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English Teaching Trip to Yangon, Myanmar

July 18th, 2010
By Helen Rimmer

First impressions are so important when entering another country and the Myanmar Government is working hard to make a good impression on visitors. Yangon airport is now smart and modern, with efficient conveyer belts and tiled floors. The NZ teaching team went through customs easily, carrying our 32kg load of extra bibles. These NIV Commentaries are presented to each student who completes the Summer English School in June. The city is much cleaner, the airport road is now well formed but the taxis and buses are still very old vehicles.

I started teaching on 22nd March. My class of 7 women and 4 men were good, appreciative students, all single and in their 20s. They had completed their Bachelor of Theology degrees and had moved to Yangon to study for 3 year Masters Degrees in Theology or Divinity. They were all involved in church ministry and were keen to gain higher qualifications. The power supply was reliable for 6 hours each day, so we showed a DVD and used discs for some lessons. I had my class singing and they loved the humorous, interactive songs. Our team taught the students to write well in proper paragraphs with topic sentences. They also learnt to write comparisons about the 2 athletes in the film "Chariots of Fire". We did a lot of reading comprehension work as well.

I went to see the girls' dormitory. There are 6 girls in each apartment and I was pleasantly surprised by the well decorated rooms and clean floors. The girls were cooking stir fried vegetables and rice as usual, and they all seemed very happy and friendly. The staff at the Myanmar Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (MEGST) families have exactly the same flats up 4, 5 or 6 floors! It was amazing to visit the street market where they bought all their food early each morning. All the fresh vegetables were lined up along the pavements.

On our first weekend we arranged to go to Lashio in the North of Myanmar to visit a former student's Bible School. Nelly's brother works near the Chinese border and fortunately he is one of the few who have a vehicle. They drove 6 hours to Mandalay Airport to meet us and we commenced the 160km journey back to her home town. The roads are a wonder to behold - very similar to that over the Takaka Hill with ever so many hairpin bends, but with a rough uneven surface and no road markings! They are full of huge Nissan trucks from China carrying large loads. There are covered utes piled high with goods and a dozen or more village folk on top of that. Then there are motor scooters loaded up with 3 or 4 family members in the towns, and huge loads of thatch or goods on the highways.

As the road was so windy, we stayed overnight at Maymyo, which was a refuge for the British from all the heat until 1948 when they left the country. We enjoyed walking in the famous Royal Gardens nearby, with beautiful English flowers such as pansies, petunias and geraniums. Then we left early on Saturday morning to complete the trip to Lashio.

Nelly and her husband Kyaw Kyaw's AOG church was having their 10 year celebrations and Peter Armstrong was the guest speaker. Nelly and I sang a great St Andrews song, 'Jesus is the Name we Honour' using their keyboard. Then Nelly and her students served us a tasty Chinese meal with 6 dishes to try including chips! There was only one flight back to Yangon that week so we were fortunate to avoid the long road journey. We gave each of our MEGST students an apple, which was a special present from China. (We didn't see any apples in Yangon.)

Our second trip away from Yangon was just as remarkable. We flew 50 minutes on Air Bagan to Thandwe Airport on the Bay of Bengal on Easter Thursday. We stayed in economy cabins on the edge of a long surf beach called Ngapali Beach, for just $22 US per night, including a very good Myanmar breakfast of fruits and pancakes. Early on Good Friday morning we walked along the beach for about 5km and when we returned at 8am the sun was just shining through the coconut palms.

I had 3 swims that day and it was fun trying to get out further than the surf breakers. The sea was delightfully warm and a lot more salty than in NZ. We saw many long fishing boats out on the horizon at dusk. They were using lights to attract the fish and there was a great variety to try in the many little restaurants along the dusty road. We tried prawns, king prawns, squid and barracuda with delicious tomatoes and onions.

The power came on at 6pm and so we could use the air conditioning at night but not in the daytime. However, this did not matter as there was usually a good breeze under the palms. We met several German tourists who were staying at a very smart hotel for volunteer German Doctors who are doing a lot of volunteer work in the Irrawaddy Delta area. We flew back to Yangon on Saturday as there were no flights on Sunday or Monday because the runway is being lengthened. The resorts closed soon afterwards because of the monsoon season which lasts for 4 months. We even saw an escape pathway to use if there was a tsunami warning!

We went to a house church on Easter Sunday in a very beautiful house owned by a Kachin couple. (He works in tourism in the far North with Snowlands Tours). We enjoyed seeing so many young people who sang really well. Everyone just slipped in the gate one by one and no one knows that church is going on there. We met one lady who lost her entire family in cyclone Nargis in 2008.

One afternoon we went to visit an orphan home for abandonned children from the Chin State. Their parents had begged a staff member at Megst to have them in Yangon for an education - so Rebecca and C K have 16 adopted children plus their own three. They live in a big rented house 30 minutes away by taxi, and Rebecca's mother (71) cares for the children with a teacher who assists with English and Myanmar. About 6 children were less than 5 years old. I gave them books, toys, a doll and the windup toys which made them all happy. They sang us several songs in 2 languages and we saw their bedrooms with big beds for 4 children at a time!

One night we went to the Karaweik to see beautiful cultural dance groups. These included puppets and an elephant dance with a life size elephant wearing gorgeous cloaks and 2 men underneath doing the dance steps like an elephant. The meal was like a wedding banquet with lots of exotic dishes for just $12 US. We invited a staff member along with his sweet wife, whom I taught in 2005, as well as 2 NZ aid workers. One is from Richmond!

In our final week we had to go to Megst by taxi each day because it was the Water Festival. It was easy to become soaked from the many hoses on the streets as well as water pistols and buckets. They didn't exempt foreigners or the elderly! This celebration marked the end of the old year and the washing away of the past, ready for a new start in the Myanmar New Year which began on April 17th. The Festival lasted for 4 days and many youths were riding along in open trucks whilst others, on the pavements and up on wooden pandals, squirted them with high pressure water out of the nearest grubby lakes. It is the one time of the year that the Myanmar people can let down their hair and celebrate! On New Year's Day everyone was out on the streets selling their wares, and flowers for the temple offerings.

We finished teaching on Friday 16th April and we had an interesting concert where each class presented significant items and Peter did a great skit using Australian English. Then we paid for a very nice lunch of noodles and rice for all the students, which they really appreciated. I had a really worthwhile time in Myanmar teaching rewarding students and staff wives as well. I was really pleased to meet up with former students who were thrilled to have contact with us again, and I saw some amazing parts of Myanmar.

I would like to thank sincerely the St Andrews members who gave US $200 for a needy student. The one you have supported is Stephen, who was able to bring his wife Leng and small son down to Yangon from the Chinese border, to be with him while he is studying. He could do this when there was enough money to pay for a dormitory room for his family for 6 months and your gift made this possible. Stephen is a young man with the potential to achieve much in Christian ministry amongst Buddhist people. He is truly thankful for your support and encouragement.

M.Th. students at the English Summer School, Yangon

Children from Chin State living in a foster home in Yangon for an education

Myanmar Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (Megst) students at the Yangon Zoo

Women Students in their dormitory, Bahan Township, Yangon

NZ teachers prepared to walk home during the Water Festival:
Dorothy Collins, Peter Armstrong, Helen Rimmer, Mary Campbell.
(Peter has a laptop under his coat!)

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