Report on our 6th consecutive annual trip to hand deliver
donations to Burmese-run humanitarian and educative activities
(17 December 2009 – 12 January 2010)
This year, we continued funding the projects and activities we have been following in four different geographical areas of the country:
1 The Irrawaddy delta, south of Pathein; support to Benjamin Eishu’s ongoing work;
2 The medical dispensary of Si Kar, located to the north in the Mandalay division, and in collaboration with the Burmese association, “The Light of Asia”;
3 Rangoon (Yangon), the study grant for Nilar Aung, facilitated by the Burmese ecological association “Global Green Group”;
All the funds were made possible by generous donations from our friends and relatives in Europe as well as some from farther reaches around the globe (from here in France/Monaco, the Czech Republic, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, and also Australia and Alaska). In addition, our own association, MAP (Médecine, Aide et Présence), made a welcome contribution that allowed us to hand-deliver a global sum significantly greater than we could last year (NB: fund distributions are itemised at the end of this report).
This year, our friend Dominique Mandrilly, an active MAP member, accompanied us on our trip. For the last three years she has been the sole sponsor of Nilar Aung’s advanced nursing school education in Rangoon.
Last year governmental regulations strictly forbade tourist entry into the entire general area, due to the ghastly remnants of the devastation wreaked by the May, 2008 Nargis cyclone. This time we were permitted access to this zone, where Father Benjamin Eihsu lives and works, but not without being required to leap through a tedious battery of administrative hoops, through which any tourist wishing to deviate -- if ever so slightly-- from the government-approved routes and destinations is subject. So we were allowed to visit the women’s student residence located just on the outskirts of Pathein (capital of the region, and where their university is located), also situated on the prescribed tourist route leading to the beaches on the Gulf of Bengal coast. In the town of Myaungmya we saw the home (sheltering mainly the chidren having fled the Nargis-struck areas), which also serves as a farm that makes the home self-sufficient. The next day we hoped to visit the bush school in the Mango Tree River region. So we could do all this, Father Benjamin had taken all the necessary precautions, and dutifully alerted the officials at the police station that we would be stopping in the village. In an effort to best “justify” our presence, he had invented the existence of an ancestor we shared, a great-uncle who had come from France in the early 20th century to found a Catholic mission. He thought the plausibly valid “family pilgrimage” scenario would exonerate us all of any undesirable suspicion.
So we began our tour of the dormitory grounds unimpeded and admired the geese, hens, betel plant plot and the hog pen (pigs are the only animals they farm for trade, making the home self-sufficient). We were in the pigsty when the police happened to knock on the front door. Since any foreigner is by nature suspect in the eyes of the local authorities, the police had come to verify exactly what we were up to in this chidren’s home, but their civic duties did not compel them to scrutinize beyond the front door and inspect the goings-on in the pigsty, however, as “discrétion oblige” (authority carries with it the privilege of determining limits, after all!).
Later, just after we checked in the government-sanctioned hotel (one used most often by military personnel), Benjamin arrived in a state of considerable agitation. “Tomorrow,” he said, “there is no chance of your going to the school in the bush. This time it is not the police who are interfering, but the military information services. You are under more intense scrutiny and the entire situation is exacerbated. As far as I’m concerned, I would not be afraid of being sent to prison but for the fact that my hands would be tied, and I would therefore not be able to continue my social work. After breakfast tomorrow, you should go directly to the Catholic Mission, and then the taxi driver will bring you back to Pathein as quickly as possible.” Our hopes were dashed; we would not be able to visit the bush school after all. For Benjamin, of course, the situation was more dire. One expects difficulties imposed by government interference in this country, for the most part arbitrary and gratuitous. But in addition to the danger Benjamin confronted, having associated himself with “undesirables” and invented a pretence for our being there, he was understandably anxious about not only our wellbeing, but his own urgent personal and professional responsibilities: the next morning he was meant to say the 6.00 am Mass, the funeral mass for his mother, who had died the day before we arrived.
The next day, following Benjamin’s instructions (and regretfully foregoing the funeral Mass we had been invited to attend), we went to the hotel’s breakfast room. Strangely, our efforts to procure a little something to eat or drink proved fruitless. When it dawned on us that breakfast was not to be, suddenly Benjamin appeared, his spiritual duties accomplished. Now he appeared jubilant, even triumphant. He had just managed to secure permission for us to access the bush school, thanks to a cousin who had interceded on our behalf, a man well enough known and respected by the local military authorities. So we three foreigners thus obtained a privileged authorization, quid pro quo, the condition being that Benjamin’s cousin would return the favour one day. That evening, while we were deliberating with Benjamin in our Pathein hotel room, the police station rang the hotel reception desk requesting confirmation that we had returned to the hotel on time, and that we still intended to take the official road to the coast of the Gulf of Bengal at 8.00 a.m. the following morning. So the three “potentially dangerous aliens” assumed the guise of “tourists”, on the straight and narrow, and no longer threatening the public order, adopted the standard itinerary designed for visitors.
