A livelihood project with vulnerable women
A Journey of the Heart
Join us as we journey through a slice of our history as Bridging Lanka embarks upon a 12 month encounter to improve the financial, social and health conditions of a group of war-affected widows and vulnerable women in Manthai West, Mannar District, northern Sri Lanka. This Activity, funded by the Australian government, seeks to establish a catering company operated by widows. Through upskilling the women in hospitality, small business practices and community nutrition our hope is that they will rise above their current dire circumstances. The Activity also aims to transform negative social images of widows through their achieving financial security, being involved in a respectable business and connecting globally through contact with international visitors and volunteers.
30th November, 2018, was a darn good day for Bridging Lanka. We were informed by the Department of Foreign Affairs that our funding submission to their inaugural Friendship Grants Program had been successful! We wondered where on earth would funds arrive to transform vulnerable, socially despised women in a hand to mouth existence and cooking on open fires? This vulnerable cohort needed to metamorphose into a group of skilled professional business women with a respectable job in a commercial kitchen and café! The DFAT friendship grant answered our prayers.
The Gist of our Proposal
The Friendship Grant entitled, “Economic, Health and Social Uplift for Vulnerable Women and Communities” was our attempt at improving the lot of vulnerable women from Mannar. The war created significant displacement and loss of life in this area resulting in over 500 war widows, some deriving income from being ‘comfort women’ or drug traffickers, resulting in greater socially ostracism. We wished to improve their employment prospects, provide a reasonable livelihood and improve their standing in society. We had already started connecting with widows from the small village of Vannakulam since August, 2018, visiting their homes and deepening our understanding of their precarious lives. These were the women we would journey with for a long time. Apart from the Bridging Lanka staff, Rizana Zubair from Melbourne, also helped us in getting to know the women.
Nothing goes smoothly or according to plan in Mannar and our construction schedule for the commercial kitchen and café was no different. We were now in December 2018. Our building contractor assured us that the building would be completed by November, the previous month. Always exuding a quiet ‘can do’ confidence, we believed him and built the women’s soft skills training ‘food and beverage’ training around his timeframe. Boy… were we in for a rude shock! The November deadline morphed into a March date. Our official opening had already been arranged for July and the chief guest invited but would the building be functional by then?
Recruiting Woes - Who Can Blame Them?
Women in vulnerable circumstances are forced to make quick decisions to ensure their daily survival. For us who wished to develop a solid and sustainable livelihood for them, we were often subject to their ‘out of left field’ decisions. For example, one day they may be totally committed to the idea of a food and beverage business; the next, they could have joined a landmine clearing taskforce because it promised more immediate remuneration. Our task was to gently hold the women’s interest in this kitchen and café initiative, waiting in anticipation of an eventual and personal commitment. Substantial delays to construction were not helping matters.
Stabilising Our Group of Women
We now had the resources to undertake much needed upskilling of local widows thanks to the Australian government’s Friendship Grants but which women would eventually benefit? Our engagement with the women intensified. Our Bridging Lanka staff continued to meet with them. In January 2019 we connected the women with a group of Australians from a practitioner-based organisation called Engage2Act. Desley Renton and her group of intrepid women spent several days with the women, getting to know them at close quarters and assisting us to work out how best to support them. Part of this process involved vetting the women’s culinary skills, identifying how well they worked as a team and identifying who were the real leaders among their ranks. On the last day the women demonstrated their cooking prowess by each contributing toward a fabulous banquet of traditional foods.
Listening to their Approach to Nutrition
One of the goals of the project was to positively influence local behaviour around community nutrition. The abject scarcity of food during the war has since led to a ‘dumbing down’ of traditionally nutritious diets. More recently with the invasion of the worst of western food choices resulting in chemically laced, high sugar and fat content foods, there has been a dramatic increase in diabetes, coronary and kidney disease and some cancers. Our first aim was to identify what the families of widows and vulnerable women consumed, their understanding of nutrition and its impact on their health so that we could better design a response.
