Rector's Reflections - August 2018
I am fortunate to have just enjoyed a 2½ week stay in Sri Lanka, with my wife and my younger daughter. We went, somewhat incongruously, with a volunteering organization called ‘Plan My Gap Year’ - which, as the advert has it, does exactly what it says on the tin. I must emphasize that my wife and I are well beyond the normal stage of gap years.
I joked beforehand of how Revd and Mrs Doye might find ourselves the only persons present who were beyond the age of (let’s say) twenty-five; and that the vast majority of participants would be young women aged between seventeen and twenty-one. This elicited the not unexpected ribaldry: ‘oh, I can see why Andrew has signed up!’
Indeed, the cohort of volunteers was every bit as I had imagined; but Sri Lanka was less predictable, and held a great many surprises, and offered a range of insights for those who kept their eyes and ears open to the treasures that the island bears.
I fully expect the ponderings of our visit will be playing themselves out over the months ahead, but I choose to make a couple of initial comments on what we admired in the volunteering aspects of our stay. These aspects reflect well, to my mind, not only on the admirable organization ‘PMGY’; but also on the small partner organisations in Sri Lanka with whom they arranged the volunteering opportunities.
The three of us were able to spend one week with a turtles conservation project; and then another week with an elephant welfare programme. Each of these had an ecological and caring motivation. Each had a compassion and decency about them, which allowed the organisers to go beyond economics and numerical effectiveness and to honour creatureliness for its own sake.
Our mornings with the turtle hatchery were spent on the humbling tasks of shifting sand from the sea’s edge to the intended hatching pits for the newly laid eggs; and feeding the turtles in a personalised regime and maintaining the tanks in which they were kept. We had the privilege not only of handling the turtles, but also of releasing around sixty recent four-day old hatchlings on the local beach, as they clambered across the sands and to the perilous freedom of the Indian Ocean. (The sea eagles circled!).
Alongside preserving turtle numbers for the future, one extravagant aspect of the project is that the hatchery provides a long-term home for a small number of injured or disabled turtles, whom they will never return to the seas on account of their own hopeless vulnerability. These include those born blind, or without fully-formed body parts, or those injured in an accident. A great favourite was a mature turtle called ‘Bob’, who had swallowed a lot of plastic, the scourge of the oceans, with the result that he had trapped inside him air that could not be released by any viable surgery. Bob could not therefore of his own volition descend fully under the surface of the water. He had to be gently pushed under many times a day, and especially in order to eat. Of his own accord, he (well actually, it was a ‘she’) could only … ‘bob’.
Our second week’s posting at the elephant sanctuary was even more clearly given over to compassionate concerns. This entire venture provided respite care for working elephants who need a break from their daily toil: a short sabbatical, perhaps. Readers may be aware that elephants, as well as being beautiful, majestic creatures, are of considerable economic wealth for the industrial and agricultural work to which they may be put. The tendency, though, in a poor country, is to see them overworked. The project cares for a number of retired elephants, and has others on leave for maybe three months at a time: well-kept, treated, fed and cleaned out, walked and washed. And this is where we came in: picking up elephant poo, cleaning the floor of their compound, and walking them down to the lake where we joined them in the water, scrubbing their hides with coconut husks for up to an hour a day; removing the grime and pollution, pleasing them in the process, and then delightfully feeding them handfuls of bananas or water melon. It was messy work, hot work, smelly work, but became a labour of love towards noble beasts of perhaps 55 or 80 years old who had worked ceaselessly over many years for their industrial taskmasters.
Together, these two projects were a living testimony to the fact that creatures matter far beyond the economic advantage they can present to their overlords. It is costly to assert such a principle and especially so in a country as poor as Sri Lanka. But it is worth doing, and challenges us mightily.
Can we in all areas of our lives here in Westbourne honour the weak or damaged in our midst, the weary and over-stretched? To do so, will be a humane endeavour, placing importance where it truly belongs: in the care and courtesy that we show to our fellow human beings (to say nothing of the creatures in our midst, our employ, or our care).
Andrew Doye, Rector