We were deeply gratified to learn that the Milan-based NGO, AVSI (Associazione Voluntari per il Servizio Internazionale), had renewed their commitment to fund the agricultural work Benjamin manages. The “Rice Bank”, created by Benjamin in 2003, has been considerably fortified thanks to AVSI’s Burmese operations branch in Rangoon.
Our resources were spent on education-related initiatives:
° In Rangoon, grants for 5 post-graduate students to take professional training courses (Information Technology & Computer Science; Accounting; Business Management; English) for a limited period of 6 months.
° At the St Lucy Girls’ Residence Hall, near the University of Pathein, a computer, and writing desks and chairs (commissioned and locally fabricated) for study purposes. Also, the toilets were improved so as to meet a minimum of sanitary requirements. The grounds were levelled to eliminate the prevalence of the mosquito-attracting stagnant pools that naturally formed during the rainy seasons and posed obvious health problems. Also, we paid for a brick wall to enclose the property, thereby protecting the girls from uninvited and inquisitive eyes and callers, such local boys up to no good.
The 2010 funds will be used for 9 university study grants (there are no post-graduate faculties in Pathein, therefore post-graduates must go to the main city, Rangoon), the building of a library, and the acquisition of scientific books and journals. And finally, an allocation is earmarked for 45 students taking correspondence courses who will live in the residence hall for two months during their exam preparation and final exams so as to benefit from the best conditions possible.
° The Myaungmya home houses 47 students (two of them are Benjamin’s adopted grand-daughters) and is financially self-sustaining thanks to pig breeding and the farming of a very small field of betel nut. Our 2009 allocation paid for:
a) expanding the dormitory space upstairs, where it had been a tight squeeze for even small youngsters, orphaned in 2008, and
b) creating unisex sleeping quarters for the boys and girls.
Orphans continue to arrive. “Our Christmas presents came a few days early this year,” Benjamin told us, beaming with joy as he does. “Three children -- aged 2, 4 and 6-- from the same family! Their arrival was unanimously cheered by all the children here.”
However self-sufficient the Myaungmya home may be, the children are not at all guaranteed what we would call comfort. When we saw all these kids seated doing their homework one night, by the feint light provided by two thin candles, we immediately considered the viability of installing two solar panels that will charge two batteries, providing enough electricity for two low-energy neon bulbs. The boarding school is connected to the public electricity grid, but since it is not located in a “priority” zone, there is no current (this applies to the whole town of Myaungmya), with the exception of a slot between midnight and 3.00 a.m., hardly a time propitious for homework.
° The Mango Tree River Bush School, 7 kilometres (4.4 miles) from Myaungmya, currently has 46 students in attendance. It was so badly damaged by Nargis that the Italian NGO AVSI rebuilt it from top to bottom. Now, the interior is comprised of an enormous and completely bare space. We will arrange for creating a library space, furnished with moveable cubicle-like partitions covered in part with educational posters (geography, zoology, anatomy, etc.), as well as shelves to store reference materials.
When we asked the teacher what other improvements he might suggest, without the slightest hesitation he said: “Real toilets”. As luck would have it, a water conveyance that operates by pump and supplies water to the houses along the top of the hill not far from the school had been recently installed. So the decision was made to extend the conduit down to the school so its facilities could be operative, which is to say cleaned daily (the scarcity of water prevents better hygiene), and to build three water reservoirs with taps for hand washing.
The community’s collective work has slowly but surely transformed what remained for long months a desolate post-Nargis landscape. The fallen trees have been chopped and all that remains of them are scattered piles of little bundles of firewood for sale for the price of 25 kyats, which is to say less than 2 Euro centimes (0.017 Euro centimes, or 0.25 USD). Every penny counts.
° We also loaned microcredit funds to the most impoverished families, so they can invest in poultry and/or swine for breeding and income.
Due to his ever-increasing activities, Benjamin has relinquished his little motorbike in favour of an open pick-up truck (given to him in the 1990s by the Foreign Missions Bureau in Paris). Despite the fact the truck is old and worn, after two decades of use on rugged land and poor roads, it still runs and enables him to provide numerous services: he can transport farm animals such as pigs and fowl, bags of rice, building materials, up to ten adolescents and as many as fifteen children at a crack. It serves as ambulance and even hearse upon occasion, Benjamin told us.
Before we separated, and as a parting note, Benjamin left us with an enchanting revelation about the almost magical role children play in his life. He is a man in whom Christian faith is inextricably bound to what Westerners would call Asian serenity, and his profound spirituality has accompanied him through life’s difficult passages, helped him overcome disappointments and despair, to stay on course. Just following his nine years in France, he said he became aware of a new dimension in his life. “When I came back to Burma, I truly found my vocation, my purpose. The children showed me the way; it is for them I live, the little ones and the older ones alike. I have never known greater joy!”