Australian volunteer, Nigel Sloss, a nutritionist, developed and conducted a survey by visiting each woman’s house. He wanted to know what they ate daily, what was eaten prior and during the war, the effects of war on their health, whether they knew elders who were authorities on traditional diets, current ailments, sources of drinking water, the impacts of rising food prices and finally difficulties they currently face in their lives. Deep insights were gained.
Deadline Come & Gone
The promised building completion date of March 2019, had come and gone but still no functional building existed - only a shell to behold so how were we to keep the women’s hopes alive? We discovered that it was not easy to undertake construction work in Mannar. On closer inspection there were many constructions faults in the building with some of the concrete work needing to be redone. The physical structure was proving to be a real stumbling block. We would soon be in the red with a significant budget overrun. We needed more funds and fast!
Crowd & other Funding
Online we scored close to $9,000 toward the kitchen construction shortfall but together with off-line donations we reached over $30,000, thanks to Shyama Fuad’s Jailbreak Trivia Night, assisted by , assisted by Mazeena Mahroof, the generosity of the Drew family from Queensland, the Kugendran family in Sydney and our director, Visakha Tillekeratne from Colombo and our chairman, Steve Dunn’s Tamil Feast event. These contributions enabled the balance of the building work to proceed. The Chuffed crowdfunder touched enough hearts for women to donate funds as an alternative to a ‘material’ gift for their mothers on Mothers’ Day. The most popular ‘reward’ requested by the donors was for a photo of their mother to be displayed in the women’s café. Here's a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=4&v=Qt0LcalKA5w&feature=emb_title
The Easter bombings fundamentally disrupted life in Sri Lanka blanketing the nation in a heightened anxiety. Although there were no incidents in Mannar, everything came to a standstill with multiple military check points and the strictest of surveillance. A six day training session arranged for the women in early May had to be cancelled as the trainers feared travelling to Mannar from Kandy. Even to meet with the women proved difficult having to negotiate many check points and road blocks to get to them.
When we finally met up we broached the subject of the bombings. They all felt scared, scared to even participate in these meetings. Collectively, the women said they had already experienced such attacks (during the war), that when they saw the images on TV they think they are there. “We don’t know if Mannar will be targeted next.” “We don’t know who the enemy is.” “Special Task Force (STF) checkpoints are good but not if they are permanent.” Two women admitted, “Before we didn’t see any difference between Muslims and us but now we don’t like them after this incident.”
The bombings also affected progress on the kitchen construction slowing things down considerably as the transportation of building materials from the south to the north was significantly delayed. These obstacles faded into insignificance given the deep sense of loss.
Slow Return to Normalcy
Not that things would ever be the same, but by the end of May, the women were willing meet once more and pick up where they had left off. These women knew how to pick themselves up and start again. There was much to discuss in preparation of the cafe opening - recipes and menus, women’s work hours, how their children would be looked after when they worked, transportation to the kitchen, management issues, identifying kitchen equipment still to be purchased and the list went on. Again we checked to identify who were the women who still wished to work in the kitchen and café. Most raised their hands.
By June we realised that the contractor’s constant reassurances of quality work and imminent building completion could no longer be believed. The workmanship was shoddy at best and the dawdling pace of work would ensure a time blow out to December, not July in time for the opening! Most of our Australian directors had already booked their flights and the Australian High Commissioner had confirmed his attendance as the chief guest - and we were nowhere near to finishing the building. In frustration we dismissed the contractor and unskilled labourers and took over project management ourselves!
Rearing to Go
In contrast the women were growing in excitement. Our trainers, Upuli Wijekoon and Chandrika Kumari overcame their fears, travelled to Mannar and led the six day intensive training program, Developing Women Entrepreneurs for the women. It was a gas! So much active learning and group interactions interspersed with activities that encouraged the women to ‘let their hair down’. As the six days progressed, we were slowly ticking off some of the training items outlined in our DFAT Friendship Grant submission - vocational training in hospitality and food safety, small business development, financial systems, leadership and personal development.
