We have spent five days in the Kyaing Tong region of Burma/Myanmar learning about the work that Partners Asia supports through its partner C.H.E.K. (Community Health and Education Kyaing Tong). Flying into the town of Kyaing Tong we saw that it is a remote, mountainous area terraced with rice fields and some forests, 650 miles from the urban center of Yangon. We later learned that until recently this area was the scene of armed conflict, sometimes one ethic group fighting another, sometimes the Burmese army fighting ethnic groups, and sometimes one drug lord fighting another.
For two days we drove around the countryside of Kyaing Tong with Sai Sai, C.H.E.K.’s Director, visiting some of the schools and villages where he works. The countryside is home to Wa, Enn, Shan, Akha, and Lahu tribal people living in scattered villages – some very remote. Most are at least an hour’s drive away from Kyaing Tong, many accessible only on single-lane, unpaved roads and foot paths. We drove through rice fields on dusty roads until we reached a village, and would then walk to schools and other villages. We talked with teachers, parents, and village leaders, listening to their feelings about education, health, and village issues and hearing about the value that C.H.E.K. brings to their lives.
On the third day we saw how C.H.E.K. works with these same ethnic peoples outside of their villages in Kyaing Tong, at a boarding school fully supported by C.H.E.K., where village children can live safely while they attend government middle and high school in order to continue their education beyond the village primary school.
These tribes and villages retain their strong cultural identities and most are extremely poor. Sai Sai explained to us that until recently many lacked clean water and latrines. Even today some villages still lack these basics. As a result, most villages have had a history of poor hygiene, sickness, and high infant mortality. In response to requests from teachers and village leaders, C.H.E.K. provides health and education projects tailored to individual school and village needs.
C.H.E.K. evolved from work that a local tour guide, U Sai Lon (Mr. Paul), started in 2004 where he saw ethnic villages in great poverty without clean water. Under the auspices of Foundation for the People of Burma, the precursor of Partners Asia, and with donations from tourists and the labor of villagers, Mr. Paul installed water pipes and storage tanks to make clean water accessible and built latrines to help combat diarrhea. From this small beginning, he and Sai Sai built relationships with local villagers that enabled them to expand to help with health education and teacher training in schools.
At the urging of Partners Asia in 2011, C.H.E.K. was formed as an independent, locally-based NGO to continue this work. C.H.E.K. now focuses on enhancing health education in six villages (emphasizing personal hygiene and providing soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste and nail clippers) and education projects in the schools around the villages (providing teacher training and material support). In some villages, C.H.E.K. also works with the local midwife to provide reproductive health information. Village leaders and teachers told us that the results of this work have been a dramatic improvement in overall health, a great reduction in infant mortality, and an increase in the number of children who attend school.
Four days of intensive conversations with Sai Sai, seeing the villages and schools first-hand, and listening to the teachers and village leaders gave us some insight into the complex and interrelated health and education problems of this area. We were impressed with the approach that Sai Sai takes, making connections between problems and possible solutions based on his long relationship with the people in these rural areas and his patience in dealing with very basic health and education needs.
Most of the villages have access to small government primary schools, but we could see that education is often poorly understood and a low priority for villagers. It is a challenge for teachers just to convince parents to send their children to school or allow them to stay after they are old enough to work in the fields, tend livestock, or take care of younger siblings. Education is also a tremendous challenge because of language. The government requires that all classes be taught in Burmese, but each ethnic tribe speaks its own language, and few know Burmese or want to learn. Teachers are often Burmese and rarely speak the local language. So teachers and students often don’t understand each other – complicating the learning process.
The problems of gaining village trust and creating a bond between teachers and students are compounded by high teacher turnover. Most teachers don’t come from the Kyaing Tong area; they are assigned to these small, remote schools by the government. Living conditions are difficult and some teachers stay for as few as four or five months, some stay for 1 – 2 years. We met some lucky exceptions who had been at their schools for eight or more years, supported by C.H.E.K. and Partners Asia, including giving them laptops and enabling them to attend English and computer classes, so they can keep up with changing times whilst living in such remote areas. Teacher turn-over is hard and disruptive on children who may be struggling just to attend and stay in school.
Malaria and diarrhea have historically been two of the biggest health problems in these villages. Unaccustomed to clean water and latrines, villagers don’t know about basic personal hygiene such as hand washing and tooth brushing. Villagers have to be taught when and how to wash hands with soap and need to be educated about the connection between failure to wash hands and diarrhea. Children who learn these connections at school often bring the lessons home to their parents.
How C.H.E.K. works
It became very clear to us watching Sai Sai interact with villagers and teachers, how much trust and respect they have built together over the ten years he has been doing this work. As he moves from village to village and school to school, his strategy is to listen and talk and provide direct assistance based on what villages and teachers say they need – more water pipes in one village, the need for latrines in another; more workbooks for this school, a preschool in another. This is very different from the International NGO model, like a UNICEF, that distributes generic workbooks, posters, and book bags to the government and from the government to the schools based on a formula, not necessarily on direct need.
Partners Asia encourages Sai Sai to take a flexible approach, recognizing the complexity and interconnectedness of issues on the ground and supporting him to adapt solutions that fit the community.
Support for teachers
Partners Asia supports C.H.E.K. by providing teacher training – including reading and writing in critical thinking and other child-centered teaching techniques – that make learning more fun and engaging for the children, inducing them to come to and stay in school. It also brings teachers from these rural communities together several times a year to exchange ideas and develop connections. Having a supportive network helps teachers feel less isolated.
Teachers (especially those who have been at their schools and in the community for several years) are working to craft solutions to the problems in their communities. In one school C.H.E.K. has helped set up a preschool and supports it by paying the preschool teacher’s salary. Starting a preschool is an innovative approach to several issues: 1. It encourages girls who have to take care of younger siblings to come to school because they can now bring their siblings with them and leave them at the preschool; and 2. Teachers have found that preschoolers have already developed the habit of attending school by the time they enter kindergarten and first grade and are also better prepared to learn in Burmese.
Support for students
Providing free room and board in Kyaing Tong for students when they graduate to middle school and high school is often the only way for rural children to continue their education. Without this resource, village children would have few options but to end their education at 5th grade. This is also a critical resource as these children go home to their villages during break and bring what they’ve learned with them. After graduation, the potential is that they return to their villages to become teachers themselves.
The Impact of the work
It took awhile for us to grasp the far-reaching impact of the work C.H.E.K. is doing. As ethnic tribes interact with the outside world and as the outside world comes to them, their need for education, including the ability to speak Burmese, becomes critical. On a granular level, one individual going to the market in town, being able to count his change, and not getting ripped off, directly impacts daily life. But on a grander scale, ethnic people need to be able to speak up for themselves and participate in the growing democracy movement sweeping through Burma/Myanmar right now. Among other things, they need to be able to decide for themselves how they want to vote, otherwise they are easy victims of political parties trying to buy votes. This is a theme that we heard repeatedly – the less that ethnic groups understand and the more that they are afraid, the less they can speak up for themselves, and the more vulnerable they become. The risk of marginalization grows as does their inability to escape poverty.
Fundamentally the work that Sai Sai and C.H.E.K. are doing is about is behavior change, small and large. Small changes look like washing hands; bigger changes are the prioritization of education, and ultimately stepping up and speaking out in the larger world. This work can only be done by being on the ground working directly in the community, based on relationships and deep trust. This is the approach that Partners Asia supports.
Heather and Mary
Partners Asia Supporters