Classrooms at nunneries and monastic schools are so very different from ours, in many ways. Students sit on benches at long wooden tables, usually so close that they're touching each other. There are no smart boards, computers, calculators or cell phones. The young monks and novices sit separately, and there's no chattering or giggling. From what we can see, discipline is not an issue.
When a teacher tells thier students to sit up straight, they all will immediately assume this military-like position of arms crossed and hands tucked in and a straight-ahead stare.
We asked the teachers and the headmaster what their biggest challenges were, and they told us of two things. The first was that they've had so many new children come from different war-torn conflict zones, and not all children in the same room speak the same language or dialect. In one classroom a five-year-old boy acts as a translator because he can speak Shan and Bamar.
Then we heard how difficult it is to maintain all the buildings in the monastery. Locks get broken and things disappear. One day they came in and over half the books in their library were gone, never to be seen again. Who would do such a thing? Vandals? Kids who so desperately wanted books?
While we expected to see a fairly empty library, we weren't prepared to see it in this sorry state. But our hearts were warmed when we saw the writing on the wall, literally:
The aisles were wide and bright and full of everything you can imagine, and some things unrecognizable, definitely unreadable to me. This ultra modern grocery store in Yangon is brand-spanking new and a far cry from the bustling, crowded, refrigeration-free neighborhood markets. Fortunately my friend Jom was with me to read the labels and help make a decision - it's so great traveling with a local. We had stopped there to pick up some treats for the children and teachers we were going to visit in a nunnery school in the slums outside of town.
On the way we passed miles of rice paddies, glowing vibrant green in the hot sun. Cattle cooled in the irrigation ditches in the shade alongside the road, and grass shacks sprouted up randomly amid the fields. After an hour and a half of narrow bumpy roads and several villages, we arrived at the nunnery at the end of the road, literally.
As it is still a holiday week here for the Festival of Lights and there is no school, the only children at the nunnery were the ones who live there, 40 children ages three to fourteen. Most are girls, novices in their pretty pink robes with shaved heads. They were all so happy to see us, as I'm sure we're still a novelty to them, American women with eyes that aren't brown and hair that's not black.
350 children attend classes at the nunnery - seven classrooms and eleven teachers. The school is overcrowded and a new building stands half finished, without funding to complete the roof and flooring. All the food is cooked over wood fires, and only one of the buildings has electricity. The school depends primarily on donations, so as is customary, the novices go on a walk twice a month for two days and ask for rice and donations. It is always a struggle to make ends meet, made more frustrating by the fact that monks are allowed to ask for food on a daily basis. The head nun is a lovely, gracious woman who obviously cares so deeply for all the children in her care. When I asked her what her greatest was, she said it was feeding the 40 children who live there. She has to take the food she gets and spread it around to feed everyone. Some of the children living there are orphans, some from divorced or broken homes, some from the dangerous conflict zones. All are welcome, all are cared for and nurtured.
Today we drove a ways out of Yangon to visit a wonderful school. There's a modest young man who has the means and determination to give back to his community through the gift of education. He runs a model school in his village where, besides the basic academic classes, the children also learn about leadership, reproductive health, the danger of human trafficking, and the importance of critical thinking. Older children also receive training in HIV awareness and gender equality. All the teachers have degrees and attend many extra training sessions throughout the year. The school also plays a role in the community, and has a youth library with a small computer lab and a family library, where the teachers take turns keeping records of the book loans. Soon there will also be a clinic.
Of the approximately forty children that attend the school, many are orphans. But their free, quality education will give them a fighting chance to break out of poverty. There is also a program being set up to provide access to vocational skills training programs after completing their lessons at this school.
Another community project there is a pond full of beautiful lily pads that naturally clean the water enough to make it potable. The water table, 80 feet underground is salty and oily and not acceptable for drinking water. The pond is kept clean - no swimming allowed! - and children carry jugs of water to the houses in the morning for a little bit of money and the area has clean safer drinking water.
It's people like this young man and his group of dedicated teachers who keep us going at EE and inspire us. Some have so little, but give so much back. Their hearts are open and will hep this country grow by nurturing its next generation.
The October full moon marks the Festival of LIghts, the time when it's said that Buddha returned to earth after spending several months in heaven. Twinkle lights and candles adorn balconies all over Yangon. Many businesses and schools are closed so people can go to their temples to celebrate. The streets are full of partiers and there will be many fireworks tonight. At Shwedagon, the golden temple of Yangon, women make beautiful flower arrangements to be presented to Buddha, and colorful paper lanterns hang everywhere.
I was really surprised when a monk approached me and asked where I was from. Typically monks here are reserved and I've always been told to never approach or talk to them out of reverence and respect. Maybe it was because Jom, my young Burmese friend, was with me. The monk asked me if I knew anything about Buddha, and I told him that I knew about how Buddha sat under the bodhi tree and nearly starved himself to death, and how he later achieved enlightenment, and that this festival celebrated his return to earth. Though you may not tell from this photo, the monk got so animated and excited and told me that I made his day by knowing this and he vigorously shook my hand and smiled ear to ear! A very special moment I'll not soon forget.
