Htan Kyung is more than just a school. It is an integral part of Khin Tan, and wonderful things happen here, besides just the magic of education.
I had no idea what to expect when we reached Htan Kyung school, but my heart swelled to see the porch filled with children in their uniforms, their hands pressed together as they all chimed “Good Morning!” in unison, many times! While that may be the extent of their English, their words were filled with respect, joy, and gratitude. Even though it was a weeklong holiday from school, all the children came to visit us and help celebrate the anniversary of the school we so proudly opened last year. Parents, elders, and other villagers came as well, filling the structure to maximum capacity.
Cyclone Nargis devastated this region in 2008, the worst disaster ever in this impoverished country. Life down in the Ayeyarwady River delta continues to pose many challenges. Farming is hard work, small villages have no electricity, and fish are becoming extinct. Some food and supplies have to be delivered by boat, an expensive mode of transportation, but the only way to access remote villages. Annual flooding still wipes out many homes.
Our village of Khin Tan is fortunate to have this school, as it provided a safe place to meet and store food in the flooding during the monsoons last year. Though it is basically just an open structure, the school is built on pilings strong enough to sustain it and high enough to keep the interior dry. During the high-water season, children come by boat right up to the front door, as the steps may be underwater.
It is just pure delight to spend time with these children. We did an art activity of exchanging autobiographical culture frames with our sister school at home, Hyla Middle School. The kids were amazed to watch the instant photos develop in front of their eyes and see themselves. Every child also received their very own Burmese/ English activity book and colored pencils, a very special treat for these students.
Htan Kyung is more than just a school. It is an integral part of Khin Tan, and wonderful things happen here, besides just the magic of education.
I don’t understand any Burmese beyond “hello” and “thank you”, but I could feel the power of Khet Mar’s words as she spoke to the girls and young women celebrating the Burmese launch of I Am Malala. As my friend translated Khet Mar’s speech for me, she was almost moved to tears by the strength and confidence she was instilling in the listeners. Khet Mar talked of how she started with very little in life but found joy in reading and learning. She told the girls that they have the power and strength to do great things and that education is the beginning of that path, and that we are all Malala.
A journalist, poet, and novelist, Khet Mar was an exiled write-in-residence in City of Asylum from 2009-2012. She now lives in the Washington D.C. area and works for Radio Free Asia. We are indeed honored to have such an exemplary women translate I Am Malala into her native tongue. I’ve already been told by my Burmese friends who have read some of the book that the language used is truly beautiful.
Two young girls approached me before the festivities began. They were so curious where I was from, how old I was, and how many children I had. They had ridden on a bus for twelve hours from Mandalay to attend the event and were so excited to be there. I asked them about their studies, and Sonia said her favorite subjects are science and geography, and Daisy loves her English classes. It was such a sweet and memorable interaction.
While at the book launch, the girls rotated through four different fun activities. At one table they created the book cover for their very own memoir. Khet Mar lead the poetry corner and encouraged the girls to write a short poem, some of which were read aloud later to the entire group. Girls in the performance activity did improvisational acting and laughed and giggled as they did movement and dance exercises. In the story-telling circle girls were encouraged to share personal stories of their lives. Thank you to Girl Determined for organizing this event and providing inspirational activities for these young women. They are the future of this country.
Ma Thet and Lei Lei Win spend many hours together every day sitting on one of their porches rolling cigars. They love to laugh and reminisce about when they were young and growing up in their village. Ma Thet, a widow with five children, took a loan for $70 to help her continue her small cigar business. While this may not seem like much to us, it is enough to allow her to run her cottage industry by herself, which then enables her children to stay in school and not need to work to supplement the family income.
Ma Khin Cho runs a home shop, selling kitchen items, produce, and rice and coconut soup. She has taken out and repaid two loans and is now using her third loan to build her business and invest in her shop. These low-interest loans empower Ma Khin Cho to significantly contribute to the family income and be an active participant in the village economy.
