When we visited Myanmar for the first time in February 2014 we really enjoyed being there: the buzzing street life in Yangon, the countless pagodas and temples of Bagan, Inle lake’s natural beauty and the chilled vibe in the more southern parts. It was however the friendliness and curiosity of the Myanmar people that really stuck with us. Myanmar has been closed off from the outside world for a long time and not until recently the government started allowing foreign tourists to enter the country on a larger scale. This makes its people naturally curious about the outside world and as it’s still difficult for them to travel themselves, foreign visitors are observed with great interest. At first we weren’t sure what to make of the serious faces and curious looks that by-passers on the street would give us. But after one of us (probably Mark…) showed a big smile once, we were answered by an even bigger smile. So we tried again and again and a new ritual was born: serious face at first, big smile, big smile back! Young, old, boy, girl, anyone. Trust us, you don’t get enough of the smiling! Towards the end of our 28 days in Myanmar we agreed we would like to come back to Myanmar and volunteer our time and skills to these wonderful smiley people.
We were lucky that our friends Maarten and Nicole had already been in Yangon for a few months working on the organisational development of three local NGO’s (Banca, ECCDI and KWEG).
We had been looking for volunteering opportunities for a while and when we were on Bali our friends came with the good news that both the director and staff of KWEG were very enthusiastic to have two volunteers over. June 1st we arrived in Yangon, June 4th was our first day in the office!
The Karen Women Empowerment Group (KWEG) is a local NGO that operates under their motto of ‘creating a brighter future for women and children’. They mainly focus at educating communities on topics like civic rights, reproductional health, women rights and vocational skills. They also run micro-finance projects, an education donor program and have set up women learning centres where most of the above topics are taught and discussed. All these projects are funded by international donors (e.g.: Oxfam and the British Council) but implemented in the communities by KWEG’s staff. Their office is based in a villa with desks throughout all the different rooms.
Together with the staff, Nicole had prepared a list of activities that they wanted us to focus on. These turned out to be exactly the stuff we wanted to do: helping the staff increase their capability of running these projects and reporting back to the donors. This meant English classes, computer classes, help writing reports, setting up budget tracking sheets, standardising reporting… stuff we at some point would’ve done at work back home. But doing it at KWEG with these super friendly, cheery and strong ladies made it so much more fun and meaningful!
These ladies made this such a valuable experience for us. Ranging from young girls to ladies at a respectable age, interns to managers, they all had in common the strong determination and belief that they can and will make a difference for women and children in Myanmar. Susanna Hla Hla Soe (standing on the picture) – KWEG’s director – is a well-known advocate of human rights and peace in Myanmar. A picture of her shaking hands with Obama shows that her efforts are not going unnoticed abroad either. In the beginning we could tell that most of them were a bit shy and wouldn’t really come up to us for any help. Most of them spoke English at varying levels, but it seemed a bit scary for them to actually use it with us at first. With a little nudging from Nicole and some pro-activity from our side we started to have more ‘meetings’ and getting into the job.
In one of the first weeks a team meeting was organised for which most of the employees from different parts of the country gathered at the main office in Yangon. There was lots of HR related matters to go through as Nicole was helping them put more structure and guidelines to ensure everything was done fairly for everyone. During this day we had an hour slot for a ‘marketing special talk’. Using a projector and powerpoint slides, we spoke a little about how to market a NGO to mainly donors and what kind of tools could be used. We then worked with each of them to implement them throughout the next weeks
This might sound funny, but we really enjoyed being in a 9-5 job for a while again! It gave some structure to our days again. Lunch was always a fun experience as well. In the first few days we would order food from outside through one of the ladies, but one day we forgot and were in danger of ending up without any lunch. Quickly some food was prepared in the kitchen and additionally food shared by others who brought their lunch-packs and we ended up with a royal meal. This started a daily ritual. Every day we would have different tasty home-made food and lots of it as well! We really got a great taste of the typical food people cook at home. Generally quite varied, but the common denominator was definitely rice and laphet thoke (lapeto), a salad based on tea leaves.
One of the highlights of our stay was a one-day field trip to the Hinthada township in the Ayeyarwady region. Thelong bumpy ride made us appreciate even more how difficult it is to get around Myanmar, especially to the more remote parts. We were sat comfortably in a female-driven 4×4, but saw all the motorbikes, full buses and vans shaking their passengers silly! 5 hours and 23 locally improvised toll-booths later we arrived at a women learning centre.
As part of our visit we were asked to a ‘special talk’ for which we had agreed the topics a few days earlier: hygiene and rain. We spoke about and showed good hygiene practices like hand washing and teeth brushing. The second topic was on special request: How does rain come to be? You’ll see our explanation on the pic (double-checked through Google of course).
In the afternoon we repeated our special talks in another small village tucked away between the ricefields. We really found it amazing how welcoming and kind these people were. After having listened to our talk and having played a few ‘hygiene-games’, it was time for Q&A. This was the funny part: we expected questions about hygiene, but instead were asked questions like: ‘why are Europeans so big?’, ‘how does the educational system work in our countries?’, ‘what kind of seasons do we have in the year?’, ‘how much money do people make in Europe?’ and our favourite: ‘can you please sing a song from your country?’
We both timidly sang our national anthem’s after which all present rose and passionately sang Myanmar’s. Quite an experience!
After all this we drove (for a few hours) to a school that was built by funding from KWEG and its donors. We were running late (6pm) and all the children had already left. The head of the school was called and after we shook hands he quickly started ensuring all the kids came back. We don’t think this area gets lots of foreigners so we must’ve been a real sight for them. If you think about it, it’s quite a responsibility: we might’ve been the first Europeans they saw so a big part of their ideas and perception of Europeans will be based on how they saw us! Hopefully we made a good impression…
These kids were amazing! We know, it’s a bit of a travel-cliché, you go to a school, have some fun with kids, feel good and go again. But it really was so much fun to count from 1 to 10 with them, teach them a few English words and demonstrate how to brush teeth and wash hands. Lots of laughter and fun. The classroom was full of kids with all their parents looking through the doors and windows. We are really happy to have been able to do this.
After two months of working and spending most of our days with ‘our’ ladies we really felt thankful for the chance to get this experience. We were happy to see that after the first month some of our proposed ‘tools’ started to being used. Some of the tricks we taught in Excel were getting applied, budget sheets filled in and more and more English was spoken. It was really humbling to see how hard these ladies work and how dedicated they are to help their fellow country(wo)men.
We’d like to thank Nicole, Maarten and Susanna for making this possible and for all the KWEG ladies for receiving us with open arms. We’ve learned so much about Myanmar and it’s people and all the good work being done there. We’ll definitely come back one day.
EDUCATION SUPPORT PROGRAM
One of the programs KWEG runs is an education support program for children in some of the villages and orphanages in Myanmar. There are different options for donations, but you can pay for a kid’s annual education fee for around $USD 20; that’s a round of beers… If you’re interested you can contact us here and we’ll get you some information.
In our next blog we’ll write and show more about where we lived and we else we did during the 2 months in Yangon.
Na slovenčine sa pracuje…