Saturday, 16 November 2019

A nice picture of sunset

Ok, so I'm just putting this photo in my blog today because I like it. Who doesn't like a nice picture of a sunset? To the right is one of the 'lazy hills' of Ranong. So called by me because they don't really aspire to much height or grandeur. When I first came to Ranong I thought they might be good for the odd bush walk but the locals stubbed out that desire with talk of snakes, leeches and goodness knows what else. Fortunately the sky sometimes puts on a good display, overshadowing the lazy hills and the mildew stained buildings. 

All of this reminds me of a quote from Pope Francis, who I will see this week (from a distance) at a mass in Bangkok. While speaking in Poland about three years ago, he urged young people to get off the sofa and do something good in the world. He spoke of 'A sofa that makes us feel comfortable, calm, safe. A sofa that promises us hours of comfort so we can escape to the world of videotapes and spend all kinds of time in front of a computer screen. A sofa that keeps us safe from any kind of pain and fear.'

He went on to say 'Jesus is the Lord of risk, he is the Lord of the eternal 'more'. He is not the Lord of comfort, security and ease.' We need to 'take the path of the 'craziness' of our God, who teaches us to encounter him in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the friend in trouble, the prisoner, the refugee and the migrant, and our neighbours who feel abandoned.' 'This means being courageous, this means being free!'

It was a great speech and certainly resonated with me. We all have moments where we just want comfort and easiness in life. But behind the promising exterior of the comfortable sofa lies the psychological version of the snakes and leeches of the lazy Ranong hills. We simply never find out what we really are capable in life. We loose our ability to even desire anything more than easiness. Our life goes by without us ever truly helping another person or moving beyond ourselves to bring love and care to those who really need it from us. 

My trip to Chin State a few weeks ago was far from comfortable at times. The seven hour bus trip up winding semi-paved mountain roads (to cover only 70km) and subsequent migraine, the awkwardness of being a new place where most people didn't speak my language, meeting new people for the first time, giving a workshop for teacher training to a group of teachers I'd never met before, enduring the 22 hour bus trip back to Yangon along more winding roads with toilet stops that involved the side of the mountain or someone's backyard dunny.... (NZ word for outside toilet).

But despite all of this I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Something happens to your spirit up in the mountains and it's certainly related to the journey you had to make to get up there in the first place. Many of the significant events in the Bible happen when one of the main characters goes up a mountain. The Ten Commandments, the teaching of the Beatitudes, the Transfiguration of Jesus in front of three of his disciples. 

Don't settle for the lazy hills or the sofa in your life. Talk to Jesus - what are the mountains he wants you to climb? It won't be a comfortable journey but by goodness the view from the top will be worth it.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Getting on with it

Those who have been following this blog will know that the last few months have been pretty difficult here in Ranong. At the moment we are still the only Burmese Migrant Learning Centre legally open for our students and only 1/2 a day at that. We are now able to move forward a bit - sending our Burmese teachers to Myanmar to change their documents which will take a few weeks to sort out. We also have reporting to do for our international funders which is a detailed and tricky business. So, instead of finding myself with too much time on my hands and personally reflecting how identity and sense of worth can be linked with the busyness and productiveness of life, I now have lots to get on with. 

Have I learned any lessons from the period of waiting or will I go back to being self-conscious about being seen to be 'doing, doing, doing' in my workplace? Maybe a little bit. When I was in Hakha visiting St John's school, I had the opportunity to sit in the staff room/office space and do some preparation for the teacher training workshop I ran there. The head-teacher spent much of her time in long conversations with staff-members, the impression of which has stuck with me. I couldn't understand the Chin language of course so I don't know how much of the conversations were work related or personal. The tone seemed work related but relaxed. 

I found myself asking: how much time do I spend just talking with my colleagues instead of beavering away at my desk? How much of my conversation is super objective driven rather than a mixture of objective and simply relating. If I slow down and focus on a bit more relating, can I listen more to what my colleagues are really thinking? I don't know - I kind of hoping that being more aware of this help me make some changes to my ways of being and doing at work.

On a totally different note, I went to the dentist today! A major triumph in my 'living in Thailand' journey. Last year I went for my annual dental check-up during my travels back to NZ but this year my NZ dentist is not open during the time I'll be back there so I 'bit the bullet' and made an appointment here in Ranong. The dentist had come with some good recommendations from other volunteers but honestly I was a bit nervous. The Thai doctor experience has been very mixed with some very positive outcomes and some less than satisfactory outcomes. Also, here in Ranong TB is prevalent among certain sectors of the community, so would the dentist be clean and sterile? 

