The road was laid only two years ago. It is an ochre coloured dirt road that stretches through a few thousand rai (2.2 acre per rai) river plain of rice paddy and fallow fields. The road connects a scattered settlement of subsistence farmers to a village the other side of the river. In past rainy seasons, we are told, people would traverse the dirt path and latterly the river on foot. The piece de resistance of this new engineering endeavour is a small iron bridge that spans the now fast flowing Hmowbi river In the Yangon division of Burma. Two of the nearby cud chewing water buffalo would fit in the bridge lengthways, one widthways. In the early morning when the surrounding banana trees begin to take shape through a soft diffusion of nascent light two young men walk in single file, a bamboo pole with an animal feed bag containing fish swinging between them astride their shoulders. Muscular dogs, tails perpendicular to their backs, amble their way alongside in a haphazard convoy. All are returning from the bridge where a fast flowing current has pushed fish in to awaiting nets that were set the previous evening. By the look of the bulging bag from my vantage point outside the NEED – Myanmar classroom, twenty metres from the bridge and flanking the road, I estimate all of the 32 students at this Eco Village Farm School (as well as a few Irish/Italian stragglers) could enjoy a hearty piscetarean breakfast.
NEED is the brainchild of Khaing Dhu Wan, a man from neighbouring Rakhine (Arakan) state who, as a community activist, was exiled from Burma for 15 years. The idea for a grassroots educational project that focused on human and environmental rights was honed in Mr. Khaing Dhu Wan’s experiences as a community worker (working with Burmese refugees) in New Delhi, Dhakka and Thailand. NEED was established just outside Chiang Mai in northern Thailand in 2004 to act as a place of learning for Burmese refugees. With the ‘opening up’ of Burma in 2010, Khaing returned to his native country and purchased 14 rai of land in order to set up an Eco Village Model Farm School in 2012. The mission is to empower young people from diverse ethnic backgrounds to learn better ways to practice agriculture, protect the environment and lead their communities to grow a brighter future for Burma. The sense I am overwhelmed with at times here is that that is exactly what this particular seed will produce.
We arrived here from Rangoon by bus and then, at the gates of Hmowbi University (50 km from Rangoon), hopped on the back of two motor bikes. Our children revelled in this unique opportunity to fly at speed the balloons they were given only minutes previously by curious students. Although Burma has indeed ‘opened up’ and a growing number of tourists of all ilk have streamed through since 2011 it is still relatively impossible to venture off the beaten track of guesthouses and hotels because it is illegal for a Burmese family to host a tourist. This experience affords us the opportunity to find a middle way solution to that particular cocooning conundrum. Khaing and his wife live on site in a part wooden, part earthen home as do 8 staff and interns, and the 32 students who live in a male and female dormitory.
We are made to feel welcome by all and have the daunting experience of introducing ourselves to a full classroom, M and G being a particular form of attention in this process. Over the course of the following days we participate in some of the farming activities, collect mulch, chase pigs and chickens (M and G), transplant a rice variety known as SRI which promotes faster growth and higher yields, and hangout with a wonderfully diverse mix of young people, all well clued in to the necessity of organic farming and rights based approaches to ‘development’. In fact we have ample opportunity to discuss the current state of play in Burma and in it’s fitful transition towards democracy. All of the students whom we speak to are open in their appraisals of the situation and we learn much by way of the tentative hope that exists. I also find out that there appears to be no real antipathy towards the name Myanmar and both Burma and Myanmar are used interchangeably by the students. What’s in a name eh?
There is also plenty of time for leisure. When G is whisked away by a group of young women to be fed and entertained, M and I are invited to play soccer with a group of young male students on a sodden fallow field. This being the monsoon season the ball at times skids along the surface and at others catches dead in a hoofed pool of water. When enough dirt accumulates on my clothes and I am liberated to slip and slide unabashedly (M has allowed this to happen from the get go) I revel in the sheer joy of it all. Quicker connections are made with the men, no one keeps score we just cheer as the ball slides between 2 bamboo posts (or not) and many of the men momentarily exit the game to perform acrobatics that often sees them either standing on their hands or leaping and sliding head first in to the mud. It’s madness but of the blissful type! The young men’s encouragement and ‘minding’ of M on this football field makes me feel deep gratitude towards them. He, in turn, feels included and, like his father at his age, does not want the game to end.
The young men cool off after the game by jumping in to the nearby river from the small iron bridge. They jump, allow the current to take them a few metres, then swim back to the bridge. I think ‘easy’, ignoring their concerned looks as I whip off my glasses and stand on the arm of the bridge. The current is too strong for my arms and as strong as I can swim I am going nowhere (except backwards perhaps!) quickly. One or two of the students assist me and my bruised ego to the river bank and all of them are given a pot of comic gold from this particular clown. The story of my folly spreads and hearty laughs fill the moist air around the Farm school every time I pass someone. I feel like I have contributed!!
The days seem as full as the pregnant skies over our head and there is always an opportunity afforded to us by Khaing and the students in terms of learning about culture and place. The galvanised roof of the school seems unable to cope with the torrents of rain thundering off it. Khaing and his students welcome a team from a Korean NGO but the presentation reverts to a visual one as no voice can beat the downpour. Unperturbed Khaing finishes with the projector and offers his guests home grown veg and locally caught fish!
L for her part has spent long hours under this monsoon cacophony on a laptop at a wooden table, coffee in hand and works on a grant proposal for NEED. She does so in steely concentration, as all around her the fields evolve deeper coloured hues with the deluge, even the river has taken on a sinister look. Khaing explains that over 500 students have graduated from the programme in both Thaiand and Burma and many of those same students are starting their own initiatives and effecting progressive change in communities paralysed by government violence/inertia and inappropriate/ineffective foreign aid programmes. Change seems afoot. The young people here have a deep intelligence, a contagious energy and a sense of purpose that matches their sense of fun. There is a strong sense of solidarity that brings all of these different cultures together under the one roof and importantly there are as many women as men.
Over the course of our time at NEED we learn a huge amount and are inspired accordingly. We are treated with huge kindness and generosity and almost do not know what to do with such treatment. M and G have revelled in being minded by all these amazing young people as well as the incomparable hospitality of Khiang and his family. L, for her part, completes the grant application and we cross our fingers that it will be successful. We say our goodbyes determined to maintain connection with NEED (and to spread the word!), and take to the road that’s surface is now a scored series of waterlogged runnels. Rangoon again awaits.