Thursday, 31 May 2018

Sitting under the Bougainvillea tree for tea

…. A Tapestry of my inconceivable experience

Kevin and I were in Myanmar 1 year today. May to May!

Canada: Rewinding the clock back to Canada,  I had a Skype interview with a Cuso Myanmar staff, Luca whose main focus was to place someone with governmental and parliamentary experience at the National Parliament in NayPyiTaw, Myanmar.

Throughout the interview, despite my lack of governmental and parliamentary experience, Luca kept emphasizing how crucial it was to place a well-seasoned volunteer with the Myanmar National Hluttaw Union Assembly in Nay Pyi Taw.  Unlike my interview with a Cambodian VSO staff where we had more of a casual chat about this and that to assess whether I’d be a good fit for my post in MondolKiri, my conversation with Luca, this time around, was formal and direct and with a sense of urgency in his voice that appeared to echo the restrictive, non-conforming governmental rules that I was soon about to experience? (For example, The Burma official Secret Act written April 2, 1923 that was used against the 2 Reuters journalist who were jailed in Myanmar: The Secret Act that was conveniently never amended nor revised for this purpose or otherwise.  Today, the NLD 'democratic' government still prosecutes peaceful speech and protests.  What's more, it has failed to revise old oppressive laws). Indeed, a stark contrast to the little cozy Mondolkiri town that, in our 3 years there, we grew to love and got to know so well …

Within 12 hours of the interview, I was congratulated!

A new blog was soon set-up.  This time with Wordpress.  However, we still kept our Cambodian blog active.

Cuso training exemption in Ottawa ... The general rule of thumb is for Cuso International to give a 3-year grace to former Cuso volunteers, once in home country, to be exempted from attending either or both the Assessment Day and/or the SKWID  week training (unless previous placements’ didn’t work out).  Luckily we fell into the ‘exemption’ category where we didn’t have to attend either training assessments.

Now, only 3 months to go and a number of things had to be done.  From Immunizations,  Medical forms to fill out,  obtaining an international driver’s license, to renting our home in Canada, and through Luca, to organizing housing in NayPyiTaw, Myanmar.

Kevin and I, though we had both our Japanese Encephalitis and rabies shots done for Cambodia and were still valid for Myanmar, we were required to be inoculated against meningitis.   As for our medical forms and obtaining an international driver’s license we did it without a hitch!

Now renting our home to the right people ... ! Because we were leaving in May, instead of September, a better time to entice university students, couples or families to rent our home, it felt that we were clutching at straws. Our neighbour and former tenants helped us with posting an ad of our house on their Face Book, Parent Magazine, and University websites to reach potential renters throughout the country. Let alone having to announce our ‘dilemma’ by word of mouth.

A month to go and NO bites!

At the last minute, 3 potential renters, 2 families and a couple did finally answer our ad and were interviewed on Skype. Unfortunately, they were (all) away overseas, on sabbatical! As a result, No one came to view our property, a lesson well learned for another time. Blindly, without a further ado, we chose a family that we thought was a good fit for the neighbourhood, schools and neighbours whose children were close in age with theirs.

In short, during the 1-year we were away in Myanmar, unlike Cambodia, where things went smoothly for 3 years with our renters, we went through a rough patch, to say the least.   We had 3 sets of renters, lowering the rent each time our home was advertised. Subsequently due to unforeseen events, it ended up costing us.

At the same time of trying to rent our house, we also had hit a snag with housing in Myanmar. A new Cuso Myanmar staff manager (who had just replaced Luca) gave us the choice of either sharing a home with another couple in NayPyiTaw or to be placed in Mont State, Moulemein, a more desirable place to spend a year in. We chose the latter in a heartbeat!   

Alas, within 11 hours, 46 minutes and 30 seconds of my response, The Cuso Myanmar coordinator, Lisa answered for Ei Ei Lin, a common theme throughout my placement in Nay Pyi Taw, to confirm that it was a false alarm, stating ‘the National Hluttaw Union Assembly, Phyidaungsu in NayPyiTaw were awaiting impatiently for my arrival’.


ICO in Yangon ...  We had a two-week ICO (in-country orientation) in Yangon with 6 other fun Cuso volunteers to learn about the general local life in Myanmar:  From basic Myanmar language with some added field trips to various pagodas and to the famous Shwedagon pagoda, to Myanmar history, culture, ethnic cuisine, and the Myanmar people home to 135 ethnic groups (statically confirmed by the NLD government) or is it 136 counting the Rohingya Muslim Minority who have lived in Myanmar for countless generations?

Kevin and I stayed at the Hledan Centre in a nice Asian style apartment with 2 other Cuso volunteers from my cohort. As luck would have it, we were just doorsteps away from the ‘wet’ market (wet meaning outdoor market) where fresh produce, from fish to vegetables, to an array of fruit is abundant. What a treat!

