s goals have reached far, and have extended to the LPF Academy in Dehiwala, which houses over two hundred students.The school, which believes in a hands-on learning experience through as practical an approach to every subject as possible, also takes in children with autism and those who have other special needs.
Above classroom doorways, instead of sign reading ‘Grade three’ and ‘Grade four’, are the words ‘Mother Teresa’ or ‘Nelson Mandela’. Pointing to this, Anderson explains that “The children choose a peace maker, and spend the year learning about them, getting to know them.”
The most important thing, says Anderson, is that children must be appreciated as individuals. And, while math, science and languages remain an important part of the school’s curriculum, what is most cherished to Anderson, is the culture LPF has tried so hard to raise. “Pushing boundaries is big. If we visit the slums, we don’t just stop at that. The children are taught to ask ‘how do we change it?’ This could lead to persuasive writing in English. They write letters to parents asking permission to visit the place again, or if they organize a trip somewhere, they learn to calculate costs, which is then a lesson economics…everything here,” says Anderson, “starts with a story.”