MBSPF Board Member Meg Clarke recently met Maung Maung Gyi in Mandalay. She has provided this lovely description of him:
Maung Maung Gyi: our clever, compassionate contractor
Maung’s motto: Strong, beautiful, cool
The schools he builds for Myanmar/Burma Schools Project are strong enough for earthquakes, beautiful in design, and surrounded by shady trees to alleviate the high temperatures of this tropical climate.
This extraordinary man is unlike any contractor you may have met. His smile covers his face.
His brown eyes dance. He lived in a Buddhist monastery for years, where the monks taught him values of gentleness, kindness, discipline and hard work. When he returned to live with his family, he was determined to obtain an education. But his father needed help with the family enterprise so Maung rose early every day to help his father, walked several miles to school, came home and worked some more.
Maung does not just build schools. He also transmits the values of education and hard work to the villagers. In fact, before he will even suggest that we might select a village for a new school building, he has many discussions with the villagers. Will they help with the work? What can they contribute? Will they ensure the students work hard and are diligent about attending school?
He wants to know that the community has a heart and a willingness to learn and that the school will be enhancing those values.
However he is equally determined that the schools are constructed to last. He is a self- taught engineer and selects materials that can withstand the monsoon rains, earthquakes and winds. He raises the height of the roofs to make the inside cooler. He uses 2-brick width walls rather than the standard one. The framing is aluminum, which is strong in the winds but will not rust.
His team of 35 builders, and one amazing cook, have been with him for 10 years. They keep working for him, even though he demands hard work and high standards. Periodically, he puts aside part of their wages and takes them and their families on a holiday.
Maung Maung Gyi is an engineer, an entrepreneur, an inspiring storyteller and a compassionate leader. No wonder nearly every village in Myanmar wants him –and us –to build schools!
And John Stevens provided us with this portrait of Maung:
Maung Maung Gyi grew up in the small village of Own Don in the central area of Myanmar. The son of an onion farmer, Maung kept in good shape by walking 4 miles to school and back every day. For the most part, villages like Maung Maung Gyi’s are very cut off from the outside world. Own Don had never had a television nor did it get newspapers delivered until 1989. The villagers’ only source of information before that was from a portable radio and it took until 1997 before the first car, which also happened to be carrying the first foreigner, made it down the oxcart trail to town.
Early on, Maung had ambitions other than becoming a farmer. After completing high school he went to University in nearby Meiktila and upon graduating from there headed north to Mandalay to make his way in the world. Finding a decent job in the big city was, and still is, like finding gold dust. After doing a few odd jobs, Maung managed to get together enough money to make the down payment on a peddle rickshaw bike. He parked it and himself alongside his fellow college grad colleagues in front of the E.T. hotel.
One day in 1996, a Canadian guest at the hotel named John Stevens asked Maung to show him around the town. The two of them hit it off and became friends and soon were to discover that they also had the makings of a good team. Neither of them was short of ideas and their first venture was to set up a meditation center on the roof of the hotel. As meditation centers go, this was somewhat unique since the practice consisted of a mélange zazen meditation followed by Theravadan prostrations. Thanks to Maung, the dojo took off right away as he had recruited all of his fellow rickshaw drivers who soon found themselves practicing on a daily basis before work each morning.
Once this group of budding Bodhisattvas became established, Maung and John set out to help the village farmers with their irrigation needs with donations of water pumps, generators and water wells. Two years down the road, the villagers of Own Don asked them if they could possibly build a school for them. Maung and John found this school project to be so appreciated and fulfilling that they decided to see if they could build a lot more and a target of building one hundred schools was set.
In 2008, good fortune came knocking in the form of Quilley Powers, a mutual friend in the Dharma of John’s and Steve Armstrong’s. Quilley introduced John and Steve to each other and from there a joint venture to build schools in the villages of Myanmar began.
Being a born leader, Maung Maung Gyi was the obvious choice for the position of supervisor for the construction of all the schools. The combination of his experience in construction, knowledge of architecture, strong work ethic and natural ability for dealing with people has since made him the crux of the ongoing collaboration between the American charity, Myanmar Schools Project, the Canadian charity, Myanmar/BurmaFoundation Schools Project Foundation, and his and John’s 100 Schools.
Maung Maung Gyi continues to make his home near Mandalay where he is the headman of his community. He lives there with his wife and two sons.
Internet availability can be spotty in the rural areas of Myanmar. But Maung has a solution for everything, even if it means being up a tree!