Throughout our time in Yangon, we found the Myanmar people to be friendly, humble, helpful smiley ‘Thanaka’ faces echoing a chorus of ‘Mingalabas’ (hellos) in the Myanmar language.   The locals were curious about us, as we were just as curious about them. They often stopped to speak to us, to practice their English with us on buses, streets, trains and markets, and anywhere and everywhere Kevin and I were spotted.

For more details of our 2 weeks in Yangon click on this post ‘One day in the life of a local’:

Nay Pyi Taw ...   Before we knew it, we were whisked away to our volunteer placement destinations. Nay Pyi Taw for us!  Though we were still a little apprehensive about what we were about to find in NayPyiTaw…  We had decided to keep an open mind with our new adventure!
Grand 20 lane entrance to the Hluttaw National (Parliamentary Union Assembly, Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar 
We arrived in NayPyiTaw mid afternoon behind the Swe Kya Pae (shwe ja bay) market, a deserted area where the ‘Elite’ bus had dropped us off. It was sunny and unbearably hot with little shade. Thank goodness for our umbrellas that protected us from the burning sun while we waited for the NayPyiTaw-Cuso driver Ko Aung and Su Su Mon, a Cuso staff to pick us up.

Sitting under the Bougainvillea tree for our afternoon tea ...Though everything was new and different, there were no particular transitional stages of getting settled. A house (for Kevin and I) was already set-up for the year.  Our house was nestled in the Swe Kya Pae local village surrounded by humble woven bamboo homes, banana trees, with an array of bushes that endlessly flowered and emitted perfume in our little courtyard throughout the time we were there. And, off course the bougainvillea vine (intertwined around the mango tree) that I grew to love and appreciate for the abundance of shade it gave us. A perfect place for Kevin and I to sit under the bougainvillea tree for our afternoon tea!

Transport was sketchy in terms of who would have the Cuso car during the day. Whilst a DRD staff member driver drove the other Cuso couple to work, I ended up with the car to drive to and from the Parliament.

Kevin the housewife … a very important assignment!  Typically, every morning, we leave home at the same time and head opposite directions. Kevin walks to the ‘wet’ market and I drive to work, a time for reflection. Sometimes reflecting on the politics, the unknown and uncertainty of the country ... What counts, are the local people that teach us and direct us with the countless things that we are yet to discover… What’s more, is to keep an open mind.  The leaders, the parliamentarians, parliamentary staff are incredible people that I closely work with.  That’s what keeps me here.  When I think of what we've experienced and have shared and have together, helping to strengthen, empower the people's voices, it makes me smile.

Milestones and successes ... Throughout the course of the year there have been successes and milestones with both Parliamentarians and parliamentary staff.  Together we wrote the parliamentary English curriculum, because such an invaluable resource did not exist when I first arrived at the Hluttaw.   Both MPs and parliamentary staffs are more confident with their English.  Armed  with ample innovative tools, they, MPs,  junior staff and staff officers now experiment with them, and use them at work: in their constituencies, at the parliament and too, have disseminated these invaluable tools with their colleagues.

Challenges ... As for the challenges, salaries are low and do not exceed a certain quota for either MPs or staff, despite rent-free governmental housing stipulated by the leaders.  Through a range of network, MPs (with only 1,000 Kyats per month) seek higher paying jobs either in their constituencies or in more prosperous cities. By the same token, Parliamentary Staffs who are academically better equipped and who’s English is more proficient than their neighbour, not only do they tend to prematurely break their contract with the Hluttaw and accepts the penalty of forfeiting ever to work for the government again in the future;  they often seek jobs with local or international NGOs who in turn are looking for well trained professional locals with both Burmese and English.

Myanmar is restrictive in every sense of the word. Though now an allegedly democratic society where one is told that they can freely express themselves, Everyone is however, watching Everyone like the ‘Big Brother is Watching You’ analogy (George Orwell).

A well-established, profitable tailor business for example, operated by a mother with a young son, who serves both the locals and international expats, was told by the police to dismount her large lucrative business, to downsize it and to move it to a different location to deter potential new clients to join her profitable business.

The tailor obeyed!

Her new shop is indeed smaller and less enticing.   However, her lucrative business is still in place, safe and sound in the privacy of her house away from lurking envious neighbours.

Diamond in the rough ...  At home in our little diamond in the rough, as luck would have it, we have fabulous helpful neighbours who go out of their way for us and does it with a smile.  What's more, we are often invited to join them for tea and for some unusual local Myanmar food. And, for a touch of Burmese words that we're beginning to recognize!