Day one: training objectives; group formation; group norms; roles & responsibilities; active participation
Day two: social mapping of where the women live; ‘pocket chart analysis’ to balance household income and expenditure; micro business opportunities; hypothetical – budgeting and financial management
Day three: personal profile, SWOT analysis, food handling, introduction to nutrition
Day four: Managing the business – day cash book, labour book, keeping inventories
Day five: business plan, roles and responsibilities of a business woman, clients and customer relations
Day six: master chef competition – practical integration of all learning, criteria: menu planning, teamwork, resolving differences, food handling, taste, nutrition, cleanliness.
As part of the Volunteers Build Capacity program outlined in the DFAT submission, Jan Gillies from the Gold Coast and Diarne Kreltszheim from Melbourne conducted the women’s first classes in basic English and computer studies respectively. Jan with years of experience in Education Queensland charmed and coaxed the women to learn basic vocab required to greet English speaking customers of the café. Diarne with significant experience in the corporate world started with teaching the women to turn on a computer and handle a mouse before using Excel to calculate menu pricing. These were all firsts for the women. They were keen!
Alhathir & Abs to the Rescue
Without the strong intervention of two extraordinarily special people – one Bridging Lanka staff person and one volunteer from Sydney, the café and kitchen would still be unfinished. Their round the clock commitment to the bitter end over one month achieved the impossible. They literally completed six months’ worth of work in one single month. Shahul Hamid Alhathir and Abhinayan Kugendran worked tirelessly managing multiple crews – masons, plumbers, electricians, painters, tile setters, paving layers, commercial kitchen installers, labourers – and the list went on. In hope against hope the two managed to get the building completed just in time for the grand opening. Huge thanks to Abs and Alhathir!
Kitchen Installers - a Shock to the System
Design and installation of the most important aspect of the building – the commercial kitchen – was beyond us. No one in Mannar had such expertise and who could we trust after such challenging building experiences? Michele Fonseka, a trusted architect from Colombo recommended Amek International Technologies. Never heard of them! We were desperate so made contact with the CEO, Tithira Perera. Were we in for a real shock! Tithira and his crew designed and installed a fabulous purpose-built commercial kitchen. His care for our project and his commitment to excellence was second to none. We were so touched that we invited him to be a director of Bridging Lanka. To our surprise, he accepted!
The next task was to introduce the women to a commercial food preparation environment. From cooking over an open fire to using the latest gadgetry was no easy transition but the women caught on quick, thanks to Tithira’s instructions. The hot plate for thosai, a large electric rice cooker, gas burner and oven, deep fryer for vadai and poori and another gas range for wok cooking were soon mastered by
the women. This was all part of the on-the-job training, a vital ingredient in the upskilling of the women. The kitchen was buzzing! Slowly all the donated kitchen equipment complements of members of the Sri Lankan diaspora in Australia found its proper place in their brand new digs.
A Local Oasis
The café grounds were barren and moonscape-ish. Not a good look for the opening. Much tireless work by our Bridging Lanka staff and hired labour saw the laying of turf and tree planting. In addition, we wanted a water feature to soften the ‘dry zone’ feeling of this area of Mannar. A pond (small ‘kulam’) was dug and shaped by our staff, constructed by
our esteemed builder, Nafees, and landscaped by Mayuran, a local lad who was involved with many grounds maintenance ta. He helped with sourcing and positioning rocks and various waterplants. In his honour, the pond was named, ‘Mayurankulam’. Fish, frogs and tortoises have now found a new home!
Filling in the Gaps
Even after the Australian contribution, many other items were needed in the kitchen. Sulaika, recently appointed kitchen manager, Keetha, her deputy, Sebamalai, café manager and Bridging Lanka staff headed to the major centre of Anuradhapura for a big purchase – plates, bowls, cups, cutlery, storage containers, kitchen implements, even curtains for the rooms for rent! It’s rarely that these women get the opportunity to leave their local area so the trip complete with lunch at a restaurant was a special treat.
