Cinderella in Myanmar
Danmissions chairman, Peter Fischer-Møller, hears a grim story with an adventurous ending from Kaw Mai, who is the contact person and translator on his journey to Danmissions projects in Myanmar.
By Peter Fischer-Møller, Chairman in Danmission
Kaw Mai is the second in command of the Judson Research Centre (JRC), the department of MIT (Myanmar Institute and Theology) who works with religion, theology and religious dialogue. Kaw Mai is more than usually bright and altogether a pleasure to be traveling with. And then she manages to interpret the Burmese or Kachin to Danish and vice versa through a whole day and still have energy for a smile and a funny remark. On the way to one of today’s many meetings we ask Kaw Mai about her own history. It turned out to be a pretty grim story with a magical content.
Kaw Ma, who is in the mid- 40s, was born in a village in the state of Kachin in northern Myanmar. Her father was Kachin and her mother is Shan (with family connections to China). First her parents got 4 daughters (one died as infant), of which Kaw Mai is the youngest. When the fifth child, a boy, died only two years old, the father chose (perhaps pressured by his family who would like to have sons that could keep the family name etc.) to divorce from Kaw Mai’s mother to take another wife. Kaw Mai’s mother was now alone with three daughters and with nothing to support the family with other than her own labor. She took on odd jobs and had her own small shop. It was hard work which included going to a remote village and carry a heavy bag of rice all the way back to the shop. Kaw Mai’s mother and grandmother knew there was only one way out of poverty, and that was education. Kaw Mai tells that her grandmother used to lit a candle in the living room that the girls could read by. She had no watch, but she lit an incense stick which she put on the table beside the light. The girls then had to read at least as long as the incense stick was still burning.
Kaw Mai had both the ability to and the joy of reading. She managed to get financial support from family – including from an aunt who once had a restaurant in Myitkyina and various scholarships – in that way she could study theology at MIT. Kaw Mai was inspired by Agnete Holm, who works with Myanmar for Danmission, to work with religious dialogue and has today a master degree in both theology and business administration. She is the head of JRC, married to a nationally known musician and mother of two children. It almost sounds like a translation of the story of Cinderella to Kachin – but this is reality and a symbol of the desire for change, the cheerful mood and qualified skills, we met many times among Danmissions partners in Myanmar.
Mary – an impressive woman in Myanmar
“I feel honored to stand face to face with such a brave, humble and committed woman who makes it possible for Danmission to really make a difference for 10.000 deprived people in the refugee camps,” says Peter Fischer-Møller from his trip to Myanmar.
By Peter Fischer-Møller, Chairman in Danmission
We have met quite a few of them – the talented, energetic, attentive younger women who are engaged in theology, religious dialogue, humanitarian aid and development in cooperation with Danmission. Filled with humor and engagement they use their time and effort for the benefit of their fellow human beings and for Myanmar: Kaw Mai, Seng Bu, our own Agnete Holm – and now Mary from the organization WPN.
We meet Mary in a noodle restaurant across the impressive gold-plated Shwedagon pagoda in downtown Yangon. Mary leads the organization WPN which is in charge of five refugee camps with a total of 10.000 residents in the areas of the federal state of Kachin, where the Kachin Independent Army still is in control.
Since there hasn’t been entered a cease-fire with the government forces, it is not possible to drive through the area. Mary therefore had to pass the Chinese boarder and down to the province Chan to return to Myanmar and further on to meet with us.The roads in these mountainous parts of the country are poorly maintained, and when a large truck with trailer had droved awry and lost most of its cargo of building materials on the road, it was not possible to pass by car. Mary had slept in the car overnight, but in the morning she had miraculously been able to borrow a motorcycle, which she could pass the wrecked truck with. After many hours on a motorcycle on mountain roads in temperatures only slightly above freezing, Mary arrived at the airport and could take a plane to Yangon. And here she was – just passed 8 in the evening with packets of organic tea from the area and pictures of some of the people whose lives has been saved thanks to the financial help from Danmission.
Mary is not very tall and speaks with a very low voice, so even though we are sitting together around the table, I have to listen carefully to keep up with her story. She is daughter of a father who had to flee, and who lived in a refugee camp for several years. He managed to move forward in life, raised a family, had children and the opportunity to financially support the children so they could get a higher education. Mary had studied both in Myanmar and abroad, and she was in the middle of a job as the head of a development organization when the civil war in Kachin broke out in 2011. She felt called to make an effort, so she left the care of her two minor children to family and established WPN to help the refugees. She thought that it would only last a few months, but now it has been going on for 5 years. She spend time with her children, when possible, but most of the time she’s out with the refugees in the camps.
She is very grateful for Danmissions support – we contributed last year with 120.000 kr. to the work. And we feel honored to stand face to face with such a brave, humble and committed woman who makes it possible for us to really make a difference for 10.000 people in need. We seperate after a few hours noodles and talk. Next day we were told that the truck had been removed, so the mountain road was passable, and Mary was well back with her refugee friends in Kachin.
The chairman’s meeting with a Sunday school monk
By Peter Fischer-Møller, Chairman in Danmission
It is the last day of our trip around Myanmar. This morning one of Danmissions partners arranged a meeting at a Buddhist monastery with one of the monks who participated in the master courses in interfaith dialogue, MAID. The master course is offered by Judson Research Center under the Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT), which Danmission supports.
We take our shoes and socks off and are guided into something that looks like a regular neat office building. Shortly after, the monk Metta comes into the room together with one of the senior monks in the monastery and the organization of Buddhist education of children and young people. The place has many similarities with the Danish National Church Sunday Schools. They develop and produce pedagogical educational material for children from class 1 to 6, and they offer training for monks and teachers who are in charge of teaching in about 5000 monasteries around Myanmar.
Metta is a quiet and humble monk, friendly and smiling and dressed in his orange cape. He comes from the countryside and has the specific task to assist with the communication from the center and out to the local villages and monasteries. His friend, the monastery leader, is better at speaking English, much more directly in both questions and answers, and he jokes and challenges us at the same time. What do you think of the head of Ma Ba Tha (a radical, nationalist and Buddhist movement in Myanmar)? Would you talk to him? I do not think Ma Ba Tha is doing something good for Myanmar, but I tell him that we in Danmission are ready to talk to anyone who would like a dialogue with us. The monk smiles. I think it was a test.
Afterwards he tells us about everyday life in the monastery, which looks more like an ordinary office life in a church organization than what I imagine a Buddhist monastic life would look like with begging bowls and meditation. We have an interesting conversation and we discuss the somewhat tense situation, there are some places in Myanmar between Buddhists and Muslims. The monk tells that only a very small part of Buddhists are extremist and I add that it is only a very small part of the Danish Muslims who have any sympathy for extremists in the Islamic State (IS) and that kind of movements. So I tell about our project “your faith – my faith”, where a Muslim, a Jew and a Christian visit schools and at the same time talk about their faith, so that it becomes clear to the students that they respect each other despite the religious differences.
By the end of our conversation the monk suggests that we could do a project where a Christian pastor is invited out to one of their convent schools to tell the Buddhist children about Christian faith, while one of the churches invites a monk to visit a Sunday school to talk about his Buddhist faith. I think that sounds like a great idea. I wonder if it could happen?We walk over to the temple and the stupa, located right next door, and Metta tells me about the 108 different representations of the Buddha, and how a monk seeks out the one that suits his or her mood or situation the best.
Read more about Danmissions work in Myanmar here