Tuesday morning I joined our school partner, May Hta Hla, founder of Helping the Burmese Delta (HTBD), and Kyaw Htoo Aung, local Burmese man of many talents, for the trek down south to EE’s new school.
Turns out Kyaw Htoo and I met each other here a couple of years ago. He was introduced to me by one of Bainbridge Island’s retired eye surgeons. Kyaw Htoo provides logistics for the surgeons visiting annually to conduct cataract surgeries for the poor in Mandalay. We had thought he might be our ‘money man’ – helping EE transfer funds into the country before wire transfers were possible. Now, Kyaw Htoo is helping HTBD with construction of a proper library and computer room at their high school on the east side of the Delta. I don’t really believe in coincidences, but I do believe this is a very small world! This was just another example.
The drive to the jetty took 5 hours – long, straight 2-lane roads through beautiful flat rural lands with rice paddies a plenty. Once at the jetty, we transferred to a small, flat bottom boat for the remaining 1½ hours of the journey. The rest of the group of 15 had head out earlier to see a graduation ceremony for young
villagers recently trained to be health workers via HTBD.
The water is now low in the channels, but starting to slowly rise again. This area is flooded a good 6 months of the year. Skimming through canals filled with hyacinth and views of homes, fishermen, and other boat transports. Yangon and its crowded streets and traffic left behind in the morning was a world forgotten.
We met up with the rest of the group at the site of HTBD’s second school being built in the Thar Paung region – this in addition to their 25 primary schools and 1 high school already constructed on the Bogale side.
By the time we left for our return boat journey, dusk had settled in. Taking a short cut route via a smaller canal proved to be quite the adventure. The water was so low (only knee deep) and it was so dark that our boat carrying a group of 10 got stuck sideways 3 times. Our young strong boat crew, one at each end of the boat, punted and pushed until we were cleared to move on.
Being stuck in a canal in the dark with no outside connectivity should have been unnerving. But with amazing fire flies lighting up each side of the canal and a bounty of stars overhead, it was an adventure to remember.
And this was just Part I of the Thar Paung trek.
Libraries are literally non-existent in Myanmar’s rural areas, especially in the ethnic states. And apparently, most of those listed in official records are closed.
The good news is that there appears to be growing interest in library development. Our partner Banyan Tree receives ongoing calls requesting assistance in library start-up, which includes cataloguing, stocking, staff training, and most importantly community outreach.
On Saturday, EE’s school partners, Jon and May Tha-Hla, joined me in a visit to Banyan Tree’s community library in Yangon’s Insein Township. They’re interested in library development in the Delta areas where they’ve been constructing schools.
Local children of all ages frequent the Banyan Tree library – 40-50 children per day. It’s an inviting and comfortable atmosphere with lots of color, enticing age-appropriate books, and nooks for children to sit and read. Weekly storytelling and literacy activities and classes are well attended – often with older children reading or acting out stories to the little ones.
It was very evident to Jon and May Tha-Hla that a successful library takes more than the basic components of the Dewey Decimal System and shelves filled with books. We three were all delighted with Banyan Tree’s approach.
Jon and May Tha-Hla told us about the Delta children’s reception to our folktale books last week. For many of the children, these books were their first-ever exposure to picture books – a lot of big smiles and active engagement. They plan to stock all 25 of their schools with our books – and, spread the word to their NGO colleagues who might also be interested.
It’s very exciting for both EE and Banyan Tree to see the growing appreciation and interest in our folktale book series - books which will be the first to line the library shelves.
Where there’s a river, you'll find people, everyday life activity, and vibrancy. The Yangon River is no exception.
Rising at dawn, I set out this morning with camera in hand in search of the river. Here’s a sampling of what I found.
A rapidly expanding port destination for multiple commodities, the river was a-buzz with loading and unloading. However, in Myanmar manual labor is the mechanism.
Boatloads of city workers and students arrived from across the river to enter the scene in Yangon.
And there's always time for tea and a bit of a chat with friends to start the day.
EE’s fifth folktale book, two Mon stories, is complete and now in-hand. The Foolish Young Man, a story told for many generations among the Mon people, teaches that no good can come from too much pride and arrogance. The Woodcutter and the Noble Man illustrates the importance of staying in school and working hard.
Our partner Banyan Tree (BTRC) continues to learn and improve these books, targeted to third grade readers (and up). BTRC is currently experimenting with options to laminate the book covers to withstand moisture conditions, especially of issue in the Delta region. Although tri-lingual books (Burmese / English / ethnic specific language) are still an option, it’s dependent on available translator resources and subject to design layouts. Too many words and not enough pictures don’t work well for the early readers.
We discussed potential publishing expansion into books targeted to early childhood readers - simple pictures and story lines to motivate the little ones to learn to read. I continue to be impressed with the team’s creativity in identifying unique and workable ideas that will set our books apart from the run of the mill.
There still aren’t many books available to children in this country. You see a few new big bookstores in Yangon, but 90% of Burmese people live in rural areas where there aren’t any bookstores or libraries or age appropriate picture books. Books that are available, such as black/white comic books with questionable language and messages, do not represent the literary quality EE and BTRC are striving for. The demand for books of quality is still very evident.
