MBSPF schools do more!
Earlier this year (2017), the Nwar Shar Yoe village school that we built in 2016 was turned for one day into a rural health center for villagers who have cataract problems. The school was chosen by the health department to be their temporary health centre as it was the only really good building in the area. The doctors said that had they not been able to find a building this clean in this part of the district, it would not have been possible for them to come there at all. 220 mostly elderly villagers came from a total of 15 villages within a radius of 4 to 5 miles to be treated by 20 doctors who brought along 42 medical students with them.
Journalist Quade Hermann visited one of our school construction projects in March 2017 and wrote a lovely story. Please click on the title above to read it and see her photos.
A Day in Myanmar
MBSPF Board director Sharon Brain was a key member of the team on the Annual Schools Trip Dec 25, 2016 – Jan 11, 2017. Here is her account of a day on the road visiting rural villages/schools in the Kalaw area of Myanmar:
We went to a school opening in the morning in the village of Pwe Hla Shwe Gone, one of our bigger school buildings (five classrooms) which was funded by a generous Deep Cove couple (neighbours of ours we know through our church.) It was January 1 so the village was in full festival mode and there was speech-making, dancing and loud music—a wonderful party.
The women (this is the Pa’o area in the Shan state) wore their distinctive orange head gear.
Many babies, though not too many—when I ask women how many children they have, the usual answer is two.
After that celebration, we piled back into two cars to drive to Wah Bo Yee, a village about two hours out of Kalaw, high in the wooded hills and fertile valleys of central Myanmar. We needed two cars because there were several of us including our Kalaw area contractor, Ernest Singh, a Burmese of Indian descent, who used to be a teacher and speaks very good English. He is 76 years old.
One of his two sons, Wyn, was with us too. A carpenter, he makes all our doors and windows and helps his father run his building crew of 15 workers. The Kalaw Education Official was there too. He usually travels with us and can tell us what the education department can or can’t do. His department pays the teachers so his co-operation is vital. We help him by building out-of-the-way schools in remoter villages and he tells us about the schools that need help. (The government prefers to build schools close to the road but many of the more distant villages need schools even more; hence, our many miles on dusty back roads.) We also had Mimi, a translator, a young woman who had been Ernest’s student and works as a tour guide.
Steve and Roger and I rode in the second car. We passed the time talking dharma and dinner plans and aspirations for the New Year. We drove about an hour on a paved road that often was lined on both sides by enormous eucalyptus trees. We passed motor bikes, ox carts, tuk-tuks full of peanuts and a huge Shrine with four enormous Buddhas carved into the mountain side called Blue Lake. (Even Steve, who is an avid non-tourist, was intrigued and he stopped on the way home to take a picture. When we go back next year, we said, we will stop there but we hardly ever do much touristing, so I will be surprised if this comes to pass.)
We turned up a steep and narrow (and unpaved) mountain road, through a pass cut in the rock and into a fertile mountainous valley. High above us on the mountain top was a golden Buddhist pagoda. Very scenic—unlike the school which was dire. It’s a primary school and very bad. Leaky roof, no windows, mud floors, crowded, etc. Heart-breaking.
I poked my head in the kindergarten and this little one burst into tears at the sight of me. He had probably never seen a foreigner. I was wearing a big red hat which was likely terrifying.
The teachers’ cottage, though clean, was even worse than the school. Teachers’ accommodation is the responsibility of the villagers and the cottage was probably no worse than what some of the villagers live in but when I went to see it with two of the teachers, I couldn’t think of much good to say except it was big. Gaps in the thin wood-slatted walls, leaking tin roof, holes in the floor, rickety stairs… The teachers are usually young women who are posted to these remote villages for three years. It’s best if they are local, as the more mature teachers are, because then they live in the village in their own homes. But for these young women, the conditions are appalling.
(Building teachers’ accommodation has become one of our pet projects as we think that happy teachers will mean a better education for the children.)
But this village has hopes for a better future for their children. We didn’t come to this school because of the Education Official (in the white jacket)—this school was outside his district. We came because the local monk had heard about MBSPF and had come twice to Ernest’s home to ask for our help.
The village is poor but they have several advantages. They can grow tea up here because the nights are very cool. There were orchards of oranges as well. A woman in the village who came forward to introduce herself had already donated the land for a new school. The monk who was born there hasn’t forgotten them and will advocate for their needs. They have lots of children who look very poor but healthy.
So we all trooped out for a look at the proposed site. Down a path, across a clean stream that runs all year (a rarity in this country where water is either too much or too little, depending on the time of year.) The proposed site is sunny and clean and has good water and there is room for the teachers’ cottage too. Ernest thought he could get his truck in using the back road. The Education Department is already paying the teachers and the village is eager to help with food for the crew and volunteer labour and some materials.
Everyone agreed the need was great. We left with their gift of a giant bag of the tea they grow, and with their hopes for their children. We promised to get back to them as soon as we had decided, which we did that afternoon in a tea shop. This was our last school site visited in this area so we could look at our potential projects and make our decisions.
Deciding is always difficult. There are always more projects than money. We decide based on whether we feel the village has the energy and resources to keep the children in school, whether the education department will send the teachers, whether the contractor feels it is a feasible project and whether the need is clear.
