Mandalay was not at all the city I was expecting. It is chaotic and mostly under construction, maintenance or repair. The streets teem with activity and everybody lives under everyone’s scrutiny. It is not without charm however. There were some incredible back alleys full of bustling life and frantic trading, groaning markets, and an astounding number of traditional craft workshops still providing employment and a decent living, it would seem. In addition there are some very ritzy modern shopping malls. Chinese investment is responsible and rampant in the city and many locals see it as exploitive from what we could gauge from our conversations with them. It made me think about how foreign investors had flocked to China when it first opened up. Who taught whom this modus operandi?
We stumbled into a home workshop that hand pounds bamboo to produce paper in a process that looks positively ancient, as did the stones, hammers and blocks on which it was done. All this activity took place in a tiny portion at the front of the family home- not more than 1 meter by 2 meters and facing directly onto a residential alley. Just around the corner, following Lonely Planet directions, we found a gold leaf workshop and saw just how that paper was put to use using identical equipment. We were also taken to woodcarving, marionette making and silk weaving “factories” where technology hasn’t yet had any impact and long hours of tedious labour go into each individually crafted item.
But by far the most inspirational day was the one we spent was visiting 2 monastic schools with an employee of the Studer Trust. http://www.studertrust.org
We are harboring hopes that we will have the opportunity to go back and work with this organization once they have their teacher training program up and running and it was with these thoughts in mind that we wanted to see first hand the work that they do in Myanmar.
Aung Myay Oo Monastic High School was the first of the schools we visited. It is in Sagaing, which is a pretty little stupa studded hilltop overlooking the Aryarwady River just 18 kilometers from Mandalay. A kindly, humble English-speaking Abbot, who hasn’t the heart to turn children away when their parents bring them to him from the distant northern regions, runs that school. This means the school is totally overcrowded despite the proliferation of new buildings, which have been added since its inception.
The children often do not speak the national language on arrival but they do thrive on the love and attention lavished on them. I was delighted to be told that they are free to choose if they want to be novices or lay scholars and that later that decision can be reversed if they so choose. The vast majority of them selects a religious life and lives in nearby nunneries or monasteries, with only a few living on site or with neighboring families.
This school began with just 30 students, 3 monks and 3 teachers and has grown to about 1,700 students. The trust has provided classroom buildings, toilets, computers and some money for extra tuition for summer school classes but the Abbot himself has to find the funds to pay the salaries of the 39 volunteer teachers and we were told that they receive about $35 a month!
Classroom buildings surround the dusty little yard and the precious little space that remains for play is severely limited but they are doing their best to green it even with a limited water supply. Once again our representative of the trust tried to emphasize to the Abbot that enrollment had to be contained but it was obvious that he would continue to do what he thought was best.
The 4 year-old kindergarten students, mostly dressed in their religious robes immediately stole our hearts. The gentle nature and commitment of the monks, nuns and novices as well as the teachers was immediately apparent. Students at all levels were diligent, respectful and so happy. Laughter and shy giggles greeted us in each of the classes we stepped into and the walls reverberated with the loud chorusing of rote learning. Even with 104 students at the class XI standard there were no discipline issues or behavior problems. They were eager to interact with us even though most of their English classes focus on reading and writing. Everyone seemed bent on making the most of the educational opportunity available to them.
Before we left a huge bundle of notes was handed over to the local carpenter and it was explained that he would begin the process of acquiring more raw materials for the next building project with these funds. He heads a team of workers who construct for the trust at different locations and for a basic fee. Employing local workers, sourcing local materials and using simple construction is the way they have kept costs to a minimum and been able to provide more for less in this organization. We were mightily impressed.
After a lunch break in which we disappointed our representative by having already visited all the local sights in the area a few days earlier, we took off for the second school in the south of Mandalay thinking that we had already seen the showcase school, only to discover that it too was a totally different but equally amazing school.
The Ta Tine Shae Monastic Middle School is also led by a beneficent Abbot, who obviously derives great pleasure from the work he does. He also shows an unexpected enterprising spirit in that he is able to fund the salaries required to keep his school running by growing vegetables and flowers in a plot of land behind the school. Local people assist with the transportation and marketing and are so impressed with his good work that they have donated the land for his use and raised the funds to build new buildings based on those provided by Studer Trust.
This school also has an enchanting school population of village children. Here most of the students live with their own families, who work the surrounding fields and by far the majority of them are not novices. The school has a green, tree filled courtyard with an ancient building set in the middle. Neither the current Abbot or any of his predecessors know the exact age of the building but it is decrepit and returning to nature. Our brief meeting inside it had us wondering just when the floorboards of the upper storey were going to deliver us all to the concrete floor below. Thankfully not when we were there, but we were told that only the younger (lighter) children were able to assemble on the upper floor. Open-air classrooms, which are perfectly able to provide natural light and ventilation, surround the courtyard. This is a definite advantage in a village not yet connected to the electricity grid though we did see those poles marching their way toward the village on our drive in.
The teachers with the exception of the Abbot and his right hand man were all young and enthusiastic. Those 2 masters struggled on with the kindergarten and grade 1 classes numbering around 50 students in each and we saw students as young as 5 years old, willingly teaching their peers, while the Abbot himself proudly lead us around his domain. The total school population is only just over 400 and that adds to the small community feel about it.
We were told many of the young teachers were past graduates of the school and therefore perfect role models for the children. This innovative Abbot had halved class sizes for the higher levels and introduced partitions to the classrooms provided, to improve the learning environment. None-the-less the noise level in the courtyard was incredible, as loud voices shouted in unison from every room. These buildings have no walls and are very basic but highly functional. Even those as yet incomplete were full to bursting with eager pupils, who were allowed the privilege of keeping their sandals on indoors since there was no concrete floor as yet.
We had thought that nothing could top our experience of learning Burmese style in Sagaing but here we were proved wrong and this was perhaps an even more positive learning environment albeit with limited resources and funds. The courtyard full of mango trees heavily laden with fruit and the benches around the base of each tree for students to eat their lunch made me think that these students were fortunate to live where and when they did. It made sense when we were told that this school was the favourite of the founder of the foundation who tragically died in a car accident earlier this year.
I should also say that neither school knew we were coming for a visit and what we saw was a regular school day and that was very heartwarming and inspiring. Our very committed and informative guide for the day Tai Lynn also endeavored to answer every question we posed, provide as much detail as possible about the trust and assure us of the total integrity of the organization. It was so totally obvious that accountability and transparency are core values and he was exceedingly dedicated to the cause and the part he actually plays in it.