Well, I needn't have worried. The clinic was a friendly place and the dentist was young and spoke some English. She had even travelled to New Zealand on two occasions. The service was organised and clean. The small filling I needed was done at the same appointment as the check-up which never happens in NZ. The cost for the scale, polish, and a small filling was about $70 NZ dollars - a fraction of the cost back at home. 

It may seem like nothing but making a dentist appointment and going through with it in a foreign country is an achievement of sorts. I'll take these small victories! Another milestone reached in the last week was being able to read the Thai language banner at the entrance to the Loy Kratong festival. L O Y K R A T NG - Yes I could sound out the Thai lettering and it felt so good. It helped that I knew what it should be saying of course but with 44 consonants and 32 vowels, recognising Thai letters is another kind of victory for this mono-lingual Kiwi.

I'll leave you with a silly photo taken at the Ministry of Social Development where I was required to visit this week for my renewal of visa application. Only in Ranong!

Saturday, 2 November 2019

Up in the mountains

No photos I took can really sum up the experience but they give you an idea of the mountains. 

 Hakha is the capital of Chin State, an area of Myanmar populated by an ethnic group that identify as 'Chin' peoples. Where they came from is mostly unknown but probably a part of China - hence the 'Chin' name. 
Chin State is completely mountainous - there is no flat land to be found. During the military rule the state was largely off limits to outsiders and especially foreigners. Even today when you enter the state, there is a large metal barrier that can be used to close the road to travellers. 
I got to Chin State by flying from Yangon to Kalemyo, a small town on the flat land close to the state boundary. 
Landing at Kalemyo was like landing at an airport in the 1950s. I'm sure the building was built around that time. The three foreigners on the flight were motioned to 'check in' with some official looking people at an 'immigration' counter. Hang on, I thought, didn't I already clear immigration in Yangon? Not enough for these guys apparently. My passport and visa were checked and my name and hotel recorded in their ledger. No smiles. 
My hotel was just across the road from the airport and was pretty good. Early in the morning I was picked up in the mini-van that would be my transport up the mountains to Hakha. 
Chin State people are almost completely Christian, having converted from animism en-masse during the late 1800s/early 1900s. All buses and mini-vans stop for a prayer before getting underway and in my case a Catholic religious sister prayed out-loud on behalf of all the passengers. We're not in Buddhist low-land Myanmar anymore I thought!
The road to Hakha was semi-paved and extremely windy. We were above a cloud-line almost immediately and the views were astounding. Seven hours later (and a migraine due to dehydration) the mini-van pulled into Hakha and dropped me at my guesthouse.
In Kalemyo it was hot but up in the mountains the temperature was cool. I was glad I had packed a warm polarfleese jacket and some socks.

I spent most of my time in Hakha visiting a Catholic school recently established by the Catholic diocese. Private schools are just beginning to be allowed to open in Myanmar. It's a difficult road to tread for those staring on the journey with many limitations, costs, and rules to follow. 
The school is three years old and is growing upwards as more children enter each year. 
Private schools have some difficulties training their teachers as the state teacher training system requires two years bonded work in the state system anywhere in Myanmar. During my visit to the school I spent some time with a class of lively seven year olds singing some English songs and also ran a short workshop for the teachers. 
Chin State has very few natural resources and many people live below the poverty line trying to eek out an existence on the side of the mountains. The military government neglected the state during its years of rule and only now are the roads being developed and new buildings being built in the town. My guest house was basic but clean and in the centre of town. 
Each morning I walked down the road to 'Hakha Town Coffee' were the coffee was good and they cooked me eggs on toast for breakfast. There aren't many touristy things to do other than stare at the gorgeous views but I did find 'Ai dii Weaving' which employs local women to learn the traditional forms of weaving cloth. I didn't buy anything here but did purchase a beautiful traditional shawl from a shop on the main road. 

Each area of Myanmar has it's own patterns for cloth-making not unlike Scottish clan tartans and the Chin State materials have bold reds, blacks and gold colours. 
Women and men wear these colours, with the mens' traditional outfit including a suit jacket made from bright woven cloth.
Around the town woman carry large baskets with straps that are often held on their foreheads with the basket at the back. Many women carry babies and young children on their backs in shawls. 
Everywhere you look there are Christian churches of every denomination: Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ, Presbyterian, evangelical and more. 

Even in the rather hip coffee shop, Christian music could sometimes be heard on the stereo. 99.9% of the population is Christian and they don't care who knows it. I met with several local Catholic priests who impressed me with their humility but also their educated conversation. One had spent time studying in Belgium while another had lived in Kentucky, USA for many years. 