When a woman needs a haircut or a bride needs make-up for her special day, she goes to see Mu Mu Sein. Her first loan was $40, her second was $50, and her third was $70. She’s working to grow her business and buy more supplies and equipment. The income also helps her support her family, and the young niece she adopted after the girl’s mother disappeared on a business trip to Malaysia.
What do these women and the 400 other households who have taken out loans have in common? 100% payback. We’re proud to support this loan program and empower these families. This model also puts money back into the community by using some of the interest income to help support the local school and clinic. Like these women, it’s beautiful.
What a joy to be back in Myanmar with our partners and friends here! Instead
of staying in Yangon right away for my week of meetings and appointments, I headed straight up to Bago to visit our village programs there. First stop, the very sweet primary school. Many of these children are orphans, and some are just too poor to attend the government school, which requires payment for supplies and uniforms. They are all beautiful children sharing the universal qualities we love and cherish in our own: innocence, curiosity, the need for approval and affirmation, smiles that just melt your heart.
Every single child drew a picture and proudly delivered it to me personally.
After a rousing clapping and counting game, I was treated to a stellar singing performance of the English alphabet!
The two teachers do an amazing job with their students - all of the children are attentive, polite, and respectful. Besides teaching, both young women also perform other duties in the village. One helps monitor our microfinance loan program there, and the other works next door in the clinic's pharmacy.
The clinic is truly an amazing place, open every Saturday for four hours. The waiting area is furnished with donated chairs and tables. There are two small examination rooms and a room for people needing injections. Two doctors out
of a larger pool of rotating volunteer physicians see an average of 65 people in need of medical attention. Two nurses are on hand to administer the injections. A group of trained people dispense the prescribed medications in the pharmacy, a table set up in the waiting area. Another team of trained local volunteers manages the waiting list of patients and handles the administration and finances of the clinic. Any monthly costs not met are voluntarily covered by this kindhearted team.
These villagers may not have much, but that does not stop them from sharing with each other and giving back to their community.
Having just returned from 3+ weeks in Myanmar, I am struck by the numerous instances I witnessed of girls and women empowered by education – all resulting in their increased independence, self-confidence, and self-reliance.
In today’s world of injustices, human rights abuses, and violence, it was uplifting to learn of positive outcomes and the power of the human spirit. During my visits with Educational Empowerment’s (EE) partners, I interviewed numerous women and girls to learn of their life struggles, dreams, and thoughts on education. It was saddening to hear their stories of trauma created by poverty, sexual assault, natural disasters, and violence. Yet, it was extremely inspiring to see how education has helped them to overcome these tragedies and to prevail.
Naw Cynthia, one of EE’s partners, told me of the physical and sexual abuse she endured during her childhood. She always knew that education would be her liberator. Cynthia is now a well-educated and respected proponent of quality education and literacy in Myanmar. She shares her story with adolescent girls to give them a voice and to encourage them to pursue their dreams through education.
Cho Cho, a Burmese friend, told me about the impacts of poverty on her childhood and how she escaped from it. She was taught by her parents that education was the most important way to escape poverty. Every June when school started in Myanmar, her family skipped meals. They only ate broken rice which is cheaper than regular rice or boiled water grass leaves if they couldn’t afford the broken rice. This was their way to save money for school fees for seven children. Cho Cho and her sister only had one pair of shoes between them. Her sister (in the seventh standard and now a doctor) would wear the shoes to school in the evening. Cho Cho (in the fourth standard and now a finance supervisor) would wear the shoes to school in the afternoon. Now, all are seven siblings are successful professionals who work full-time jobs and dedicate their remaining time and income to supporting education for less fortunate Burmese. Like their parents said, they escaped poverty through education. Cho Cho values education because it enabled her to change her whole life. She wishes that all people, especially youth, learn the value of education.
Daw Khin Nwe Oo, a tall, statuesque mom of six, sells sticky rice snacks in her village. As part of our microfinance project, she receives financial and business management training. Quick to smile and laugh, her business does extremely well, enabling her two youngest daughters to remain in school. Education is important to Daw Khin. Because of health problems when she was a child, she wasn’t able to finish primary school. She wants her children to have good jobs, success, and respect. Daw Khin emanates pride in her business accomplishments and enthusiasm to become even more successful.