Now that the women have the hang of operating in a commercial kitchen, we wondered whether their culinary skills would translate over as well? A few days before the ‘soft opening’, the women cooked up a storm for Bridging Lanka staff and other workers on site. The women then grabbed their plates and joined them. The workers loved
the food and experiencing customer service from the women. After all had finished we turned it into a critical learning experience in which several criteria were discussed - hygiene, food handling, nutritional value of the food, time taken to cook and most importantly, taste, were analysed. Notes were taken on how to improve their efforts.
The women’s first contact with the real public was through breakfast and lunch sittings for invited guests. This incremental approach to cooking and serving food was part of their on-the-job training. A lot more stress in the kitchen as a result though. But the first time thosais, the breakfast and lunch dishes were well received. The only suggestion made was to introduce even more healthy green ‘mallungs’
(literally means "to mix up" and a highly nutritious dish that features any number of different leafy greens, toasted mustard seed, green chilli and coconut). The women passed this trial with flying colours. As usual, a debriefing session was held with the women to review the meals and service.
A Cycle to Ride
Bridging Lanka director, ‘Mother’ Shyama is always looking out for people. This time it was to assist with getting the women to work. Instead of bussing the five kilometres to the café, the women could ride bicycles from Vannakulam. In no time some wonderfully generous women in Melbourne including Shyama, Shanta Perera and the Illyas family donated the funds for seven bikes. Rojan helped to unload and distribute the spanking new bicycles. The women were delighted!
Years of challenging ordeals finally ended. Café Arokkiya was officially opened by the Australian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, David Holly on 18th July, 2019. A momentous occasion attended by hundreds of dignitaries and special guests. Many of the Bridging Lanka directors travelled 9,000 km for this special event. That's commitment!
His Excellency David Holly exuded a very human and engaging presence and a speech from the heart. Two of our women also made speeches, their first in public. Overcoming considerable nerves, Sebamalai and Savariamma did us proud! Jan Gillies from Australia sang a specially penned song for the occasion.
A plaque praising the resilience of widows was unveiled by our special guests. Bridging Lanka staffer, Kumanan was the MC. The entertainment was stunning and the food, simple and attractive. The special guests toured the facility and took photos with the women.
The High Commissioner ‘cloaked’ with special honours our two project managers, Alhathir and Abs who steered the building to completion. Our women let their hair down and boogied away with our staff and directors. Who could ask for more!
Framed for Posterity
To acknowledge the many mothers who had given so generously to our Mothers 4 Mothers crowdfunding campaign, a special photo frame hand-carved by two artisans from Matale was commissioned. Before they could give the frames the final coating of varnish, we
grabbed the frames, sped the six hours back to Mannar and arrived in the early hours to insert the mothers’ photos and hang the frames before the imminent café opening to the public. A few more photos still to be added.
Open for Business - Cafe Arokkiya
The first day of real trading was on 1st August. Cafe Arokkiya (‘wellbeing’ in Tamil) was the hottest and newest eatery to open its doors in former war-affected Manthai West, Mannar. A café run by a group of widows commenced to set new culinary benchmarks in taste, nutrition and customer service. Here's a video on day three of the cafe. Rasheed, our talented young film maker from Digana, Kandy District, visited Cafe Arokkiya and knocked up this little video in a few hours. Enjoy! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XrseNAigDaA&t=9s
More On-the-job Learning
The Cafe Arokkiya women were now getting into the swing of preparing scrumptious breakfasts and lunches. Systems were being developed – varied menus, monthly bulk food order lists, a register of the places to buy the best quality fresh foods at the cheapest price, staff rosters, financial recording systems, customer feedback records,
etc. On top of this, Sebamalai, the Cafe Manager, mastered the use of our new cash register in a few hours under the able guidance of Abhinayan, our Sydney volunteer! How chuffed was she! Continual on-the-job training was provided by Rojan, Livinson and Abs.
Planting for a Cool Future
Many plantings occurred after the opening. We wanted to create an oasis around the café that is shady, relaxed and beautiful. Once the trees have grown, we will be encouraging local workers to enjoy their
lunches in the cool of its shadows. Rasheed from Kandy and Tauri Tampuu from Estonia have started the groundwork.
