Sunday, December 18, 2016

Former Chief Guide Commissioner Mrs. Marlyn Dissanayaka

Looking back on 71 years of Girl Guiding

Now in her 78th year, this former Chief Guide Commissioner takes a trip down that memorable journey, recalling the highlights of her 71 years in guiding, and its changes from the 20th to the 21st century. She also discusses future plans for the Movement which celebrates its centenary year in 2017.

Excerpts …

Marlyn’s first recollection of joining the Guide movement in Sri Lanka was when she was enrolled as a Brownie at Kandy Girls’ High School where she then lived.

“The Guide movement was introduced to Sri Lanka by the Methodist Missionaries. Girls’ High School being a Methodist school Ms. Calverly Green introduced Guiding in 1917.” I was seven years old when I was enrolled in the 1st Kandy pack as a Brownie.

“That experience laid the foundation for everything I did thereafter”, she says her eyes lighting up at the memory.

The 78th year old wears her years lightly. At first glance, the unlined youthful face that easily breaks into loud laughter and giggles, might easily be mistaken for a woman much younger.
Tall, erect and dressed in a Guide T. shirt and blue jeans, she meets us at the entrance to the very place where her career took off: the Girl Guides Head Quarters at Colombo 7.

The large hall is lined with portraits of the women who left their indelible mark on the Sri Lankan Guides from the very beginning. They include both the Presidents on the left side of the wall and Chief Commissioners on the right. She points to a portrait of a woman wearing a hat which carries a title: ‘Miss Edna Alvis – 1952.’ “She was our first Sri Lankan Guide Commissioner and it was she who introduced Girl Guiding to the Maldives at a time when the island decided to invite Sri Lankans as teachers. Miss Alvis later went there as Principal of the Ameeniya School”, she tells me.

Tracing the long line of Chief Commissioners she says, “As you can see, they are from all the ethnic groups in the country- Burghers, Sinhalese, Tamil, Parsees. Now, we have a Muslim – Ms Yasmin Raheem –who was one of the first Girl Guides under me.” She recalls visiting Jaffna at the height of the racial tensions to conduct a training camp. “ I was moved when the children told me it was the first time they had seen a Sinhalese in 17 years. I was also happy to see them wearing the same guide uniform.

When the family moved to Colombo Marlyn was enrolled as a student of Ladies’ College. As a Ranger in the early fifties she recalls the encouragement the guides received from their Principal Miss Mable Simon, herself a former Guide from Australia.”

As a Ranger, two events stand out clearly in her memory box: One, was attending the Windsor World camp, in England. The other, was the long journey by ship to get to their destination.

“Then there were no direct flights to London and we had to go by ship. We spent 21 days on the ship, even getting sea sick. We were made to practise our dances for the opening night of the camp. Fortunately, there was a professional dancer - Charmain Venderkoon who volunteered to help us with practices and none was excused. Our Guide leader, the late Ms. Grace Gunaratne who accompanied us wanted us to be perfect.”

The ship she sailed in was the ‘Orantes,’ the first to go through the Suez Canal after the war. “When we finally arrived in London there were over 4,000 Girl Guides from 40 countries each waving their national flags to welcome Queen Elizabeth who was to declare open the camp. Each of us gave a cultural performance. We performed our much practised dance to the tune of ‘Sudu Sanda Eliye’, from the film ‘Rekawa’, wearing cloth and jacket, for which we got a thunderous applause.”

On her return she was once more given an opportunity to travel abroad as a Ranger. “This time it was to attend the Juliet Low gathering at Our Chalet at the world center in Switzerland with Kushlani from St. Bridgets Convent. Juliet Low was the person who started Girl scouting in the USA. For me, it was my first experience of seeing snow and coming sliding down in our raincoats and borrowed snow boots. That memory flashes to my mind whenever I travel to a country where there is snow”, she says with a faraway look in her eyes.

Air Rangers flying School
When Marlyn returned from the Chalet in 1959, the Rangers decided to become Air Rangers under their captain Ms. Janet Vairakkiam at the flying school at Ratmalana.
After our theory classes I remember we had just a day’s experience with our flying instructor taking us on a flight, but our dreams of learning to fly ‘crash landed’ when the school decided to close. Marlyn recalls the visit of Lady Olave Baden Powel World Chief Guide whose husband Lord Robert Baden Powel, founder of Boy Scout and the Guide movements. Janet Vairakkiam being the first women Pilot in Ceylon, piloted a small plane with Lady Olave Baden Powel to Jaffna.