Like my hometown of Wellington, the houses are mostly built on stilts sitting out over the sides of the mountains. During the rainy season there are many landslides with loss of life and property. The people are resilient though and keep re-building.
I thoroughly enjoyed my three days in Hakha and suspect that when the new airport opens in 2020 at Falam (a nearby town), more tourists will find their way to this remote part of Myanmar. Of course in some ways I hope not.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Dogs of Ranong

'Let sleeping dogs lie'. Good advice in Ranong, Thailand. This little fellow is called 'Oi' and lost one of his eyes in a road accident. When I first arrived in Ranong he had a buddy and the pair were inseparable. Then one day his friend died, from old age I think, and Oi was left to roam his patch alone. It wasn't long after that that he lost his eye so it was certainly a bad season for this wee chap. 

Oi sometimes hangs out at one of my favourite eating and dessert cafes where the friendly staff give him a sausage or two to eat. He was recently attacked by some 'baddies' of the dog world and had to recover from some nasty wounds. It's not just cats that have nine lives. This guy is proof of that. 

Mum and daughter dogs out for a walk. The owner told me that mum is seventeen years old which is a ripe old age for a dog. The owner often brings these two down our quiet street. They walk slowly, sniffing everything and stopping for long periods when the scent gets interesting. 

The owner's not worried about getting anywhere in a hurry either thank goodness. Mai Ben Rai! (no worries)

I have named this character Bruno. He has a birth defect that has left him with slightly malformed back leg and he limps around our neighbourhood  looking for love and food. Thankfully there are a few people prepared to put something out for him (or her) and give him a cuddle every now and then. I'm never sure if he has an actual owner or is just one of the local street dogs. I once took pity on him with some left over chicken bones and now he looks longingly at me when ever I come and go from our apartments. The other dog in the right-hand photo is a new-comer on the scene. He has a sibling and again I'm not sure if they have an owner. I haven't warmed up to these newbies yet. 

The dreaded 'Dougal'. I was absolutely terrified of this guy when I arrived in Ranong. He sensed my trepidation and responded with barking which didn't encourage me at all. I used to avoid walking down his street, which was the most direct way to the market, because of my fear. One day I struck upon the idea of giving him a name and the black terror become the loveable Dougal from a childhood TV show. It really helped and over time I have mostly lost my fear. He's actually very placid unless another dog invades his territory. His real name is 'Dum' which means black in Thai. Totally appropriate as he's pitch black except for his white front paws. One of my favourite Ranong dogs. 

Simba - Marist community dog 1. Simba is an adopted street dog and has an inherited skin condition that requires frequent medication. When the medication begins to wear off she itches and scratches and itches and scratches. If you ever doubted that dogs could get depressed, Simba in an itchy, scratchy state will change your mind. There have been many times when we have thought Simba was about to cark it (pass away) but she always rebounds at the last moment. Along with the skin problem, Simba also has had to deal with mean neighbourhood dogs and an infected ear. If that's not enough, she also has the next character to deal with. Marist community dog 2:

Where does one start with Maha. A mad as a meat axe, Maha arrived last year as a replacement for the elderly Sassie who was unfortunately run over in a tragic driveway accident. (No more to say about this). Unlike the dignified but strong minded Sassie, Maha is just, well, mad. She is only young and hopefully will grow out of some of the crazy behaviour which involves killing neighbourhood chickens, stealing and tearing apart rubbish, running full-tilt around the yard as if her tail was on fire, and much more. She's not doing the 'playful' biting much anymore which I'm very grateful for and I'll now give her a little stoke on the head. 

There's a couple of dogs I haven't managed to photograph for this post - Sally (really a boy but somehow the name Sally has stuck for me) who 'owns' the neighbourhood and often has horrible injuries from defending that top dog position. Nothing really seems to worry Sally during the day - he's a friend to all the kids and never bothers much with the adults. The battles for supremacy must happen at night or early morning as I've only seen the resulting bite marks on his back. 

And lastly Wesley - a snipey looking, large, black dog who loves to chase big cars down the road. The bigger the car the better it seems. Wesley belongs to local small business owner and isn't always around which is a relief to me. I'm not a fan of Wesley but I've never seen him have a go at a human. It's the cars he's interested in. 

So there it is - a short run-down of the local canines. Love then or loathe them, they are here to stay. 

Sunday, 6 October 2019

One stitch at a time

Sometimes events in life are like sewing a frock (NZ word for dress in case you were wondering). No really.

As you may know from previous blog posts, our little migrant learning centre and the nine others in Ranong have been closed for about six weeks. We have been able to run some of our programmes using overseas volunteers and our Thai staff but cannot get our wonderful Burmese teachers back into the classroom.  Boy is this frustrating for us, but for the other MLCs it's more like heartbreaking. When this all plays out it's very difficult to know if the Burmese language schooling system will look the same, radically different but better, or just not exist at all. 

In the meantime we just keep moving - some days it feels like one step forward, two back.