Out of Town-ers Start Coming
Another day at cafe Arokkiya where new customer groups keep turning up! This time a bus load of pilgrims from Matale having just visited the internationally recognised Our Lady of Madhu shrine came
by for lunch! Upuli, one of our trainer/facilitators brought this group to the cafe.
Sporting Big Appetites
We've just identified another customer group! In the last couple of days Cafe Arokkiya was invaded by groups of young people after participating in their sports meets. Just down from the cafe are large sporting fields. Hungry and thirsty young people have started flocking to the cafe. Here's a few from St Anthony's Sports Club relaxing on our cafe porch!
System Approach to Conflict Resolution
Not all is 'peaches and cream' in the cafe. Conflicts started to break out among the women. Our diagnosis - partly the cause of blurry role definition. We sat down with the cafe staff and dived into a two hour session of detailed role clarification - workplans for the cafe staff and
a separate workplan for the cafe manager. The staff seemed so much more at ease after the session. Often clarity can clear up misunderstandings. The kitchen staff were next!
Following another review of kitchen and café operations, the women received their first salary – and boy were they happy! Unlike in most workplaces in Sri Lanka when pays are monthly, our women wanted fortnightly payments. This helped them budget better across the
month. It was a win for them and a win for us. Our intention of creating a sustainable livelihood for the women was becoming a reality. Their rate of pay would depend on customer numbers and their spend.
Courting Youth Customers
The café is in close proximity to the largest school in the area. There is also a large youth population more generally in Adampan. Cafe Arokkiya decided to expand its reach to include these youngsters, injecting new and youthful energy into the space. The first event? A "Tasting Evening". Young people would be invited to taste and rate a
new youth menu and be treated to local talent - young musicians, singers and entertainers. Thilakshan, Kavi and Amos worked hard to organise the event to be held on 27th September. Musical instruments and sound equipment were bought in Colombo and rehearsals held.
Oh What a Night! Kavi and his energetic Rhythm of the Heart band – Hindhujan, Thilakshan, Amos and friends – entertained over 100 people at Cafe Arokkiya's special ‘Tasting Evening’. A new youth menu was trialled and rated by the participants while some groovy music bellowed out into the cool night air - a fabulous evening with talented
young musicians and singers! Under the direction of a recently engaged chef from India, Ajay Haritharan, the women learnt new dishes and how to cater for and serve large numbers of customers. Six different tasting dishes were served. It was an intense night for the staff although the locals really enjoyed the occasion.
Café Arokkiya – Reconciling Differences
Two Australian government funded projects met – The Friendship Grants program in support of women’s livelihood development and the Direct Aid Program (DAP), Towards Religious Harmony. The latter was a successful Bridging Lanka application to the Australian High Commission in Sri Lanka’s small grants initiative. The project aimed to address the underlying ethnic and religious fissures that had arisen from the attacks against Muslim homes, businesses and mosques by Sinhala Buddhists in Kandy District in March 2018.
This night, a group of Muslims from Digana were joined by 60 students and 10 teachers and parents from Dunuwila School in Kandy District, people all affected by the turmoil. The local Rhythm of the Heart band of Tamil youngsters rocked Cafe Arokkiya and surprisingly brought Tamils, Buddhists and Muslims together in an unimaginably genuine way. All differences melted as people were fused through food, music and dance, laying a foundation for more positive social cohesion.
Collaborative Decision Making
Regular meetings with the women were an opportunity to jointly negotiate many topics including work conditions (leave and holidays), what to do when household emergencies arose, the need to document recipes, uniforms and establishing better communication channels to
address incidents of conflict. It was also time to revisit the incremental business planning process and the next initiatives to push along eg the youth ‘Tasting Evening’ and more training workshops on food and facility hygiene and good nutrition.
Keeping the Books in Order
Meet Halis Dalima (Nilu to us) who was tasked to develop a financial system for the café and train the women to undertake simple bookkeeping tasks, handle petty cash, keep up to date financial records and calculate fortnightly salaries. Nilu, supported by
Kumanan, conducted training sessions in basic bookkeeping for the women in our new education space. More sessions are planned. All the trainers and the fully equipped education room are being funded through the Australian Government’s Friendship Grants program.
