Saturday 4th September 2010
The official opening ceremony of the new school building at Htee Pu had been arranged to co-incide with the afternoon trip from the ship to Mount Popa.
I'd first visited Htee Pu last year when we diverted into the village on the way back from Mount Popa. My report on the trip to Mount Popa is here, my report on our visit to Htee Pu village is here. The Doctor had introduced me to the Head Monk and the Headmaster of the school and I'd decided then that the project to extend teaching to older pupils was well worthwhile supporting. This was my opportunity to see for myself what had been achieved.
We left the ship in a number of buses headed for Mount Popa. My bus, and I think one other, was to detour to Htee Pu for the ceremony before continuing to Mount Popa. Htee Pu is about ten minutes drive from the tarmac road along a rutted track of beaten earth. The bus driver made a good job of negotiating this track and delivering us safely to the school compound.
The new building is the fourth donated by 'Road to Mandalay' guests and it stands at right angles to the other three, slightly apart. A bamboo archway had been erected on the broad path leading to the new building. The archway had been decorating and a large banner across the arch read 'Welcome to Road to Mandalay Family'. The broad path had been trimmed with short whitewashed posts and the overall effect was very impressive. The galvanised corrugated sheet roof of the new building gleamed in the afternoon sun but, before we took a closer look, there was to be a performance for the visitors next to the earlier third building.
The verandah at the end of the third building formed a convenient raised stage so bamboo had been used to form a temporary structure extending outwards for the audience. The roof of this structure had been covered with sheets of thin material to keep the sun off the visitors and the vertical poles had been swathed in material to give a very gay effect.
About thirty plastic chairs had been provided for the visitors and, once we had taken our seats, a group of the youngest pupils walked onto the stage and recited a poem with great earnestness. Next, four older girls performed two dances. Finally, a choir of girls sang for us.
It was clear that a lot of preparation had gone into this performance and teachers could be seen in the 'wings' checking the performers prior to their appearance. Standard school uniform is a green longyi with a white top and all the performers were impressively turned out. I was a little surprised to see that some of the older girls were wearing lipstick on stage. I was not the only visitor to be very moved by this concert.
Now, it was time for the simple opening ceremony, so we moved through the archway and down the broad path to the new building. There were already lots of pupils watching from the shade of the verandah on the new building and a large party of villagers, who had been watching the concert from a distance, now moved towards the new building to observe the formalities. Two pairs of the senior girls were holding tapes across the path. A cluster of gas-filled balloons had been tied in the centre of each tape. An American donor of medical aid and myself were nominated to cut the tapes and two pairs of kitchen scissors were presented on round trays. We simultaneously cut the first tape on either side of the balloons. The balloons slowly rose into the sky. We then repeated the performance on the second tape and that was it!
I was then presented with a commemorative banner for the event. After various photographs were taken, we decided that the banner should be retained by the school for display. A rather emotional Jan, after being presented with the commemorative banner
Just one more task remained - the presentation of stationery to pupils. Quite small donations by passengers on 'Road to Mandalay' can make a massive difference to large numbers of pupils.
It was now time for the coaches to leave for Mount Popa and my intention had been to continue to Mount Popa - it's such an improbable and special place. However, when the Doctor offered to take me back to the ship with him, I accepted the offer. I'd picked up an infection on this trip which left me rather tired and the opening ceremony had left me emotionally drained. The bonus was that, instead of hurrying away, I was able to study the construction of the newest building in detail and talk to pupils, teachers and villagers. I say "talk" but that was mainly through the good offices of the Doctor or San as interpreter or non-verbal communication. However, when we talked to the 20 senior pupils who formed the first intake to the new building, their English was good. English is the most common second language taught in Myanmar.
In fact, the nationally-issued textbooks for all but two subjects taken by the seniors are in English. I particularly checked the textbooks on Maths and Physics and confirmed that there was no sign of "dumbing-down" here. The syllabus covered solid knowledge which an English-speaker would find difficult - it must be particularly challenging when English is your second language.
In the country districts, the nearest high schools may be miles away from the family home, denying extended education to poorer children. Even at Htee Pu, it's been necessary to provide simple boarding facilities for the new senior pupils. All this has been organised by the head monk, using an older wooden building as a dormitory and temporary schoolroom. Electricity has been provided from a petrol generator to cover the long study periods the pupils are faced with - the one senior pupil timetable I looked at covered a 12-hour day whilst another ran from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m.!
The philosophy of "All must have Prizes" which has infected our education system is quite absent in Myanmar. The results of the tests which the senior students have undertaken are on display with unsatisfactory results highlighted in red for all to see.
It's impossible not to admire the dedication and determination of the Burmese people. Chatting to these hard-working youngsters convinced me (once again) of the importance of the charitable work being carried out by 'Road to Mandalay'. From a Western perspective, it's hard to realise that relatively small sums of money can affect the lives of many people for the better.