To keep myself occupied in quiet moments I have been fixing up some items of clothing that needed alterations. In all of these cases I have had to completely unpick a part of the dress or trousers, create new additions such as ties or facings, and then slowly (by hand) stitch the item of clothing back together again. I've had an idea in my head of what I need to achieve and then just have to painstakingly put it into action. 

Yesterday while eating my dinner, it struck me that God was talking to me through this alteration process. God does indeed speak to us through all sorts of activities, even the most mundane, if we're paying attention. Our situation here in Ranong does indeed feel like something is being unpicked and, as I've said before, it's a most uncomfortable feeling. The good news is that when it's stitched up again, the result will be something better - a better fit perhaps - for the Burmese migrant children.  

I was pondering this and grinning at God a bit when it struck me that when I'm sewing I know in my head what I want the outcome to be. However, in the case of solving the school closure problem I just can't even imagine how this situation will be resolved satisfactorily. I told God this - 'Hey, your little analogy is falling down at this point God!' 

The reply? God Himself knows the outcome - He is the stitcher in this story. Our part is moving forward, being faithful to the work we are called to do each day.

Saturday, 21 September 2019

Doing is sometimes more about Being

So here we are, four weeks into our school closure and still waiting the outcome of meetings and discussions and prayers. It must be said that some of our students have been at school for the last week and half preparing for their Thai Non-formal curriculum exams. Our wonderful Thai teachers have been running this programme and it has been a balm to my heart to see that at least some of our students are able to continue with their education.

For the rest of the migrant learning centres (MLCs) here in Ranong, things are not so easy. We are waiting to hear the outcome of yet another high-level meeting before making decisions about future re-opening of the learning centres. Very uncertain times for head teachers, teachers, student and their families. Please continue to pray for us.

There's a lot that can be said here about going from a position of 'doing', purpose, and busyness to one of uncertainty, lack of clear direction, and simply waiting. In other words, a forced position of 'being'. When you're a person who often gets their sense of self-worth from being busy and purposeful, this is a difficult transition. 

I do have stuff to do but it changes every day. We have been cleaning and re-polishing the school desks, sanding and painting walls, continuing with the teacher training programme, re-starting evening English classes... there is stuff to do but no clear routine. I'm certainly thankful that we can get on with some things that have been sitting in the 'to do' pile for a while and I'm very thankful for our staff who, despite not being able to teach at the moment, continue to turn up and get stuck in to whatever needs to be done. 

We have meetings with the other MLC head teachers, NGO's and government officials that are conducted in three languages -Thai, Burmese and English. These meetings lurch from helpful and hopeful to confusing and frustrating. An enduring solution to the legal problems facing the MLCs is not yet clear. In the meantime, nearly 3000 children are out of school, many with Myanmar curriculum exams looming in October. These meetings are a test of all of our ability to listen, share, and collaborate cross-culturally. 

I'm learning to let it go and let it be to a certain degree. God is right there with us in the battle, in the moments of suffering. He's been there after all, on the cross. He knows the pain and suffering of our migrant people here on the border and suffers with us all the while working in our hearts to make us more kind, more loving, and more patient. Diamonds only get that way under pressure.

Suffering can be redemptive, a fact we tend to loose sight of in our modern western cultures. That is the point of the cross and resurrection of Jesus. While we are often called to do things for people who suffer, sometimes we are simply called to be like Mary (the mother of Jesus) - sitting at the foot of the cross, unable to help but being a quiet presence. 

Saturday, 14 September 2019


So, where are we at in Ranong? Can we open our Migrant Learning Centres? Has there been any progress in our discussions with local and Bangkok officials?

Good questions!

Our MLC (Migrant Learning Centre) has been able to open for our Ko So No (Non Formal Thai curriculum) classes with our Thai teachers. We open later than normal and finish a bit earlier. A few of our young Burmese staff have a kind of document that gives them more flexibility in employment, so in this case they are able to assist our two Thai teachers. All other classes - English, Social Studies, Computers, Burmese language, Science and Maths are still not able to be taught. One class of students who do not do the Ko So No programme are still not able to come back to school.

The other nine MLCs are in a tougher position as they mainly use the Myanmar curriculum and don't have enough (or any) Thai teachers to enable them to re-opening their centres. 

Over the past few weeks we have had many meetings with officials, NGOs representatives, and the other MLC head teachers. There have been high-level meetings in Bangkok between UN agencies (IOM), EU representatives and NGOs and Thai government officials. The Myanmar Embassy has also sent a representative to talk with the Thai Minister of Labour. 

The problem lies in Thai labour law and must been resolved satisfactorily if Burmese migrants can work at MLCs as teachers. A full solution to this may take time but in the meantime, we will be requesting to the government to reopen our schools to enable the children to continue their education.