Eats & Beats Builds Youth Customer Base
Fortnightly dinners for those ‘young at heart’ are now in progress. This strategy has a three-fold objective, (i) create a new customer clientele of young people for the cafe, (ii) provide wholesome enjoyment and recreation for youngsters who willingly turn to substance abuse to escape boredom in an area with few recreational outlets, and (iii) encourage musical and performance based skills in local young people.
Our Eats & Beats trials have pointed to introducing opportunities for dancing. This is proving a hit as local youngsters are ever so dance crazy.
Source of Inspiration
One of the most uplifting nights at Cafe Arokkiya - when we brought a statue of Lord Ganesha to acknowledge the religious beliefs of our Hindu staff. The women treated this as a most reverent occasion.
They prayed, lovingly washed Ganesha and decorated the statue with flowers - a practice repeated daily. A special spiritual moment in the life of Cafe Arokkiya.
Outing Good Nutrition
Community nutrition is a major issue in these parts. The stats are still not good. Many children who grew up during the war years are stunted in their growth. Poor nutritional practices continue to dog this region. Visakha Tillekeratne and Roshan Delabandara, nutrition experts from Colombo, ran two days of interactive sessions on the
centrality of incorporating good nutrition into both the Cafe Arokkiya menu and the meals the women prepared at home. Many women from the community joined in as well. The Australian Government has demonstrated 'head, heart and hand' through their funding of this important project.
Raising the Bar
The training continues thanks to the Australian Government's support. Ajay Haritharan, a chef from India has taken over the training baton in the kitchen. 'Kitchen hygiene' was the focus of a few sessions
- from how to clean dishes to keeping kitchen floors and equipment spotless. A high bar to aim for but we're getting there. The training was held in our Education Room at the Cafe.
A Related Micro Enterprise
Sasi lives next door to the café and is one of our kitchen staff. She is a widow and lives alone with her young son in a very basic dwelling. Last year her son of 22 years met with a fatal accident while returning from work – a double trauma of the loss of the only adult male in the family and a loss of income. It soon became obvious that the kitchen, cafe and accommodation rooms given out for rent were generating much
washing so we came up with a business proposition for her. Sasi now augments her salary at Café Arokkiya with a laundry micro-business. From the Friendship grant we purchased a washing machine, ironing board and iron and off she went! Sasi is now earning a good salary from both sources.
Just when we think the worst challenges are behind us and the way ahead is smooth sailing, two disasters struck. Four of our women decided to walk. A raising of issues with the kitchen manager over purchasing inefficiencies (daily purchasing of supplies that increased costs and diminished profits and hence, salaries), cleanliness of the kitchen and vanishing food from the café created a reaction which led to the resignation of four out of the five kitchen staff. After journeying
with these women for one whole year, this was devastating for us. New cooking staff were found pronto as the business had to proceed. The other challenge was the weather. The wet season arrived and it poured, cutting all access to the café. For two weeks the number of customers declined sharply. Less customers = less take home salary! The number of ‘take away’ lunch parcel sales eased the situation somewhat.
Widows Training Widows
Sebamalai, one of our Cafe Arokkiya women, coached by Shihan Maharoof, led a business planning session for the rest of the staff. They undertook a SWOT analysis (internal Strengths and Weaknesses; external Opportunities and Threats) focused on Cafe Arokkiya. This was an update of the SWOT analysis done before the opening of the café. With four months experience, many new factors had emerged and required action. In addition, the incremental business plan developed some months ago was being rolled out. The local hospital had asked us to consider running a food and beverage
outlet in the hospital premises. This was being pursued as it would provide employment for additional widows. An initiative encouraging women to establish organic home gardens to supply the café, was in train. Work too had commenced with farmers to trial organic paddy growing instead of dependency on agro chemicals. Also the education room had been fully equipped with laptops, projector, screen and whiteboard with English and computer classes for the women and local children already commenced.
