Vacation time is over and work has come abruptly. This is an update of what we’ve done over the last week. Enjoy!
In the hills surrounding Inle Lake in Central East Myanmar there is a Monastery named: Htet Eain Gu Monastic Education School (pronounced Tay en goo). It houses roughly 200 children, ranging in age from four to 14 and teaches classes from Kindergarten to Grade seven. The children here are sent in from neighbouring communities for numerous reasons. Some are orphans, others are too poor for school and some are being sent away from conflict ridden regions. The Mudita Foundation has recently taken over the Monastary and since then has implemented various projects such as farming, mud brick making, a cafe, and educational services. They have established a rotating volunteer community with helpers coming from around the world. Many of these volunteers help teach the children subjects ranging from Art to English classes while the remaining ones help with the formerly mentioned tasks.
We arrived on Sunday after a dangerous and draining drive from Mandalay; I don’t think we’ll ever get used to them. The celebrations from the full moon and light festival were still taking place and lasted until Tuesday (Nov. 20) night. Part of the celebration is dressing in traditional Burmese clothing and lighting lanterns. They carry a string of lit candles up a hill to a pagoda, being followed by a band of local young men carting around a huge drum and banging things while singing. They made a large quasi Christmas tree thing that they hauled around on their shoulders. The creation was filled with buckets, cleaning supplies, money, random objects, and was topped with an umbrella from which money was attached. These were offerings to the monks.
The children had Monday and Tuesday off from school, so we were itching to do something. Tuesday we were sent to work making mud bricks out of clay. The bricks will eventually be used for a new building they hope to build. It’s messy work as you need to mix the clay with rice husks and straw using your feet, but satisfying nonetheless. In the afternoon we were sent to the fields and tackled tilling and plowing the land with hoes. Not as satisfying and far more tiring. Unfortunately, (though as expected) our accommodations do not allow for a good night’s rest. We were on a thin mat atop a concrete floor, covered by a mosquito net (that does not work well) and with thin blankets for the <10 degree Celcius nights. We put on all the layers of clothing we can possibly scrounge before going to bed. If the cold that creeps into your bones isn’t enough, then there is a dog pound with more than 200 dogs no further than 200m away from our kuti (mud house). The slightest noise will trigger them into a barking frenzy; this occurs multiple times per night. At 4:30 AM a Gong chimes to wake the monks for their journey into town to collect their breakfast donations. No need to worry though, you wake yourself up quickly enough with your “shower” consisting of a bucket of freezing cold river water.
So, why in the heck are we subjecting ourselves to this? Well, because just maybe we can make a difference in these children’s lives. It’s as simple as that. You come looking for an experience and an insight into another world but what you find are children that truly need help. Children that plagued with excuses and bad attitudes. Children whose poor fortune has left them in a situation where life is hard on all fronts. For any decent Canadian this will spur you into action, helping with any and all skills you possess. It will also leave you profoundly thankful for the quality of life enjoyed at home; often we contribute such a small portion relative to the massive yield we receive – take a minute to be thankful for your forefather’s blood, sweat and tears that built a successful environment in which you can thrive.
Alayna is teaching a Grade 2 class. The first day was a little overwhelming because she had only learned that she would be teaching them the night before. She got to the class and 22 children, in small wooden desks, were staring back at her. The only separation from the adjacent classrooms was a whiteboard. The noise was deafening. The children sing, chant or repeat sentences at the top of their lungs, and the concrete walls create a wonderful echo chamber. So, having four grades in the same long hall make it nearly impossible to distinguish voices or teach. Alayna was shouting at the top of her lungs “THE CAT IS ORANGE. THE CAT IS ON THE TABLE!” and was met back with blank stares, or distraction caused by a puppy that wandered into the classroom. The solution? Take them outside. Alayna was able to teach them about certain animals names, their colours, and where they are (above, below, beside). She started acting out the animals and climbing things, crawling under platforms, “The MONKEY is UNDER the TREE”. They look at her as if she is crazy, but eventually she gets them to join in and they’re all monkeys above, below, beside things. Alayna left feeling exhausted and voiceless. She had another class today and was much more prepared. After the class the children high-fived her. We’re getting better.
In the afternoons Alayna is in charge of the health clinic. The main problems are to do with the skin, particularly fungus. The children live in very close quarters (50 girls are in a house the size of a bungalow back home) and they rarely (if ever) wash their linens. This is exacerbated further with the monks, because they shave their heads weekly, the small cuts leave them vulnerable. They end up with patches of fungus on their heads and other parts of their bodies. Some of them have particularly bad fungus on their feet that has caused ulcerations (caused from walking barefoot in the dirt). Alayna has made an action plan, been to the pharmacy, and am giving a special presentation next week on general hygiene, fungus and what they need to do to combat it. She doesn’t think it will fix everything, but hopefully we can minimize it as much as possible.
Mark is teaching Grade 7 English in the mornings. The class lacks discipline which results in constant distractions to all the children in the classroom. Their common age is in no way indicative of a common skill level. Many can barely speak or read while others are able to converse with basic sentences. Finding common ground is difficult if not impossible. English games seem to have the greatest appeal and draw the shy students from their solitude. It can be daunting in these situations as so many things are stacked against the teacher and student’s success.
In the late morning Mark is tutoring two monks and two locals. Their age range is from 18 to 26. Lessons focus on conversational English and pronunciation. These students are eager to learn and absorb information like sponges. Due to this Mark has started a second session in the afternoon to maximize the time spent with these students. There’s no joy like teaching a motivated student, any teacher can attest to that.
Mark is also doing various building projects around the Monastery. First was building a bamboo dresser so our clothes wouldn’t have to sit on the floor. Next was an infrastructure upgrade to the stairs leading to our kuti. The path snakes up a rocky face with loose dirt and stones laying on the trail. After acquiring some German talent they began fashioning bamboo hand rails, re-leveling the steps and fixing old portions of the trail. It’s satisfying work and benefits all those who use the path daily.
There are some big challenges here. We, along with the other volunteers from around the world, are optimistic that we can do some good. If we weren’t, then we would definitely choose to be in a place with an actual bathroom. Changing local attitudes and customs can be very hard. We are trying to implement better hygiene measures and practices but high volunteer turn over makes that seem like wishful thinking.
We have received a significant donation (500CAD) from Mark’s friend (they wish to remain anonymous) to be administered by us as we see fit. We are putting together a plan regarding the funds. We will share how the money is spent and some of the reactions from the beneficiaries.
If you would like to donate in a similar manner then we could act as fiduciaries with our word that 100% of your donation reaches those in need. This isn’t a fundraising campaign. It’s an opportunity to give with an assurance that the funds will be used wisely and ethically. We have both wanted to give before but have been dubious about the efficacy of company’s claims. There would be no tax receipt. Money goes a long way here – 30CAD bought: anti fungal cream x 9, loads of hand soap, anti bacterial cream, and various medicines. If you would like to participate in some way then please contact us!