2. The Si Kar Medical Dispensary
This year, the junta’s local police bureau staff were reduced to a minimum, which we found somewhat reassuring. The assemblies of scowling and suspicious faces fixing their gaze upon us last year had metamorphosed into just one face, and it was beaming! The sole town commissioner greeted us with a smile, in which we read something to the tune of: “Who cares what motivations drive these foreigners… They make their brief annual appearance here; they leave us medical equipment; then they disappear until the following year!” So, despite the fact a military airport lies just on the other side of the celebrated Burma Road of the dispensary, our fleeting presence did not seem to raise any official eyebrows or drawn the attention of the military information services. Of course, we have excellent relationships with important local figures: with our friend Kyaw Htin, veterinarian and linchpin of the Burmese association “The Light of Asia”, which is well established now due to the successful management of the medical dispensary (run by two doctors and three nurses); with Dr Aung Sam, surgeon general at the regional hospital in Puin Oo Lwin, 15 km (9.3 miles) away; and above all, the head monk of the Buddhist monastery, 2 km (1.25 miles) outside the village, U Sein Didalu.
Dr Aung Sann advises us on the most urgent medical equipment we could buy for the dispensary – last year they needed an oxygen compressor and an ECG (electrocardiogramme) machine. This time it was an X-ray machine. The protective slabs of lead required for the safe operation of X-ray equipment are not available for sale in Burma. Dr Aung Sann suggested that a small building for performing radiological exams or treatments be constructed behind the dispensary, at an adequate distance from it and in an uninhabited zone. This necessitates extending the grounds of the medical dispensary, but: “that should not be difficult,” said the surgeon general, “one word to the head monk, and anything is possible!”
Because the dispensary only has an old saloon car to transport patients, we agreed to try and supply a functional and medically equipped ambulance, a valuable if not indispensable purchase since, in emergencies, it could save lives.
“The Light of Asia” association has bought land some 50 metres (55 yards) from the medical dispensary, where they have plans to build an orphanage to accommodate 25 young girls, aged 3 to 6. These girls will be collected from the streets of Mandalay and other large towns in the vicinity. Selection criteria have been established: the children must be certified orphans and they must not be gravely damaged mentally by the severe conditions of lengthy abandonment. At the orphanage, the girls will be raised and instructed until they complete secondary school, at which time they can continue their studies if they have the aptitude.
This is a large and long-term project, the finances of which extend beyond our means at this time. However, we will endeavour to approach institutions or organisations potentially interested in such an ambitious humanitarian commitment.
3. Nilar Aung’s study grant
Nilar Aung has continued seriously applying herself in her studies to become matron, the superintendent nurse of a hospital, and her efforts show in her performance. Her study grant has therefore been renewed for her final year of study. As in the preceding years, Naing Htway, Secretary of the Burmese ecological association “Global Green Group”, has managed the grant transfer. But this year, Nilar Aung’s sole sponsor for the last three years, Dominique Mandrilly, personally presented the grant money to the intermediary.
Amounts paid in the name of MAP
(All accounts have been delivered to secretariat at MAP’s head office)
1 Benjamin (for details, please refer to his translated letter) 8 290 USD
2 Si Kar Medical Dispensary (X-ray machine) 6 776 USD
3 Nilar Aung (nursing school grant) 1 000 USD
4 fishers’ family (one boat) 100 USD
TOTAL 16 166 USD
(Exchange rate 1.40$ / 1€) 11 574 EUR *
*Includes 2000€ provided by MAP to us prior to our departure.
Benjamin’s personal letter (Translation copy)
Yangon (Rangoon), 9 January 2010
Dear Michel and Lisbeth, and dear friends of MAP,
With all our hearts, we thank you for your donation (the sum of 8,290 USD received from Michel and Lisbeth Martiny). Thanks to your gifts last year (2,660 €) , we accomplished the following works:
1. The St Lucy Residence Hall in Pathein
2. The Myaungmya home for children
With your donations of 2009, we have the following plans for 2010:
1. a) Professional training courses in Rangoon for 6 months each (e.g., Information Technology & Computer Science; Accounting; Business Management; English) for 5 of our students now beyond university (course fees, books and study materials; rent) 700 USD
b) Living expenses (100 $ x 5) 500 USD
2. St Lucy Student Residence Hall (University of Pathein)
a) 9 students, 10 months x 30$ 2700 USD
b) Registration fees, books, study materials 1000 USD
c) Library (furniture; books, journals) 500 USD
d) 45 University distance-learning students:
room & board for exam period of 2 months 990 USD
3. Myaungmya home for children (47 students)
4. Bush School (46 pupils)
a) Children’s library, furniture, educational posters 300 USD
b) Toilets, plumbing and pipes, connection to waterlines,
construction & installation of reservoirs for washing 400 USD
5. Micro-credit loans 300 USD
All these projects are investments in education, so my people can prepare themselves for and contribute to the creation of the best possible future for our country.
In the name of the Burmese people, I thank you with all my heart. And with this, tremendous gratitude for your friendship, your unsolicited and spontaneous generosity, and the unconditional trust you have placed in me. Together, we are building a world characterized by this sense of kinship and connectedness, a united world in which there can be less evil and suffering. Thank you to Michel and Lisbeth, who found me, and discovered in me my deep commitment to my people and to this better, united world.
Yours in faith and brotherly love,