Encouraging Future Health
As part of our push for improving community nutrition, we engaged Vipula Bandara, an expert in organic cultivation, to train local paddy farmers and women home gardeners in transitioning from agro chemical use to organic products. A significant motivation for this thrust was to counter a rapidly growing incidence of chronic kidney disease caused by agro-chemicals poisoning ground water supplies. The most affected were farmers, farm labourers and their families.
Vipula also ran workshops on creating organic compost sufficient for one acre of paddy land and in the use of more resilient traditional varieties of paddy. Farmers took up the challenge and commenced cultivating their land with these traditional varieties of paddy. An organic education facility is currently being established in the café grounds.
Drumming Up More Business
In August the Divisional Medical Officer (DMO) asked whether Bridging Lanka would consider running a food and beverage canteen for the Adampan Hospital. He said that on clinic days (Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays) about 150 to 200 patients generally attend. Often they have to wait for lengthy periods of time without food or drink. We saw this as a great opportunity to create another micro-business for an additional two widows, an outreach of Café Arokkiya.
Negotiations occurred with the Regional Director of Health Services, DMO Manthai West, a specialist at the Mannar General Hospital, Medical Officer of Health (MOH) and finally the Public Health Inspector (PHI) to gain approval and to understand minimum hygiene standards for the Canteen. The DMO recommended a suitable place for the Canteen - in an existing storeroom which had adequate light, ventilation and space.
When it rains it pours! Sometimes with short notice the women receive large food orders. Government departments and agencies want Café Arokkiya to cater for their meetings, training events and when special guests are in town. On this occasion our landlords, the Adampan West Multi-Purpose Cooperative Society (MPCS) ordered
260 lunches. This was the women’s largest order yet! Bridging Lanka staff under the direction of Rojan, the manager, pitched in to help meet this order. The result was fabulous food, nutritious and well-presented and on time. The café and Bridging Lanka staff received positive food reviews indeed!
Intermittently we sat with the women on an individual basis to get a sense of how they were travelling and what they were learning. We tracked eight criteria starting from establishing a base line of knowledge and skills present at the start of their Café Arokkiya journey. These criteria focused on culinary skills, food handling and hygiene, nutrition, team work, customer service, business skills, English and IT and social status. To our delight all the women had developed in all categories with some experiencing much progress.
Hannah Small a student from the Australian National University undertaking a medical science degree and working in human health helped in interviewing the women and also with the write up. Bridging Lanka worker, Kavi, undertook sensitive and accurate English-Tamil interpreting. The evaluation method was developed in Australia by Vanessa Hood of Rooftop Social and Ranjit Bhagwandas, both professional evaluators.
The Café Arokkiya development is dynamic and life-giving. More and more people are being touched by the people and activities of the facility and the café is becoming a community hub for multiple activities and interests. A storeroom is currently under construction to provide space for dry rations and large kitchen equipment. Community and government agencies are making avail of a clean and
catered space for their meetings and the grounds are being further landscaped. Café signage has finally being positioned at key intersections and directing more customer traffic to the café. There’s a buzz and a feeling of expectation about the future of both the women and Café Arokkiya.
The Impact of One Year's Journey
A solid start has been made to realising a very different future for vulnerable women in Adampan, Mannar District – war widows, those with husbands incapacitated by the war, women abandoned by their husbands or in domestic violence situations. No miracles but plenty of love, care, fun, struggle, disappointment and also progress toward better social, economic and health circumstances. We are well on the way to improving the lives of women and their children and also slowly starting to impact the health and nutrition levels of the wider community.
So socially, we have increased the lifestyle choices for female heads of households, a sign of their personal power and autonomy. The
women’s social standing in society has increased. We have improved the economic outlook of our women, increasing their financial security and simultaneously stimulating the local economy. The Activity is producing a well-trained and confident female workforce that no longer needs to rely on illegal livelihoods for their survival. Finally we are starting to make a small dent in the health conditions of local families both mentally, emotionally and physically through access to nutritious food, awareness of good nutrition, encouragement to take up organic cultivation and connecting this isolated group to globally deep connections.