You know, it’s really too bad that SE Asia isn’t just a LITTLE closer to Bainbridge Island – at least from a door-to-door travel standpoint. It was 32 hours to the Clover City Center Plus Hotel, my base in Yangon. My temporary home is new, utilitarian, and familiar, having stayed here last year. It’s filled with eager young Burmese women and men learning the hospitality trade. They want to learn and they want to succeed. So customer service is sweet, personal, and excellent. And, not to be discounted, the Wi-Fi is darn predictable (which is still saying a lot for Yangon).
The highlight today (amongst many) was meeting Sim Sa Hsar, our partner Cynthia’s first child. In Kachin and Karen, his name means Peace Star. With the Kachin still engaged in armed conflict, and the Karen still struggling to regain their lands, his name is a noble and fitting symbol for hope for the future. I wish him a world of attainable dreams.
Construction is everywhere in Yangon – flattened buildings and debris-filled property on every block. The number of cars on the road has quadrupled (at least). A sprawling Western-like shopping mall at People’s Park across from Schwedagon Pagoda is a first. Talk of another government coup in anticipation of year-end elections is a growing concern.
Watching close-up a country that lived in slow motion for 50 years now fast track it to catch up is unbelievable. I guess there are things that will work and others that won’t – and it’s a learning experience all along the way for the Burmese people.
This evolution is ‘education’ in the broadest of terms. How fast / how much can the people learn about today’s world? What will their role be? Who can they trust? More importantly, what dreams and opportunities will evolve, and which will be attained?
I’m excited and grateful to see and participate in this evolution. And I wish for Sim Sa Hsar that ALL his dreams come true.
In closing for the day, a little rooftop tranquility....
Hello Educational Empowerment friends!
I'll be starting the 30+ hour trek back to Myanmar in the wee hours of the morning on Monday. I hope to keep you all in the loop with blogs as much as possible.
My schedule is pretty full over the 3 weeks in-country, and inevitably new acquaintances and opportunities will pop up unexpectedly.
EE's new school in the tiny village of Htan Kyun in the Delta will be completed. THANK YOU ALL SO MUCH FOR YOUR SUPPORT! I'm excited to attend the dedication ceremony and meet the students and teachers.
As there's minimal electricity in the Delta and almost all transport is by boat (of varying sizes), the travel conditions will push my comfort levels a bit. Always good to shake ourselves up periodically to appreciate what comfy lives we lead here at home.
Sandy has patiently set me up with her Go Pro, microphone, and simplified instructions so I can try my hand at interviewing as many women and children as possible! Hoping to bring back lots of stories.
Myanmar has undoubtedly changed considerably over the past year. EE even wire transferred funds last month to one of our partner organizations! Much more civil than carrying piles of pristine $100 bills into the country. It will be fascinating to see what's new, good, and not-so-good.
For my 6th grade friends at Hyla - I have my list of photos you've requested and am ready to 'shoot'. Stay tuned!
So come along with me for a brief glimpse of this magical, beautiful country and people.
Home from my recent trip to Myanmar and reunited with Pacific time, I’ve been reflecting on my experiences and impressions. I admit to pre-trip lack of enthusiasm for the 30-hour door-to-door journey, traveling alone, the numerous health risks, and stepping outside my daily comfort zone.
What I had forgotten was the renewed energy and passion for EE’s mission provided by my actual presence in Myanmar. From my first morning in Yangon I eagerly soaked up the joy of being back in this country that has touched my heart. No matter their socio-economic conditions or level of connectivity with the outside world, the Burmese people radiate dignity, joy, and hope.
Since my last visit late 2012, there is noticeably more eye contact, smiles, and interest in talking politics. Civil society groups, formed during the military’s rule, now openly participate in public debates and government forums. Internet is much improved in the cities. Traffic is horrendous. Tourists are plentiful. And hotel construction is rapidly attempting to keep pace with demand.
It was a delight to nurture EE’s existing partnerships and develop new relationships. Our third ethnic folktale book, a Shan story of Orion, is now being distributed to schools, libraries, and book stores, benefiting approximately 6000 children. A thousand teacher training DVDs reinforcing critical thinking tools and techniques have been distributed to approximately 700 monastic and nunnery school teachers in numerous states.
I met several Burmese patrons – middle class Burmese who work full time in professional careers and donate a significant portion of their income and time to projects that benefit their people. Three of these patrons are EE’s new partners for our microfinance project outside of Bago. EE intends to focus support to the school, library, and socio-economic needs of this village of 1000 households so we can develop relationships with the beneficiaries and see the project impacts.
Almost two years old now, EE intends to stay small and scrappy. We’re proud of our impacts in promoting education, whether for children and literacy or vocational training for women. And we’re excited to see where the next year takes us.
These two weeks in Myanmar have provided me with a profound awareness of the Burmese’ natural, heartfelt commitment to helping each other.
