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.