ACTIONAID IN MYAN­MAR

Vacations & Travel - - On The Ground - JOIN­ING AN ACTIONAID TRIP TO MYAN­MAR, SHOWS JUST WHAT CAN BE DONE BY VOL­UN­TEERS, AS JO­CE­LYN PRIDE DIS­COV­ERED.

Ma Soe Soe Myint wants to run a tea shop. Ma Thin Thin Hlaing would love to ex­pand her tex­tile busi­ness and Ma Nwe Win is hop­ing her vil­lage will soon have elec­tric­ity.

A few years ago, these were im­pos­si­ble goals for any­one liv­ing in Myaing, one of the poor­est ar­eas in Myan­mar, around 90 min­utes’ drive from Ba­gan. How­ever, since NGO ActionAid teamed up with travel group In­trepid in 2015, there’s been a trans­for­ma­tion in the 1400+ peo­ple liv­ing across the four tiny ru­ral vil­lages. They can dare to dream.

With HQ in Johannesburg, ActionAid is an in­ter­na­tional NGO work­ing across 45 coun­tries to help around 15 mil­lion peo­ple free them­selves from poverty, in­jus­tice and dis­crim­i­na­tion through de­vel­op­ing their own skills and voices.

“When the idea of the com­mu­ni­ty­based tourism pro­ject was first muted, the vil­lagers weren’t keen,” says Aung Min Naing, manager of the Myaing pro­gram since its in­cep­tion. “They were wor­ried their vil­lages were too dirty, they didn’t have any­thing in­ter­est­ing to of­fer and won­dered how they could pos­si­bly cook for tourists,” he says.

But through care­ful plan­ning, sup­port, ed­u­ca­tion, and part­ner­ing with In­trepid Travel, the Com­mu­nity Lodge has be­come so pop­u­lar, ActionAid is look­ing to repli­cate the model in other parts of Myan­mar.

The tra­di­tional style and re­laxed feel of the Com­mu­nity Lodge gives an im­me­di­ate sense of com­mu­nity spirit. Hand-built by the vil­lagers us­ing lo­cal ma­te­ri­als, the wooden build­ings with thatched roofs over­look the newly con­structed reser­voir that helps pro­vide essen­tial wa­ter for farm­ing. Un­der the guid­ance of Aung, lead­ers of each of the four vil­lages in­volved in the pro­gram co­or­di­nate ev­ery­thing from the night mu­si­cal con­cert to the hos­pi­tal­ity.

We dine at a mag­nif­i­cent wooden ‘rain tree’ ta­ble dec­o­rated with sprigs of flow­ers eat­ing dishes like pump­kin and chicken cur­ries with all the trim­mings.

All the food served is or­ganic and grown in the vil­lage farms. “The pro­ject sends peo­ple to cour­ses to learn about food hy­giene,” says Aung. “They then be­come lead­ers and teach oth­ers.”

This is one of the main as­pects of the pro­ject – em­pow­er­ing peo­ple to make change.”

Aung un­der­stands the power of self-be­lief and has turned his life around: 20 years ago he was a heroin ad­dict. “One day it came over me that there must be more to life,” he says. “I went cold turkey. Now I get to help peo­ple build bet­ter fu­tures.”

Im­mer­sion in vil­lage life is up­lift­ing: over the two days we travel to vil­lages by push­bike (al­though a tuk-tuk is avail­able for peo­ple not wish­ing to ride) and learn that each vil­lage has what’s called The Vil­lage Book. Ma Nwe Win, one of the vil­lage lead­ers in Inn Yaung, ex­plains how fu­ture plans and ideas are put for­ward from the var­i­ous groups. “We have groups for moth­ers, fa­thers, youths, chil­dren, each one work­ing to help the whole vil­lage. We then have meet­ings to de­cide on what to work to­wards.” Al­ready this vil­lage has achieved two big goals – a school and clean wa­ter. “Be­fore this tourism pro­ject we had a bad his­tory. Now we have

con­fi­dence and can earn money through things like cook­ing.”

Ma Soe Soe Myint to­gether with other peo­ple in the vil­lage of Kangyi­daw West pre­pare us a tra­di­tional brunch of rice flour pan­cakes with toma­toes and bean sprouts and chick­pea frit­ters all cooked over an open fire. We sit in the cool shady gar­den of Ma’s fam­ily home that she hopes will one day be a thriv­ing tea shop. All six of Ma’s si­b­lings are di­rectly in­volved in the com­mu­nity tourism pro­ject and she proudly shows a pho­to­graph of her daugh­ter who is study­ing at uni­ver­sity; a vil­lage first.

Other vil­lagers like Ma Thin Thin Hlaing are given the op­por­tu­nity to learn a craft and start a busi­ness through sup­port from ActionAid. Work­ing at her loom made out of an old bed, the smile on Ma’s face says it all. It might take her up to two months to weave 20 me­tres of fab­ric but it’s worth it. Ma’s proud to have her ex­quis­ite work show­cased in the ActionAid shop in Ba­gan and as part of the In­trepid Travel carry bags.

How­ever, it’s the chil­dren in each vil­lage who are the heart steal­ers. Some­times shy at first, it doesn’t take long be­fore we’re singing ‘heads, shoul­ders, knees and toes’, clap­ping, laugh­ing and hav­ing our faces painted with thanaka, a nat­u­ral sun­screen made from ground bark. In Su Le Pan, the chil­dren of the vil­lage present us each with a tiny mango tree to plant. Plac­ing the tree in the ground is a pro­found re­minder of the po­ten­tial just one small seed can yield.

HOW TO HELP?

Ex­pe­ri­ence Myan­mar on In­trepid’s Best of Myan­mar itin­er­ary and spend two days in the Com­mu­nity Lodge to help sup­port the pro­gram. Di­rect do­na­tions can also be made to the not-for-profit The In­trepid Foun­da­tion, which matches all do­na­tions dol­lar for dol­lar.

Clock­wise from left: The au­thor plant­ing a tree in Su Le Pan vil­lage; The vil­lage chil­dren love to dress up for the guests; At the heart of each vil­lage is the farm­ing cul­ture.

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