Kiwis making a difference
in Sri Lanka

Supported by an Asia New Zealand Foundation media travel grant, a crew from TVNZ’s SUNDAY programme travelled to Sri Lanka in December. They produced stories highlighting the contributions of New Zealanders in the country, including Cricket Live’s Alex Reese, a member of the Foundation’s Leadership Network. SUNDAY journalist Jehan Casinader, also a Leadership Network member, describes the crew’s experiences filming current affairs pieces in Sri Lanka – his parents’ birthplace.

Jehan Casinader says it made him proud to be a Kiwi seeing the work being undertaken by young New Zealanders in Sri Lanka

“Dear me, it is beautiful! And most sumptuously tropical.”

Mark Twain wrote those words in 1896, after setting eyes upon Sri Lanka – or Ceylon, as it was then known – for the very first time.

He writes about a land full of “charm, mystery and tropic deliciousness”. He describes the “spicy breezes” that fail to cut through the “unspeakable heat”. To most Kiwis, his writing may sound quaint – or even out of touch. That’s because, in the New Zealand media, Sri Lanka is usually described as a very different place.

It is a country that bears the scars of a 30-year civil war. That war divided a nation, destroyed an economy and crippled a successful tourism industry.

It is a country that is still grieving the lives of 30,000 people snatched from their homes and villages along the coastline, on the morning of Boxing Day 2004.

It is a country that holds its breath when the monsoon season hits, often destroying crops and livelihoods for the people who are most in need.

But there is far more to Sri Lanka than the soundbites we’ve all watched on the evening news. I know this, because Sri Lanka is part of my heritage.

My parents are Sri Lankan. They migrated to New Zealand in the 1980s, with a wish to start a family here. I was born and raised in Lower Hutt, which makes me a second-generation Kiwi.

I have been fortunate enough to travel to Sri Lanka a number of times, usually on brief family holidays. As an ambassador for Child Fund, I have also been able to meet my two Sri Lankan sponsor children, and learn about their living conditions. But I had never had the opportunity to visit Sri Lanka with my TV journalist hat on, until December last year.

SUNDAY producer Jane Skinner had spent months researching and planning two excellent stories about Kiwis making a difference in Colombo.

The first story, broadcast this week, taps into one of Sri Lanka’s great passions: cricket.

Asia New Zealand Foundation Leadership Network member Alex Reese established the Cricket Live Foundation as a tool to provide education for underprivileged kids

Alex Reese, a 25-year-old Cantabrian, founded the Cricket Live Foundation. His programme uses sport as a tool to provide education for underprivileged kids. 

Alex has the support of cricket legend Sir Richard Hadlee and Dilmah founder Merrill J. Fernando. Both men have a strong interest in strengthening New Zealand’s ties with Sri Lanka.

The second story, yet to be broadcast, is ab0ut a remarkable New Zealand woman who has dedicated four decades to serving the poorest people in Sri Lanka’s capital.

Both stories would provide a remarkable insight into how Kiwi ingenuity, passion and hard yakka could bridge the gap between two very different cultures. However, we knew the trip would present many logistical challenges.

We met with our SUNDAY cameraman Cam Williams, a TV veteran who’s filmed in war zones, disaster locations and everywhere in between. I suggested that we should take a small amount of gear, to make our 10,000km trip to Colombo a little easier. Cam had a very different plan, and decided to take a larger amount of gear than usual – including a Steadicam and a drone – to allow him to capture the remarkable images that you’ll see in our stories. 

A crowd of curious children watch cameraman Cam Williams and producer Jane Skinner preparing to film

We landed in Colombo in early December and had 10 days of shooting time to produce half an hour of television. That may sound like an easy task, but filming current affairs stories is a tedious and time-consuming process.

We were battling jetlag, the scorching 37-degree heat, Colombo’s chaotic traffic, and a language barrier. But we had also never met most of the people we would be interviewing. 

Each morning, Jane and I scribbled down notes as we worked out a rough schedule for the day ahead. We were keen to start shooting early, to allow Cam to get great shots before the temperature ramped up. 

The people who featured in our stories were helpful and hospitable. We marvelled at their contribution to Sri Lankan life, and we wanted to share that with our audience. That meant we had high expectations for each shoot – and we encouraged our interviewees to give us access to all areas of their lives. They graciously agreed.

In Sri Lanka, I experienced the warmth and honesty that my parents had always described. I caught glimpses of the rugged beauty of the coastline and the dreamy haze that rises off those golden sands.
I saw poverty. I saw how good people struggle to provide for their children. 

But, I also saw how New Zealanders are helping to tackle Sri Lanka’s social challenges. They are doing so with creativity and patience. And that made me proud to be a Kiwi.

I’m no Mark Twain, but I hope these stories make our audience proud, too.