Post Box Secretary
Her first executive appointment was the Post Box Secretary – linking Girl Guides as Pen friends with other countries. “I had left school and some of us guides (there were four of us) would hang around at Head Quarters even if there was nothing to do. It was a home away from home,” she recalls.
There were times we spent night after night trying to print the Annual Report and the ‘Trainee magazine’, etc. All this was done on a hand operated Roneo machine. We were covered in ink by morning! Then the office purchased a Getsetener Machine, which was electrically operated but get heated up in no time. Therefore, we had to get a fan to make it cool, we even used newspapers to make it cool, she says showing me a blurred publication.
Around 1965 she took over the company at Ladies’ College from the much loved Guide Captain Mukta Wijesinha, who was the ‘Cappy’ (Captain) of the 5th Colombo Guide Company. “When I took over, I too was called ‘Cappy,’ and the name has stuck like glue to this day.”.. she says with a wry smile.

Marlyn Dissanayaka, is perhaps one of the few women in Sri Lanka who has the distinction of being an active Girl Guide for the past seventy one years .
What changes did you see in the Guide movement in Sri Lanka as it transited from the19th to the 20th century? I ask. “Changing from the British uniforms and badges to our own uniforms and badges - From British syllabi to our own to suit the needs of the Girl child. Other major changes was from using only English to Sinhala and Tamil. - and changing ‘God and Queen’ to ‘Religion and Country’.
Were there any gaps she saw as the movement transited from the 20th to the 21st century? I ask. She lists the following:
“More women are getting higher education and becoming employed. While this is good because it gives them economic freedom, at the same time it means that past guides who were able to spare time to engage in voluntary service now have less time to do so .Right now we are trying to work around this problem as our volunteers play a big role.”, she noted.

Dedicated teachers
Another change is that while most Guide companies are school based , the teachers who offer to share their expertise as Guide Leaders to join the movement are a mere handful. Marlyn blames the packed school curriculum, saying that teachers are unable to devote much time, as school syllabus need to be completed. “Even if they offer their services voluntarily, they are unable to give their full attention to this service,” she says with regret.

A disturbing emerging trend she now sees is, that some parents force their children to become Girl Guides with ideas of getting good school leaving certificates which enable them to enter universities or for employment. “It has made the movement more competitive, where winning shields and badges take center stage. We believe this is a voluntary movement for children to join because they are convinced, it is interesting, it is outdoor living encourages, independent thinking, teaches discipline and equality, irrespective of class or religion, as endorsed in our Promise.

At a time when the Scouts have begun taking girls as members, the Girl Guide Movement remains a hundred percent Girls Movement. We asked Marlyn why?
“Because, we want to give a place to the Girl Child to grow up in her own atmosphere and become a future leader. She needs to have a safe environment where she can come into her own without any fear, also enjoy privacy and independent thinking. Once a girl joins our movement, she remains our responsibility as a Girl Guide”.

Marlyn says, the most rewarding part of her life at present is working with the Differently Abled Branch of the Girl Guides. “The joy and the love we share with these Guides, their carers and families is most rewarding. This year we had the most wonderful experience of taking 160 Differently Abled Girl Guides to Jaffna.”

Guides who inspired her?
“The late Mukta Wijesinha and Janet Vairakkiam, my captains and an outstanding lady in the movement, the late Sita Rajasoorya, who were role models, and others of my generation who gave love and understanding and never a harsh word, always correcting our mistakes gently.”

“Another great Lady I remember is our first woman Prime Minister, the late Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who was proud to say she was a Girl Guide at St. Bridgets Convent. She was always there at the Girl Guide Headquarters when invited, and would stand and give the salute when The Guide Promise was repeated.”

Although not as active as before, she says she will continue to be involved in the movement that has been her primary focus for the past 71 years. Deeply religious, Marlyn attributes her achievements to, “the support I received from my late parents, my fellow Guides and above all my faith in Jesus, who has helped even at a time when my life was at its lowest ebb”.

Special thanks
Carol Aloysius

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