There is also an indefinable something—did we ‘like’ the project? With Way Bo Yee, we did. Very much. We saw a quality of hope and joy and industry that we want to encourage. So we decided to build the children of Wah Bo Yee a new school.
We Love It!
Board Member Meg Clarke and her husband Bill, invaluable team members on the Mandalay portion of the Annual Schools Trip Dec 25, 2016 – Jan 11, 2017, have this delightful story to share:
“We love it! We love it. We love it!” –
chanted a classroom full of 5-year olds as Bill walked in to take their picture. Bill was so overwhelmed, he nearly forgot to capture the picture. The only other English words they knew were “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
We all know that gratitude, and expressing gratitude, creates health and happiness. Most of us could take lessons in gratitude from these 5-year olds – and from everyone in the villages whose outpouring of appreciation touched us deeply. They lined the dirt road as we approached, sometimes giving us fragrant flower-garland necklaces. Now I know how the Queen feels when she arrives in a new place.
Always, they took our hands and said “Mingalabah”, or blessings be with you.
In most of the villages in which we are building schools, the school becomes the only concrete-floored, earthquake- resistant, monsoon-proof building in the village. Villagers live in wooden huts with dirt floors, and palm-frond roofs. They have no running water and often the village shares a single well. There is no electricity. They cook outdoors over open fires and eat squatting; no tables or chairs.
So imagine how the children feel, in a dry secure building, sitting at desks, having clean toilets. No wonder they “love it!”
Outgrowing Their School: Yge Nge
We first came to the village of Yge Nge, just outside of Pyin Oo Lwin, in 2010. In the hills and only an hour of winding road from Mandalay, this is an area with a long history and for us Westerners, the blessing of a cooler climate. We built a five-room primary school here and also refurbished a two-room school. When we visited again in 2012, we saw that they were now in need of a six-room building so they could have a middle school. The number of students has increased from 444 to 506-a good sign. Because they have a large school property (an unusual situation in crowded Myanmar), there were many discussions with the teachers and villagers about where the school would best be built. Maung Maung Gyi, our Mandalay contractor, also insisted that we relocate the toilets so that the overflow would no longer run through the schoolyard during the rainy season.
This school is close to our hearts because it is the school for 22 blind children from the region as well as for the students from the local villages. The villagers and teachers are willing participants in the building and every project we have done at this site has been successful.
When we returned in 2013, the new building was near completion, with only the classroom dividers, blackboards and desks still to be put in place. We gave uniforms to all the children to celebrate the opening of their new Middle School.
Gandamar – MBSPF 2012 School
Gandamar is a small village an hour from Mandalay where we built a school in 2012. The Minister of Education for the district officially opened it early in January 2013. The opening ceremony was, as always, elaborate with chanting monks, village officials, and our MBSPF representatives Maung Maung Gyi and John Stevens. All the children and teachers were in their best clothes and the whole village witnessed the happy event. There was a band and speeches and an elaborate meal for the important visitors.
When we arrived two weeks later to visit, the school looked wonderful. The children were in class working hard, but the teachers sent them outside to stand in straight rows on the steps for a formal picture. Then Roger created mayhem by giving out some of the Frisbees he had brought over from Canada in his suitcase. They had been donated by Susan and Ian Chubb of Deep Cove. The children needed to be shown how to use them, so Roger gave a demo.
Burmese Buddhist Bamar, Karen, and Muslims Build a School Together
Our contractors in Myanmar, John Stevens and Maung Maung Gyi, also build schools under their own 100 Schools organization banner. They have recently built an inter-ethnic, inter-faith school in the Wakema township located in the southwest of Myanmar, also known as the delta region of the Ayayarwady River.
John Stevens has some interesting observations about the villagers working together to help build the school. His story sheds a different light on the relations between Buddhists, tribal peoples and Muslims in Myanmar. Given news reports of violence between Buddhists and Muslims there, his contrasting story of them working together peacefully is valuable and encouraging.
“I thought you (and everyone else of us for that matter) might be interested in hearing a bit about the ethnic and inter faith school that we’ve been building in Wakema township. Maung Maung Gyi and I were shown a situation that pretty much put itself at the top of the list as far as which project of the five we would do first when given the chance. What made us so eager to take on this project was that it presented us with a situation that we had had very limited experience with in the past. This was an opportunity to build a school that was not just exclusively for the Burmese Bamar tribe but one which would also educate the children of another ethnic group (Karen) as well as another religion ( Muslim). This school could and would become the designated learning ground for the children from four distinctly different villages, one Burmese Buddhist, two which are Karen, and the fourth which is completely Muslim.
Since May 1st when construction began, the volunteer workers have all come regularly and equally from the four villages and have worked harmoniously side by side on each day that we’ve required their help. The only small noteworthy yet understandable event came on the first day, as we were about to do our traditional groundbreaking ceremony by offering incense to the Buddha. Just as we began lining up for he ceremony the Muslim volunteer workers did an immediate disappearing act but returned again as soon as the incense had burned out.
I think what foreigners who rely solely on the information they get from the newspapers are not aware of is that although the Buddhists and the Muslims in Myanmar are not what you might call bosom buddies, in most areas of the country they have no difficult problems with each other and these unfortunate incidents that have been in the news lately are more the exception rather than the rule.
It would be nice to see this new school become a model of how an inter faith and multi ethnic school in Myanmar can cohabit and become co-educated without difficulties.”……. John Stevens