Girls attending high school in the remote Yay Kyaw Toe village in the southern Delta all survived the devastating destruction of Cyclone Nargis in 2008. They board at the high school and dedicate long days and nights to achieving high scores on their annual exams, learning critical thinking, mastering the English language, and actively practicing their Buddhism. They know that their future dreams and lives outside the Delta depend on education.
All of these girls and women touched my heart. They impressed me with their positive, hopeful attitudes, their resilience in the face of adversity, their confidence, and their self-reliance. They embody the belief that teaching a girl can change the world.
Stay tuned for more news of Naw Cynthia, Cho Cho, Daw Khin, and other amazing Burmese girls and women in my upcoming series in Women Inspire.
While traveling on the east side of the Delta, I attended two school openings with donors and visited a school built by HTBD three years ago. I learned that the government school administrators in this district are not nearly as proactive as the administrators for Htan Kyun (EE’s school).
As an example, Htan Kyun has already been allocated 5 teachers even though it hasn’t yet officially received its certification. In comparison, one of these schools is temporarily being taught by a local farmer with a 10th grade education, and the other has been allocated only one teacher. As quality education is EE’s goal for Htan Kyun, we’re fortunate to have supportive administrators willing to step outside their box a bit.
During these school visits, two of my fellow donors (Martin, a German artist and Tomasina, a graphic designer from Cyprus) conducted interactive art classes for the students. The introduction of art – especially creative, free-form art, was a new experience for these children. Many weren’t even sure at first what to do with the crayons, and were obviously unnerved by the freedom to draw as they wanted. Watching their faces and joy as they caught on and started having fun was pure delight. Parents were equally delighted to celebrate their children’s creative accomplishments.
This is an educational culture where children are taught to obey, memorize facts, and parrot back what they’ve heard. The simple use of art as an alternative methodology emphasizing creativity and exploration was extremely successful - and FUN.
As I have repeatedly been asked this question and pondered this question, I decided to ask the question while in Myanmar. I asked Burmese colleagues, reform leaders, and a human rights officer, expat businesswomen and INGO workers, and a daily editor/journalist.
I asked their opinions on the reasons for the escalating violence between Rakhine Muslims and Buddhist monks. I asked how lives based on loving-kindness could extend to this display of hatred.
There was no consensus.
Some believe it’s spurred by former military who exchanged their uniforms for suits – cronies interested in continued ethnic domination. Possibly it sets the framework for a future coup or creates a distraction from the pending elections. It must be all about politics as Muslims and Buddhists have peacefully lived side-by-side forever.
Some have been cautioned by their INGO Directors to not discuss it for fear of repercussions.
Some believe it is impossible to ever know the real reasons, as there are so very many secrets.
Some know there is a history in this country of fighting between Buddhists and Muslims for 70 years. With Myanmar now open to the world, this type of news is surfacing but has always existed. Some believe that many Buddhists do not think well of Muslims because of their unusual traditions.
As a culture trained over the past 50 years to not ask questions, it’s not surprising that the common thread between all of these opinions is lack of trust and fear. Most definitely, I see tangible improvements in Myanmar related to human rights and self-expression. However, change takes time and it isn’t easy.
What I do hear from everyone is HOPE for the future, and that’s good news.
Even before you're in the travel-by-boat region, you see extensive farm life in the Delta. Life that will withstand severe weather extremes and serve a function.
Take the ducks for instance. These incredibly large flocks are herded like sheep by a duck herder. They enjoy homes with shade, built off the ground with available bathing water. They spend considerable time in the salt water canals, fluttering about. When it's time for them to exit the canal, Mrs. duck herder splashes them with water from her boat. As ducks tend to be big followers, the entire flock quickly works its way home.
Ducks provide income and food resources, and they sure seem to propogate quickly.
There's a wide array of multi-colored goats and a pletehora of enormous sows. Water buffalo are the working beasts, but still have time to enjoy the mud and waters. Chickens and roosters strut around everywhere. A few fortunate farmers have horse-drawn carriages.
Although I didn't happen upon any wild elephants, I did see a baby croc sunbathing on the muddy canal bank.
