Less Is More — Yangon Reflections [Part 4]

This is a continuation of Part 3, which you can find here.

10:00am, Hesed Community Church, Nyaung Hwa Village

On the penultimate day of our stay, we decided to visit a church familiar to the team that was there on a previous trip. Pastor Kyaw Min Tun was first introduced to us by Laval, and was the first candidate to be evaluated by SEEDS. In 2016, Pastor Kyaw came up with a dormitory leasing business proposal, but his loan repayment period of eight years was deemed too lengthy, and SEEDS ultimately declined to support him. Our church however, continued to help Hesed by donating essential appliances, such as a projector. Did our rejection cast us in a negative light? Not by any means, according to Laval, who understood our limitations. “There are also many churches waiting to take on each project, so even if your church turns it down, another will adopt it anyway,” he explained matter-of-factly.

A boy showers to escape the scorching afternoon heat

Nyaung Hwa Village, home to some 5,000 households, is situated in an industrial zone, where many residents work. It looked the part too; trees are non-existent, allowing the scorching heat to smother the village like a gigantic thermal blanket. The only sources of running water are found in old, rusting water pumps located at several street corners, and like many other villages, Nyaung Hwa relies on distillation plants to supply its residents with drinking water.

A stall selling candies and snacks

There, stagnant pools of water could also be seen, except they were much bigger than those of the villages we had previously visited — some covered the area of a typical hut. I avoided them like the plague, fearing that they might be breeding grounds for bloodthirsty mosquitoes. Interestingly, despite its rudimentary exterior, Nyaung Hwa seems to be connected to a power grid, and poles hoisting drooping power lines could be seen running parallel to rows of huts. I even spotted a seemingly new satellite dish mounted right beside a unit. Despite the hardship, there was a casual vibe all around; residents hung out under whatever shelter they could find, while children could be seen playing with an assortment of toys near their homes.

1979 in Burmese script — Pastor Kyaw’s birth year.

Hesed Community Church stands out amongst the cluster of huts. It is a large, two-storey building with a relatively newer wooden interior. There are also oscillating fans on the ceiling, and in a little space by the corner are several computers and even a printer — a luxury by the village’s standards. At the door, Pastor Kyaw welcomed us. Bearing no ill feelings towards his rejection by SEEDS, he warmly ushered us inside with a cheerily wide smile. He was charismatic and adept at communicating with young people, as I would later discover from my conversations with him — he spoke rather fluent English. Alas, the generator Hesed depended on had been faulty for over a week, resulting in a power outage. To alleviate the heat, Pastor Kyaw handed us plastic manual hand fans, which had Burmese characters on their faces, accompanied by a cross at the top. Out of curiosity, I asked Pastor Kyaw what they meant.

“Oh, these are given during funerals. They have the details of the deceased on them.”

It was a little morbid, but who was I to complain? I fanned myself anyway; the heat was starting to engulf the well-insulated church. As we sat around a table, Pastor Kyaw brought us up to speed on Hesed’s development since SEEDS’ last visit. Apart from the 50–70 people who worship there every Sunday, Hesed also started running computer literacy classes during the week, where about 30 students, comprising mostly youths, pick up software skills like Microsoft Office. This, according to Pastor Kyaw, could help them secure better jobs away from the village, where they would likely get better salaries and break out of the poverty cycle. Currently, Hesed is supported by three B4T-backed businesses, started by several members of its congregation, and we were about to visit all of them, located in a nearby village with a similar level of poverty.

11:15am, Aye Chan Tha Yar 

Aye Chan Tha Yar village

Aye Chan Tha Yar is a small village located a short drive away from Nyaung Hwa. In the middle of the area is a plot of land that has been cordoned off and walled up. It supposedly guards a government building that never came to be. A small, muddy river stretched parallel to us as we took our first steps through a dirt path into the village. By the river are rickety shacks elevated some distance from the ground; having Mother Nature sweep one’s excrement away is a convenient solution for waste removal. From a distance, we spotted a villager walking towards our direction whilst expertly balancing a large tray of wares on her head. While the homes we saw were threadbare, the village itself was quite lively.

For only a dollar, this barber seems reasonably skilled at his job

There were several businesses operating in the area, a sign of resilience and even innovation. We noticed a makeshift barber stall where a young boy was getting his hair cut for a dollar. Beside it was a tiny eatery, and further left, the first of Hesed’s three businesses, a transportation provider, run by two brothers who also serve as deacons in the church. Together, they help ferry fellow merchants in the vicinity for a fee. While they initially only had a single motorcycle to their fleet, financial aid, coupled with a strong demand for the service — more so during the monsoon seasons — enabled them to purchase a lorry.