Here's something else I wasn't really expecting to see at the temple - a cash machine! Modernization is definitely on the rise here, and I have seen signs for credit cards and ATMs, but certainly wasn't expecting one at the temple.
And it really ticked me to see these teenagers goofing around taking "selfies". I guess some things really are universal.
And finally, had our first meeting with our partners from Banyan Tree, Cynthia and Paw Lin, the people who worked so lovingly on our first folk tale books. We set up school and library visits for later in the week, so stay tuned for more stories and photos.
Next week I'll be traveling to Myanmar to meet with our partners, bring back some of our newly published folktale books, and look into more ways we can provide services. Stay tuned for more blog posts.
Kitsap County's local papers, Kitsap Sun and Islander, published a lovely story this week about EE's literacy exchange project between local Hyla Middle School and Shule Nunnery School outside Yangon.
Take a peek at "Bainbridge School Reaches out to Students in Myanmar".
Children in school uniforms, monks in saffron robes, horse-drawn carriages, crowded markets, temple spires, beautiful sunsets, crowded city streets. So many images are playing a continuous slideshow in my head after returning home.
I can hear the clop clop of the horsedrawn carriage taxis in Bagan and the monks chanting over loud speakers for Buddhist Lent; I can still taste the wonderful tea leaf salad served everywhere and the fresh yummy papayas; I’ll never forget the views from climbing the ancient temples, or watching the water rush past from the boats we rode on Inle Lake.
But it always comes back to the children: I can still hear the kids in the crowded classroom singing and acting out “Where is Thumbkin?” in Burmese with big smiles on their faces. Or hearing the teachers tell us that some students don’t even have a pencil to write with; watching the happy looks on the teachers’ faces as they read the culture projects that students here created, and seeing the kids there complete their own for us to bring back to share. The warm handshakes from our partners, and their dedication and caring; the way that so many Myanmar people give back in any way they can, and how they were supportive of our work and mission.
All these things confirm and reinforce our dedication to bring books and teacher support to the classrooms and to learn more about our partners and support them.
Thanks for joining us on our journey.
These words only start to describe our first impressions of Inle Lake.
No matter where we stepped this afternoon, a distinctive sound resonated – clip/clop of the weaving looms, chanting of the monks, rumble of the long boat engines, hissing of the water spray as we skimmed across the lake, chattering of the birds nesting in our cabins, singing of the young Shan men silently paddling their canoes– each sound creating a memory more vivid and indelible than any photograph.
Approximately the size of Bainbridge Island and sitting at an elevation of 3,000 feet, the shallow lake is located in the mountainous Shan State, which produces the bulk of Myanmar’s fresh produce. With its homes, stores, and schools built on stilts above the water and its back alley waterways, it resembles a city living under flood conditions. Yet, this is their world, and they are extremely creative and progressive in their use of options and waste reduction.
All commerce, fishing, floating gardens, school transport, and young lover dates occurs by boat. It is a fascinating, tranquil way of life for the local Intha tribe and Shan people.
We three were truly transported to another world for a couple of days.
Each morning at 6, I go for a run to feed my endorphin needs and explore different parts of this city Yangon. With so many people literally living on the streets, the communities are awake and busy early in the day. I can go for miles in any direction and see the same scene of decaying British architecture intermingled with tin, tarp and wood dwellings. The sidewalks are risky even at a walk, with uneven wobbly blocks of concrete and whole sections missing or open to the sewer below. The middle of the street is safer early in the day when I only have to dodge the ubiquitous dogs, 3-wheeled bicycles and occasional ancient taxi.
We are staying in the heart of the original city, as laid out by the British, close to the Yangon River. I can run along the river on a concrete road that has no traffic and no view of the river, but is used by pedestrians, more dogs, impromptu youth soccer teams (playing barefoot with rocks delineating the sidelines and goal posts), semi-permanent fresh produce markets and an occasional motorcycle that, for unknown reasons, can only be used in Yangon by government officials.
Although my early morning run provides a certain unique perspective, the most powerful impressions have been from our meetings with the Myanmar people, especially those with the resources and education to act as ‘agents of change’ for their country. The commitment to giving back to their communities is a universal theme among these individuals. At the same time, they have a sense of urgency, excitement and trepidation, given the current window of opportunity to improve obsolete systems and bureaucracies. One of our contacts organized a nationwide conference on education reform for this last weekend in Yangon. During the same time period, he spent two days with us visiting nunnery schools that serve the country’s poorest children.
The work to improve education for Burmese children with the greatest need, using nontraditional methods, aligns well with my day job back in the U.S. It reinforces for me the universality of the commitment to education as a tool for improving the lives of children while sustaining their communities.