I returned to Yangon last evening after four intense and memorable days in the southern Ayeyarwady Delta. Traveling with EE’s partner, Helping the Burmese Delta, we traveled down the east side of the Delta to open two primary schools and visit a HTBD school opened three years ago.
It’s difficult to know where to start with this story. My mind is still twirling with vivid visuals and memories, all of which currently feel equally significant. I guess I’ll start with the entry.
We were a party of 20 – donors excited to see their new schools and HTBD’s team of young men and women accustomed to the opening routines and physically able to assist us less nimble donors with maneuvering the slippery bamboo planks to access the boats. My co-donors represented the UAE, Switzerland, UK, Germany, and Cyprus. We all share a common belief in the power of education as a life change agent and a love for these people.
It’s an 11-12 hour trek from Yangon. First, the rolling, bumpy 2-lane highway with meandering water buffalo and endless views of beautiful rural farm life. This time of year is the driest. Where travel by boat is the norm, rice paddies are now dry and travel from farm to village is by foot or buffalo-driven cart. There are no hills. The flat lands extend to the horizon.
All villagers use beautiful clay pots to collect rain water. This is their only source of water throughout the remainder of the year. At $30/pot, an exorbitant amount of money for them, you can gauge their economic level by thei number of pots outside their homes.
After lunch, the excruciatingly slow 1-lane dirt road and questionable bridges. The driver continuously moved from one side of the road to the other to avoid bottoming out or getting stuck in the soft dirt. As an impatient driver, it was quite painful for me to travel 4 miles/hour for 2 ½ hours.
Finally, travel by boat. Water in the canals is extremely low this time year. The driver gracefully managed the waters to avoid running a-ground. This would have resulted in our disembarking into thigh-high, quicksand like mud. As boats of all shapes and sizes are the norm, it’s amazing to think that most children here have never seen a car.
The canal banks were relatively barren as the countryside was decimated by Cyclone Nargis’s in 2008 – a lot of palms and mud leading to fields and distant homes.
We arrived at our base, HTBD’s high school, at dark. Not having packed my headlamp in a memorable spot, I needed to closely follow my colleague on the trail through the village and fields, having no clue to my new surroundings. The sure-footed high school boys carried our bags and provisions from boat to village.
Arriving at the school, I found a ‘home’ for the next 3 nights and set up my ‘camp’. This consisted of my blow-up floor mat, sheet, small blanket, travel pillow, and mosquito netting. I had been wondering about the toilet situation. They were basically clean outhouses on stilts with slippery bamboo-rung access planks – squat toilets of course. Thank goodness I’ve built up thigh muscles over the past few months in anticipation of this moment - so once down, I was able to stand back up.
The delightful women and girl students cooked up a lovely meal of rice, fried shrimp, cauliflower, dried fish, and cucumbers for a sit-down dinner outside lighted by headlamps and a full moon. Meanwhile, the students (approximately 50 male/female borders) studied for their exams. There is considerable pressure to secure high ranks on these annual school exams.
Finally snuggling into my ‘camp’, I fell asleep amidst the sounds of life in this remote and mystical locale. As the girls’ voices rose in unison in prayer, it sounded like a sweet swarm of bees hovering overhead.
Meet Daw Khin Nwe Oo. A tall, statuesque mom of six, she sells sticky rice snacks walking throughout her village on the outskirts of Bago.
Quick to smile and laugh, her business does well, enabling her two younger children to remain in school. Education is important to Daw Khin. Because of health problems when she was a child, she wasn't able to finish primary school. She wants her children to have good jobs, success, and respect.
If she was able to change one thing in her life, she would have a rich business.
EE's microfinance project in partnership with local organization Kyan Dyne Aung will be starting its third cyle of loan distributions come June. Over the past 19 months, the program's repayment rate has maintained 100%. Current recipients will be able to borrow 75,000 kyat in June ($75). New loan participants may qualify for 60,000 kyat.
The women I met expressed obvious pride in their success in bringing new income into their households, motivation to improve their businesses, and gratitude for this opportunity.
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.