I have been fortunate to spend a significant amount of time with half a dozen new colleagues. They are middle class, professional Burmese who work in well-paid positions – and each of them dedicates a significant portion of their earnings and time to thoughtful, sustainable education projects for the betterment of others less fortunate. They are smart, so their projects are sound and effective. And lucky for me, their English is quite good so I have had long, fascinating conversations with them.
Through LinkedIn, I connected with Myint Myint, a Rotarian and program coordinator with Metta Foundation, a large Burmese community based organization.
She invited me to join her on Saturday at Sasana Gone Yee Nunnery in Thingangyan Township of Yangon. This nunnery and school was established by two sisters, Daw Khemacari and Daw Kumacari, who decided at a young age that they wanted to become nuns and wanted to open a school for vulnerable children.
Myint Myint and several of her women friends operat a non-profit, Warm Love, which promotes quality education for the students in this nunnery school. All of these women and their daughters and their nieces work fulltime jobs in local and international organizations. But their work at the school is their passion and their commitment to give back to their people.
Organizations such as this have been active in the background throughout the military rule. However, now they have the freedom to be seen and heard. They are an inspiration.
Today, with EE’s partner organization, Banyan Tree Reading Center, I visited Sanda Rama Monastic School. Approximately 350 boys and girls, grades 1-6, attend this school in a poor factory ridden township outside Yangon.
Only two years old, this BTRC sponsored school receives significantly more financial support from the community and monks that other BTRC schools I have seen. With an average of 40 students per classroom, they learn the basic curriculum plus English, science, music, drawing, theatre, and life skills. As with all of BTRC’s schools, the basic educational approach is critical thinking. If children can learn how to identify, assess, and solve problems, their ability to improve their lives is immeasurable. Once again, I am struck by the irony that the poor children are receiving a better education than are the more economically sound children in the government schools.
Teachers at Sanda Rama receive 600,000-1,000,000 kyat ($600-$1000) per year depending on their experience level. All 22 teachers receive ongoing training in critical thinking and child centered approach teaching methodologies. Three days each week a free medical clinic onsite is available to students, teachers, monks, and community members.
I met three delightful 6-grade students, all of whom live with their parents and 2 siblings.
Hlan Moe Hmam is 12 years old,
enjoys jumping rope, and wants to
be a doctor when she grows up.
Zin Myat Noe is 10 years old,
she likes to swim and
wants to be a teacher.
Thent Zin Moe, 12 years old, likes to play ball and sets his sights even higher. He wants to be president! Thent Zin Moe walks 45 minutes, each way, to school every day to receive his education.
Most poor children in Myanmar don’t yet know future employment options other than those they see in their villages – farmer, carpenter, garment factor worker, rickshaw driver. These three children have learned to dream big.
EE’s new microfinance project, in partnership with Kyan Dyne Aung (KDA), is located in a village of approximately 1000 households outside Bago.
This is a poor village with dirt pathways and narrow roads. There are minimal vehicles; residents walk, bicycle, or use a motor scooter. Oxen and carts are plentiful for farming. The rainy season requires rowboats or treading through muddy streams. Homes are made of bamboo with thatched roofs. For me, there was a sense of peace and community.
The entire village is actively involved in both support and management of the project. For them, transparency is essential for the project’s long term sustainability and the villagers’ trust.
The first loans of approximately $30 per household were distributed at the beginning of January. Current Myanmar law stipulates that the maximum lifetime microfinance loan amount per household is $500. This differs from other SE Asia countries where there is no ceiling, and loan recipients keep cycling through loans years after year.
In Myanmar culture, the man is the legal loan recipient, and the woman is the manager of all of the household’s income, including these loans. Loan payments include both prorated principle amount and interest. This approach maintains a higher ongoing capital base in the fund so that new allocations can be provided to new beneficiaries in a more timely cycle.
During my visit yesterday, I met several new loan recipients. One woman buys cosmetics, and her daughter resells them at the garment factory where she works. Another woman sells dried fish, walking around the village with the basket balanced securely on her head. And another woman re-sells clothing to local villagers, home by home. All three women are pleased with having access to loans and with their sales volume to date. The 2.5% interest rate is workable, and they would like a larger loan amount to be able to expand their new business proportionately. After this first pilot cycle, KDA intends to increase the loan amounts.
I was told that I was probably the first foreigner to sit and talk with these women. I felt welcomed with open hearts.
EE’s partner Kyan Dyne Aung provides free education to approximately 40 primary age children in a village outside Bago. Children are initially placed in one of three groups depending on their current academic level and learning needs. As they learn and improve, they are moved to the next level. Students walk a fair distance along the dirt “roads” to attend their half day sessions. If they are charged with the care of a younger sibling, they bring him or her along. That the children receive quality education is the most important factor to KDA.
During my visit yesterday they discussed child trafficking, prevalent in Bago. Just as children in our country are cautioned to not speak to strangers, they are warned of false promises of food, trinkets, or cash, and what to do if approached.
A lively, attentive group, they showed eagerness to learn and little hesitation to speak with a foreigner. After one talented girl gracefully performed a traditional dance, I was asked to perform a western dance. Not one to pass up a chance to dance, I led them in some moves and grooves to Maroon 5, accompanied by lots of giggles and smiles.