Meikswe Myanmar in Northern Shan State
We left Mandalay and drove eight hours on a winding road through the mountains toward China to Lashio in northern Shan State. We had spent five days in Lashio two years ago and were looking forward to visiting our friends who work for Meikswe Myanmar. Meikswe is a small local NGO, long supported by Partners Asia, which does health, education, and community development work.
Helping People Living with HIV/AIDS
Meikswe was founded more than 10 years ago by Naw Bway Khu (“Snow”), its visionary director. Trained as a nurse, her first work was developing places in the community where women and children living with HIV/AIDS could find respite care, job training, and supervision for their medical care. Typically a person with HIV/AIDS was ostracized by family and community. Snow brought such women into her own home and then worked to establish residences for them. Meikswe now has homes for women and for children in Lashio and another home for women and children in Yangon. All are poor, often without family, and have limited, if any, access to medical treatment. All now have a supportive place to live. The children can go to school and have regular access to medical treatment. Most importantly, the children and the women live in a community that supports and cares for them. They are no longer outcasts with no future.
But the needs continue to grow. For example, ten children live at Metta May May in Lashio. Many were the same children we met two years ago. The children are doing very well health-wise and are in school, but there is waiting list of 20 with space for only 10. And the children are growing older – several in their teens – so more space is needed to provide separate sleeping rooms for girls and boys. Metta Mon, Meikswe’s residence in Lashio for women living with HIV/AIDS, has moved to a new temporary location out of town, but a permanent building is needed. Pearl Metta, the residence in Yangon, is far outside the city proper, and sorely needs a vehicle to transport children to the clinic for their medication.
As part of its long-term strategy, Meikswe is developing a more comprehensive way of supporting the children as they transition out of the residences. The plan is to develop a community of people – family members and others – who are willing to take these young adults into their homes, support them emotionally, help supervise their treatment, and provide some financial assistance. To make this plan work, a community support network that has been given training in how to support these children and in how to create additional income will have to be developed. This is a challenge for the future.
Improving Monastic Education
Early on, Meikswe developed a strategy to improve education by working closely with monastic schools where the head monk or nun was open to change and innovative ideas. Meikswe targeted monastic schools because their curricula are less rigid than that of government schools and because they are free and therefore serve the poorest children. Meikswe has provided training in teaching techniques to engage children in learning, to develop critical thinking skills in both teachers and students, and to improve teachers’ abilities to teach English. Meikswe has supplemented teacher salaries (monastic schools pay less than government schools), provided books and other teaching aids, and sent its own staff from school to school to teach English classes.
We were very glad to see that Meikswe’s long and careful work with certain monastic schools was really coming to fruition. One has become a model in participatory learning and critical thinking teaching methods. Another has opened a “small school” within the larger school to focus on teaching with a child-centered approach with smaller classes and greater emphasis on teaching English.
As we went from one school to another and talked with head nuns and monks, we heard the repeated theme of the importance of school committees to harness the energy and skills of parents. With the encouragement and training from Meikswe, these committees have been newly formed in the last year or two. At one school, parent involvement has led to an environmental committee which regularly cleans up plastic and trash in the neighborhood and tries to educate the broader public about this issue. At another, the pre-school committee has organized the parents to build a playground and a paved road up the hill to the school building. The parents themselves provided the labor in the evenings after work. At another, teachers and parents have taken on shared responsibility for school management, lessening the work for the head monk. It continues to amaze us how much of this is about community organizing to get things done rather than waiting for or expecting someone else to do it.
Meikswe has recently begun supporting a small nunnery in a very poor neighborhood. Young girls from an ethnic group who live in villages in the surrounding mountains started coming to this nunnery initially to escape armed conflict between the government military and ethnic groups. Now they come for the opportunity to have education. There are 55 young girls who are being taught very basic English, Burmese, and math by Meikswe staff. They return to their villages after 3-4 years with a broader understanding of the “outside world” and, at the very least, an ability to communicate in Burmese – a critical skill to enter mainstream Myanmar life. When we asked the girls if they were afraid or sad being away from their villages and parents, they said no, they didn’t cry because they wanted to be here to get an education. It was moving to see how brave these children are.
Community Development and Self-Sufficiency
Self-sufficiency is central to Meikswe’s philosophy of community development. Giving money alone to support a partner is not enough. It also works to “build capacity” within its partners – which means the schools and groups with which it works must learn finance, logistics, and leadership. Meikswe helps its partners find and build networks to help move them toward financial and operational independence. This contrasts with the more traditional model of just pumping money into an area or project and then pulling out after three years or so. Meikswe’s model includes an exit strategy: building long-term relationships and careful mentorship in order to leave behind a strong basis for on-going improvement. For example, teachers at each school are initially trained in teaching techniques, but then Meikswe encourages them to form Teacher Clubs or support groups. These groups meet monthly to give teachers an opportunity to network among themselves, exchange best practices, and mentor each other. When Meikswe transitions out, an on-going support structure is in place. Similarly, monastic schools are initially given teacher salary support, but then encouraged to develop ways of supporting themselves like growing and selling flowers, making organic soap, making bricks, or cultivating trees to make perfume. Some of these initiatives thrive and continue; some fail and are abandoned. The message is clear: each partner must ultimately stand on its own two feet.
The recent conflict between Muslims and Christians in Lashio has inspired Meikswe to do intensive work around conflict resolution and peace building. It was sad to see the burned out mosque and Muslim orphanage in Lashio, but we could see in the streets and the market that many Muslims have returned since the conflict. Some of the senior Meikswe staff have recently received conflict transformation training, and they are now developing a peace curriculum to train the many groups and schools with which they work.
Meikswe is also working on its own future self sufficiency. When we were here two years ago, we coached some of the Meikswe staff on proposal writing and business planning. On this visit, we spent a day with the staff brainstorming small business ideas to generate income such as opening a private school, adult education, and possibly even a boutique hotel and restaurant to provide job training for local youth as well as a revenue stream.
The most heart-warming change we saw was in the Meikswe staff itself. Snow is constantly on the lookout for new up-and-coming leaders. That, indeed, is a theme at Meikswe: training new leaders, especially women, to step up and speak out for the future of Burma/Myanmar. We spent a couple of hours one afternoon talking with the staff about their work and how they feel about it. One woman expressed her profound appreciation for the opportunity Meikswe has given her to develop her self-confidence – teaching children and adults to speak up is what democracy is all about. Another reflected that her teaching of English is not merely about teaching English, but really about thinking and learning for the future. Another said education is the key to protecting people’s rights. Another explained that early childhood development is essential to developing well-rounded human beings who will be the future of their country.
For us, this is so much more than learning about “what’s happening in Burma/Myanmar”. It is bearing witness to people leaping into the future with very few resources, eager to learn, experience, and build a vibrant and healthy country. There are so many problems – incredible poverty, little infrastructure, poor education, language barriers, religious and ethnic conflicts. Yet they have the most important things – a fierce commitment to help themselves be self-sufficient, a determination to create change, and an amazing faith that things can be different. And a committed organization like Meikswe Myanmar to help.
We are so honored to have had the opportunity to be here and are grateful that Partners Asia supports this work.
Mary and Heather
Partners Asia contributing writers