Notably, compared to the humble woven-bamboo homes that surround us, our home slightly more palatial with a tin roof and plastered walls is placed in the centre of our courtyard.  The ground of our home shaped in a perfect square is framed by a tangled garden in some places and neat and tidy in others. Throughout the year in Myanmar, the garden is endlessly transformed from lush green to a riot of colours. Flower pots , mainly orchids are either hung in a line under the mango tree or are hugged together in one corner shaded under the frangipani tree sucking left over moisture from the rain. Beyond our little courtyard stands a humble home shared by this blossom bloodline of 3 different family members:  mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, brothers and sisters ... It's the children that we often see playing with sticks on sand piles.

Added to the quirky magic of our neighbourhood, a gentle-looking tailor sits in front of her shop with 2 other professional tailors. Haute couture made to measure, their work is done with perfection.  And, at a bargain too! The head tailor who runs the shop works primarily with the locals.  It was by sheer accident that I found her. I eventually stopped going to the lucrative tailor, whom I mentioned earlier, because she was very busy, charged a lot, and made a lot of mistakes. No doubt a busy place for one person to manage here couture alone. I was looking for someone more reliable, someone more local and une haute couturière that I could trust. Rather befitting, I say.

Now that we’ve been in Myanmar for one year we’ve become more familiar with the tropical fruits, vegetables and lush vegetation that appear at different times of the year.  Some of the fruit trees even grow in our very own little courtyard:  green and red chilly peppers, guava, mangoes, and pomegranates.

As far as our Nay Pyi Taw outings go, within a 5-minute drive from our place we often land up at a Western restaurant where the local manager at Santino’s is always courteous and charming too.

In terms of speaking Burmese – well that’s another story…

Over this past ‘incredible’ year, we’ve had an opportunity to meet and talk to the local people that we wouldn’t otherwise had the chance to encounter:  to hear their stories, their dreams and their hopes, their laughter, to experience special moments together …  The parliamentary leaders, MPs, staffs at work and the locals in our neighbourhood are smart, witty and fun to be around with.  Their love, joy, camaraderie will be remembered ....

Something about Me ...  Someone once told me, not so long ago, that one cannot write in a vacuum.   Over the years, a number of people have read my blog and have asked me where do I get my ideas or get my information? That’s a fair question!

Most times, I write from personal experience. I write because I enjoy writing about the people I meet and those I work with. Simply, I write from the heart!  What do I do? I usually keep a journal and jot down ideas from simply observing, listening, sharing, participating and so on … In all honesty, writing for me has always been hard.  It is harder than climbing a mountain, I imagine …

As a volunteer both in Cambodia and in Myanmar, the common denominator for the well being of the people is to share, strengthen, empower voices.  Whether it is with teachers, school directors, cluster chiefs, POE officials in MondloKiri, Cambodia; with parliamentarians and parliamentary staffs in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, or  with the local people in general.

In a nutshell, I weave a tapestry from my inconceivable experiences derived from the every day lives of the local people that I bonded with, that I closely worked with.

My ideas come from the local people’s experience and possibilities  that through time, have led them to a higher place:  I stitch together their words of joy and dreams and hopes, the milestones and successes, their laughter and special moments that we've had together … throughout my time with them, I have attempted to stay open minded, and never once, during my engagements with these people, did I underestimated the possibilities they have shared with me.

Consequently, their aspiration are very much reflected in the 2 books that were published in Cambodia (The Road to Prosperity ~my education ~my life) and in Myanmar (English Voices of Myanmar) that my colleagues and I worked on: we talk about the value of education, social inclusion and gender equality and human rights and freedoms for a better tomorrow …

Indeed the builders of the future are here to stay!

More later ... in the meantime, wishing you fun reading and lots of laughter for the rest of June 2018….:)

Education Roles

Education Roles by Claire Gilderson
'The road to prosperity' changing lives through education ...

 In May 2017, ALICE CHANDLER flew off to Myanmar to volunteer again. This is her second placement with Cuso International. She briefly recalls her first adventure in Cambodia and her second time in Myanmar following a long teaching career in Canada.

During her long teaching career as an educator, mentor and adviser, Alice worked in Canada, Anguilla, China, Cambodia, and Myanmar “I decided that it was time for me to embark on more stimulating expeditions,  so I leapt half way across the world to volunteer for three years with VSO – Cuso Cambodia and  for a year with Cuso International Myanmar.  ‘I wanted to be in a developing country, this time as a long-term volunteer where I could be part of the community and work for the well being of others’.

In 2013, Alice was placed as a Primary Education Adviser at the Provincial Office of Education in the beautiful hills of Mondulkiri • the poorest rural province in Cambodia. There she worked with teachers, school directors, cluster chiefs and POE senior and junior officers to help improve the quality and access to basic education ‘I fell in love with this amazing place and I was fortunate to get my placement extended until 2016. Despite the challenges, I found that Humour is an important part of facilitating positive change’.