The offending water pump that drew the ire of our group

The second business was about a ten-minute walk away, giving us an opportunity to better observe the state of the village. Aye Chan Tha Yar lacks running water and relies on water pumps, too. Approaching one, I spotted a yellow sign attached to it. On it was a verse from the Bible, ‘Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst.‘ followed by its Korean translation underneath. We were told that some time ago, Korean missionaries paid the village a visit and placed the signs on every water pump. It was an incredulous sight; how did they conclude that money spent on contextually meaningless signs was a better idea than to actually try to meet the needs of the locals? Yet again, fundamental problems with charitable aid continue to plague these communities, not for lack of funds, but the way money is frivolously spent. We soon entered the airier part of the village, indicated by the transition from cement walls to rich green grass and a gentle breeze. Instead of the usual dirt path, the one leading to our destination resembled stepping stones made of dirt bags — the only strip of solid ground around damp mud. We gingerly climbed up a wooden ramp to Nainu’s shack, a space so congested I was surprised that the entire group could fit into it.

Pigs from Nainu’s Luke 15:15 farm

Nainu runs Luke 15:15 pig farm, which also happens to be right next to the living space he shares with his wife and children. He went on to explain that his current living situation was already an upgrade; there was no partition previously and he was quite literally sleeping next to his 15 pigs at that time. He had also survived a one-month prison sentence for forgetting to renew his motorcycle license. After that incident, things went further south when H1N1 struck his farm, killing half of the pigs. Nainu was forced to sell off the surviving pigs, even though they were nowhere near big enough to fetch a reasonable price. However, he understood the importance of damage mitigation, and like many rural Burmese residents we have crossed path with, Nainu possessed a survivor’s instinct that can only be honed after one has had their fair share of close shaves.

Our final visit was a tea house where we would also stop for lunch before returning to downtown Yangon. Shine Myittar, as it is called, is a properly sized cafe which has, of all things, a new television showing local movies all day. It was already half-filled when we settled down, its patrons deeply engrossed in the film. Although there were no electric fans, the tea house was airy enough. Still, the owners saw it fit to personally cool us down with plastic fans, even after we had politely told them that it was not necessary. Halfway though our meal, it started to rain heavily, drowning out any conversation we were having across the table. It also meant that we would be stuck there until the rain subsided, which it did 45 minutes later.

6:30pm, Yangon

The rest of the day was relatively uneventful. While the leaders of the group discussed Pastor Robert’s business plan in greater detail back in Laval’s apartment in the heart of Yangon, the rest of us went sightseeing. We found ourselves in a rather sterile part of Yangon, where almost everything was commercialised; tour buses were untidily parked everywhere, and it felt like half the city had come to either hang out at the large park nearby, or visit the world-famous Shwedagon, a Buddhist pagoda with a pointed conical roof comprising tonnes of gold donated by visitors to the temple, a continuing practice spanning centuries. I have to admit — that was a truly impressive structure.

Having little to observe in the city, I was relieved when we finally arrived at Laval’s apartment for dinner. It was a two-storey space we had to climb up several flights of stairs in pitch darkness — the sun had left us for the day — to get to. It was an interesting experience to be seated comfortably in an apartment right in the middle of the fanfare; a night market stretching blocks and blocks was right by the entrance of the building. We wasted little time after dinner doing some real sightseeing away from tour buses and rowdy tourists. Tented stalls were still selling fresh vegetables, fruits, and meat at that time of the day — an oddity, but one we welcomed, as we did what most Singaporeans would do: fill whatever space — often overestimated — we had left in our suitcases with local products. Our little exploration also took us past busy bars and restaurants, perhaps partly symbolising the gulf in affluence between city dwellers and villagers. I excitedly started filming the market scene on my phone, going from stall to stall, vision unfocused. When it did, however, I realised that I had been accidentally filming a lingerie stall. Embarrassed, I quickly jerked my phone away. Esther, a friend and member of the group, witnessed my debacle and burst out laughing.


How I imagine Daniel might have felt after being left behind

The trip was littered with moments where I would imagine an alternate reality in which Daniel would have been filming whilst I wrote. Perhaps then I would remember more details and not leave my recount so porous. As he reflected on the missed opportunity, Daniel simply declared, rather zen-like, “I’m sure there God has His reasons for not putting me on the flight.” Before our departure to Yangon, I half-jokingly presumed that the plane would crash and a premature end to my life awaited me.

It is often said that experiencing life in a third-world country will transform the lives and attitudes of the visitors. However, I disagree. Human beings are an extremely forgetful bunch, and just like other fleeting states of being like happiness and motivation, we too will eventually forget how it feels to be in the midst of poverty, and go back to our old, ungrateful ways. This is certainly not helped by the knowledge that we will have a comfortable home and relative abundance to return to at the end of the trip. What did manifest in me, however, was a newfound understanding of what it means to be unconditionally giving. In fact, the Burmese people that Laval previously helped, had specifically requested that he not distribute too many handouts. It was an unselfish and dignified mentality consistent with the communities we had visited over the course of our trip. Yet, as modern consumerism gradually takes root in Myanmar, I cannot help but wonder if it is only a matter of time before this precious local trait is lost to the promises of material wealth and a clean break from the ghettos.

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