A Hunger For Education

A school, rebuilt after Cyclone Nargis, thrives under a dynamic principal.

We happened to arrive as school was beginning. More than 300 students in front of the three school buildings sang the national anthem. As throughout Myanmar, they dressed in green shorts or skirts and white shirts or blouses.

This was Nga Pi Chaung, in the belly of Burma’s Ayeyarwady Delta. This is a town literally off the grid, with only a handful of diesal-powered generators for electricity and no running water. Its 821 inhabitants are subsistence farmers, on the margins of the cash economy. On the flat low-lying land just above sea level they grow rice – not as successfully as their upland countrymen, because water this close to the ocean tends to the brackish – as well as dry crops like beans and peanuts.

Nga Pi Chaung is two hours downstream by motorboat from the market town of Bogale, a bit more than 100 kilometers as the crow flies from Yangon. Yet Nga Pi Chuang is in another century, with only thin threads linking it to the outside world. There is a diesel-generator-powered satellite dish, used for occasions like watching Manchester United football matches. But there is no plastic litter, because there is almost no plastic. There is no paper litter, because there is little paper. What few manufactured goods there are – school books, plastic containers for holding food – are carefully husbanded.

“What are they studying?” I ask of the seventh-grade class, where some 40 students were crammed into the classroom, jammed onto long wooden benches. “They are studying about how the weather is changing, how big storms come more often,” Studer Trust’s Le Le Thein tells me. Seventh grade students in a poor farming village in Myanmar’s Delta are studying about climate change because their lives are being shaped by new, more powerful climate patterns.

Four years before our visit Cyclone Nargis shredded the delta, killing at least 138,000 people, a number on a par with the Hiroshima atomic bomb. We cannot say that Cyclone Nargis or any other weather event was definitively caused by climate change. Yet of students like these, for their parents, and for the millions of people in Myanmar and the tens or even hundreds of millions of poor people throughout Asia, climate change means yet another existential threat to their already difficult lives.

As the executive director of a group that funded three schools in the Delta after Cyclone Nargis, I was pleased to see that the building we built was in good repair, was fully used and that the school was run by a dynamic principal. We could make a small difference, in one village.

Myanmar once had an enviable education system. Education, and especially English-language instruction, was one of the many casualties of the country’s half-century of mismanagement and misrule. The good news is that educational participation rates are high, even among girls. Most people try to send their children to school, because they know that education is key to getting ahead – and the notion of getting ahead, of progress, is widely accepted in a way that it was not a generation or two ago. If basic literacy is the goal, then Myanmar is probably doing fairly well. The official literacy rate is around 90%.

And yet – learning is clearly by rote. Even the brightest students will struggle to go beyond middle school. Universities, let alone primary and secondary schools, are not preparing students for the jobs of tomorrow. This was an issue that was very much on the mind of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi when I met her with a group the following week in Naypyidaw.

I was moved by the eagerness of the students, and, as evidenced by their neat appearance, the seriousness with which their parents take school. I was impressed by the construction quality of the school built by Studer Trust (two adjacent buildings, constructed at the same time, were not faring as well). I was especially impressed by school principal Daw Khet Khet Win and the passion she brings to the school. Photographer David McIntyre and I enjoyed a delicious lunch prepared by Daw Khet Khet, where we were joined by village leader U Than Htay and others, including the parents of the scholarship students provided for by our on-going funding.

Studer Trust and dedicated staff like Le Le Thein, working with committed educators like Daw Khet Khet are clearly making a difference in thousands of students’ lives. One can only hope that the evident hunger for education among parents, educators and students in villages like Nga Pi Chuang will be matched by sustained national educational policies to ensure a better education for all of Myanmar’s children.

Originally published in the 2012 Annual Report of the Studer Trust. Can be accessed at studertrust.org/images/stories/studer/annual_reports/2012_webversion.pdf