Over the years I’ve been asked by many people why a person who is supposed to be an expert in such things would choose such a goofy name for our company.

The answer requires a brief story.

I had the great fortune of growing up in what was once called the Third World, having traveled to 30 countries by the age of 18—not as a tourist, but as young boy framing his beliefs about the world. My parents were adamant that we not spend time on tour buses, where the facts of a culture could be spoon fed to us. Instead, we would take public transportation into neighborhoods and communities to learn the truth of how people live around the world.

Looking back there is a long list of monuments and sites I did not see, but what I did see was much more important.

At the age of 13 I found myself on one of these journeys traveling across Sri Lanka by train.

It was a steamy hot day, and the rhythm of the train traveling slowly through mist-laden jungle landscapes was gently lulling everyone in and out of sleep.

Around noon, a man stirred the passengers and handed out snack boxes as we approached a nameless station in one of many small villages along the way.

As the train slowed, exhaled steam and inched to a stop, it was instantly surrounded—by children. The passengers were stunned. The children were shouting and reaching up, clambering over one another, pleading for food.

Feeling desperate, the passengers, mostly Westerners, quickly collected their snack boxes and handed them through the windows to the children below. Relief swept through the train. A good deed was done. A crisis averted.

Until it became clear—there were not enough boxes for all the children.

Like clockwork the wheels of the train began to turn, and we departed for the next station. The children—left behind—fighting among themselves for what scant food remained. Relief turned to grief. A good deed unraveled. Another kind of crisis created.

As this ‘scene’ unfolded I began to have the kind of simple but visceral awakening that is unique to a child in his adolescence. An awareness that something was profoundly wrong.

In the decades that followed, my understanding of that event—and the countless similar circumstances that unfold like this around the world every day—has only grown deeper. And my colleagues and I have devoted our lives to helping build a new system.

The Matale Line is a small stretch of train track that courses through forests and villages from Peradeniya Junction to the Matale Railway Station, at the heart of Sri Lanka’s ancient capital.

For us it forever serves as a metaphor for the difference between the overly simplistic notion of ‘charity’ and what is really required to effect change in the world.


Bill Toliver  
bill.toliver@mataleline.com
Executive Director
The Matale Line

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