This is a continuation of Part 1, which you can find here.
4:45pm, Pwo Karen Mission Compound, Ahlone Township
The Karen people, also known as Kayin, is the collective name of several Sino-Tibetan ethnic groups. Most of them hail from Karen State, southern Myanmar. Today, about 15%–20% of Karen around the world identify themselves as Christians, and this is largely due to the evangelistic work done by American missionary Adoniram Judson during his time in Myanmar, from 1813 until his death in 1851. The Pwo Karen Mission Compound is the result of his labour and that of another prominent missionary, Durlin Lee Brayton.
The compound was clearly well maintained, and right around the entrance is the Brayton Pwo Kayen Baptist Church, a multi-storey structure that resembled a colonial house with its polished black and white wooden exterior and Greek pillars. The sanctuary was as well kept as the compound; there was even a bristle mat by the doors that we had to wipe the soles of our shoes on. The inside of the sanctuary was well-ventilated with wide windows that lined both sides, and despite the absence of air conditioning, it was sufficiently cool. Not that the Burmese worshippers ever complained about the heat or the condition of the church, but that was miles better than Emmanuel Evangelical Church (EEC), where we had just come from. If missionaries paid as much attention to the villages as they did the city, perhaps Pastor Robert wouldn’t have been stuck in his current predicament to begin with.
Nevertheless, the importance of the compound cannot be understated, in terms of how it has transformed the lives of the Burmese people. It was there that we had the chance to browse the entire Bible, translated in Karen. Christian or not, it was an impressive feat, considering the magnitude of the task at hand. Beside the church was a sprawling dirt field, where students were having a lively game of volleyball. Behind them was a decent, modern dormitory. As we walked down the road, I realised just how big the entire compound was; half of it was hidden from view until we approached it. Wedged in between the two “halves” was what, to me, was a building of great significance — a girls’ school. Like many other traditional cultures, Karen women were afforded very few rights, and the school was a milestone that marked a shift in their culture.
As we headed towards the other end of the compound, we were treated to a group of students in the midst of choir practice. With the breeze caressing my cheeks, I closed my eyes and savoured their melodious singing drifting across as gently as the wind. Moments later, I was nudged by Pastor Peter.
“Quick, record their singing — you’re supposed to be our journalist!”
Near the end of our tour, we came across a dilapidated school that had been reclaimed by nature — thick branches and vegetation crept in and around every wooden beam.
“This used to be a thriving Christian elementary school, but when the Burmese government wanted all schools to be state run, it refused and was forced to close,” Laval explained. Where one facet of education took shape, another sank into the ground, but there was no time to muse. The sky was darkening, and the pitter-patter of raindrops grew louder. It was time to go.
10:00pm, Hotel Grand United, Ahlone Township
Apart from a surprisingly affordable dinner at a nearby Shan restaurant — S$90 for the nine of us —, the evening was uneventful, and I was grateful to be back in my hotel room. I could finally set my things down and reflect on the day that had just gone by. Truthfully, I had a lot to take in. Stepping foot into a developing country for the first time, there was a stark contrast between everyday life in Singapore and Yangon, and I refused to veer towards the shallow conclusion that one should be grateful of the many things that one has; you do not need a visit to an impoverished country to derive that. We have, far too often, softened our hearts with these emotional stimuli, only to gradually return to our ungrateful ways.
Bits and pieces lingered in my mind from observations made throughout the day, but they were all disjointed instances with no connection between them. I saw the lack of proper infrastructure, a lack of clean drinking water — bottled water seemed to be the city’s solution to the problem —, and a lack of any sort of system. How could I possibly come closer to knowing a little more about Yangon with those fragments? I was just scratching the surface, and I wanted to dig deeper.
Still, there were two more days, and there was a great deal more to be explored.
This reflection continues in Part 3.