‘In May 2017, I was placed at the parliamentary Union Assembly Hluttaw, Phydaungsu Chamber in NayPyiTaw, Myanmar.  There I worked with both parliamentarians and parliamentary staff to strengthen their English voices to use both in the workplace and with friends and family. Attendance was high everyday and throughout this yearlong project, English Learners became increasingly confident with their English and had fun in the process. Laughter became contagious and learning became easier’.

While Alice was both in Cambodia and in Myanmar she and her colleagues published 2 books.   In January 2016, The Road to Prosperity ~my education ~my life was published in Mondolkiri, Cambodia. The book is of a collection of interviews and short stories of local men and women about the value of education, social inclusion and gender equality.

English Voices of Myanmar was recently published in March 2018. The book is a practical  Resource Activity Parliamentary Curriculum for anyone to use and to disseminate with colleagues, friends, family … It’s about expanding the boundaries of the English language  using a higher level of thinking through the use of problem solving, critical thinking, analytical thinking to spark questions for conversation …  This English parliamentary curriculum is also about social inclusion, gender roles, and human rights and freedoms …

More later … in the meantime, wishing you fun reading and lots of laughter for the rest of May 2018….:)

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

5 Minutes with Phyo Wai Win

The following parliamentary Senior Officer (student)’s case study is on page 190 in the English Voices of Myanmar Parliamentary Curriculum that was published in March 2018.

“The highlight for me was Questions for conversation …

“My name is Phyo Wai Win and I’m from Zigon Township , Bago West Division situated in the lower part of Myanmar bseside Bago-Yoma mountain area”.

When did you first take English? “I first learn very basic English language when I was in ‘first standard,’ known as primary school.  I was 5 years old. But I did not speak English.  Not really”. 

When did you begin to speak English? “I began to speak English when I was 25 when I joined the English class with my friend and studied English at a higher level”.

What is interesting about the Cuso English class? “By joining the Cuso English class, I have many opportunities to speak English fluently with a native speaker and my classmates, and I understand more about the language, the structure group work methodology,  critical thinking, problem solving, debates and questions for conversations with confidence”.   In our class, Alice gives us a chance to participate fully with the topic presentations everyday.  Topics could be review, fashion, family life in Myanmar, Myanmar culture, parliamentary work, my hero, global citizenship begins with me that we have just learned in the Road to Gender Equality and the ASEAN Citizen units. 

I think that the most interesting thing in the class is that we get to choose the writer which is a Scriber; Brainstormers who are really critically thinkers, Presenters who has to listen deeply to everyone’s comment; Audience who has a chance to listen carefully to the presenter and to ask the right questions  for conversation that make sense to show that we have carefully listened to the presenter.  According to the topic we participate our parts,  we have a chance to collect a lot of facts and it is really excited to work with my group and   with others groups, because we have the facts to share with each other and good relations with my friends to participate with questions for conversation that Alice has taught us”.

How has Cuso English helped you with your parliamentary work?  My Cuso English class has helped me significantly with  my parliamentary work by applying the writing briefing paper research work . I Write Burmese briefing papers that I translate from English to Burmese.  This information, I use from my Cuso English Class and collect data from the Basic Health Staff website from different countries. I create subheadings from a variety of International newspapers that  becomes the Current Affairs Digest newsletter for MPs.  This, I delegate to my junior staff to write and make sure that they understand that they need to think critical instead of copy paste directly from the web.   This is where I use a lot of questions for conversation model that I learned from Cuso class.  I also use with my staff  solving the problem in the work with critical thinking  that I keep in mind that Alice always remind us to think about when we negotiate with others in class

Would you recommend Cuso English training?  Off course,  I recommend Cuso English training to my friends, and my  colleagues, my parliamentary junior and senior staff, also my brother and sister and my family.  I think that they will have a chance to speak with a native speaker with many different topics to discuss about current issues, healthy living, language acquisition, leadership and make questions for conversations with a lot of critical thinking that we do in class.  I like most Alice class because she encourages us to always ask “questions for conversation. She could handle the class well and she knows how to manage the class with Stop, Look and Listen.  it is also important to mention that Alice is fun and makes us laugh, so we don’t want to be absent from the class. 

What was the highlight of Cuso English class?  The highlight or me is that I now use both ‘questions for conversation’   and the ”group work methodology concepts” with everything that I do with my parliamentary work and with everyone that I work with; my colleagues, my friends and even  my family!

More later ... in the meantime, wishing you fun reading and lots of laughter for the rest of May 2018….:)