Less Is More — Yangon Reflections [Part 3]

As I began to write this, I realised that eight months have passed since we found ourselves roaming the streets and villages in and around Yangon. Although bits and pieces of the trip have blurred over time, the congregation of EEC remains vivid in my memory, and their joyous expressions continue to stir me. Social media has afforded me a glimpse into their lives, but I still wonder how they are all doing.

This is a continuation of Part 2, which you can find here.

10:15am, Emmanuel Evangelical Church, Shwepyitha Township

It was Sunday, and we were invited to attend EEC’s worship service. Travelling along the same route, I tried to pick out details I might have missed the previous day. Intermittently, I spotted large, poorly maintained buildings surrounded by overgrowth and menacing fences, accompanied by a singular red flag with a white star in the middle.

“What does the flag symbolise?” I asked Laval.

“It is the flag of the Burmese Military. Properties with that flag are owned by them.”

Noticing another dilapidated compound, Laval pointed out that it was the site of the old World Health Organization (WHO) base.

“That entire compound cost US$1 million a year to rent, and WHO had it for three.”

That unwelcome revelation set off a detailed lamentation about how NGOs waste large amounts of money on things like business-class flights, chauffeured cars, and exorbitant salaries. It was hardly new information, yet I could not help but wonder again just how much is being invested in bettering the lives of the people these organisations claim to serve.

EEC Group Photo
A group shot of the team and the worshippers | Photo Credit: Agus Djunaedi

We arrived EEC without a hitch, learning from our inexperience the first time round. I found myself greeted by now-familiar sights — the same bottled water factory, the same wooden houses, the same modest church.

We were treated to the same passionate worship that we had come to appreciate, and I began to see a correlation between material possessions and piousness — the less one has, and has to lose, the more he depends on God to get him through each day. This is often seen in developing countries where reasonable aid is not always readily available.

I zoned out as my pastor gave his sermon, but perked up again as the aroma of what I assumed was lunch wafted through the room. I was a little wary when I was told that we would be sampling cooked Elephant Foot Yam (EFY), but the early signs were promising. This time, pieces of EFY were braised with a medley of vegetables and gravy. The difference was astounding — far from being chewy and bland when eaten raw, they instead reminded me of delicious fried tofu synonymous with many a Chinese dish. I sheepishly requested for a second bowl, seeing as there were plenty left.

A small bowl packed with flavour | Photo Credit: Agus Djunaedi

Knowing that we would be leaving the church for the second and final time was a bittersweet moment. While I was excited to move on to the next stop of our journey, I also enjoyed the worshippers’ energy and positivity, and hopefully, Pastor Robert’s business will be able to help them better meet their daily needs.

I recently found out that a member of the congregation has passed away. She was one of the several worshippers who joyfully served us during our visit. May her soul rest in peace.

2:00pm, 3 Harvests Farm, Yangon

Vegetation surrounding the farm

We knew we were approaching the countryside as buildings disappeared in place of grassy fields and uninterrupted rows of trees. There, Mother Nature remained in charge. We were off to visit one of B4T’s success stories — 3 Harvests, a business comprising a chicken coop built over a portion of a 3.5-acre fish pond holding about 40,000 carps. The entire compound encompasses 70 acres of land in total, and its vastness was a welcome change from the cramped spaces we often found ourselves in prior.

At the gated entrance, essentially a small concrete bridge crossing a narrow, still river, several children from the orphanage that 3 Harvests supports ran to greet us, accompanied by Dal Lian. His wife, Susu, stayed behind at the orphanage in his absence. Together, the couple oversee both the farm and orphanage with about 10–15 employees, which in itself is a testament to the business’ self-sustenance.

One of 7,000 chickens holed up in the coop

As we walked the length of a strip of dirt path and the occasional wooden planks, Dal Lian attributed the success of the business to B4T, explaining that the loan enabled him to purchase the coop and pond, on top of the existing fields of rice paddy, beans, and other vegetables. It is the coop and pond, however, that yield the most profit. It is also a shrewd move — the chicken droppings would fall into the pond as food for the carps. Of course, they do not actually eat the droppings, whose main purpose is to fertilise the water instead, which in turn provides nutrients for the carps. Above the pond, some 7,000 chickens regularly lay eggs, which are then sold to meet the high demand for them in the area. The carps are also sold seasonally. This mutually beneficial ecosystem is so effective that Dal Lian recently started planning for an extension to the pond to accommodate even more fish.

Later, we were given a close-up tour of the coop, where some employees could be seen walking their rounds and ensuring there was enough chicken feed. Curious, I too walked from end to end, bamboo poles creaking beneath my feet. While the stench wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, I was amazed at how much the chickens were defecating; the sound of droppings breaking the water surface could constantly be heard, accompanied by a flurry of clucking. Despite the success of this business, Laval made it painfully clear that B4T is hit-and-miss, more often than not; in a standard five-year loan plan, anything can happen. He recounted how a pastor used the loan to build a house for his family instead, upon learning that he had contracted a terminal illness.

“We didn’t know what to say or do; the man was already dying,” Laval said.

The conversation eventually shifted to the 55 orphans that Dal Lian and Susu were in charge of. They beamed with pride as they announced that one of them would be studying at a university soon. We were also introduced to the rather peculiar tertiary education system that the Burmese government employs, in which university hopefuls are not allowed to pick their desired programmes and schools. Instead, the government analyses their high school grades and places them in programmes they think complement their strengths. University placements are also decided by the government, and their decisions are often only communicated to the applicants a week or two before the semester begins, proving extremely problematic to students whose universities are hours away in another state.

4:30pm, Garden Home Orphanage, Yangon

We made our way back to the entrance, concluding our itinerary for the day with a visit to Dal Lian and Susu’s Garden Home Orphanage. It was where we could truly witness the benefits reaped from a successful B4T-backed business. We stopped in what seemed like the middle of a thin forest some distance away from the main road. There, Susu and a few curious orphans excitedly welcomed us. Pitting the orphanage against the cramped houses and a general lack of infrastructure that we had seen previously, the compound was quite remarkable. Spacious dormitories with rows of bunk beds could easily house the orphans, and there was also a proper sewage and water system, evidenced by restrooms with running water and working flushes. Yet, this sense of relative comfort has not stopped Dal Lian from continuously working to improve the orphanage. To the corner, a gigantic hall has been built, and just a short walk away stood a half-complete restroom area. A pastors’ conference would be held in two weeks, and Dal Lian was due to host them at the orphanage.

Joella taking notes for subsequent Youth Worship sessions

Soon after, we joined the orphans in worship at a classroom. Loud, passionate singing seemed to go hand in hand with the worshippers and it was certainly infectious to the soul. We were carried away by the chatter and worship, without even realising that the sky had darkened. It was nearly pitch black out in the open but for the light emanating from Dal Lian’s office, where we bade farewell to one of the most innovative and hardworking men I have met. Through more conversations with Laval, we learned that the Burmese are generally hard workers, but lack proper training and direction in terms of how they can effectively use their skills to create better lives for themselves.

Even orphans are aware of the restorative properties of thanaka

Having a hotel room to myself made it conducive to reflect on everything I had seen and heard at the end of each day. Today, we got to see how a successful business should be run, and the huge potential that B4T has in impacting the lives of many. It was also a more transparent and concrete way to invest resources into these communities without having to worry, at the back of my head, just how much of it is being siphoned off  in the form of extravagant living. More importantly, despite the risks, loan recipients are impacted at a more foundational level — we teach them how to fish.

This reflection continues in Part 4.

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