Emma Thompson's Burma / Myanmar Diary: Part seven

Tuesday, April 17, 2012 - 11:36

A pitstop in Mandalay before a bone-crunching ride to the countryside. Emma meets a tiny, frail looking girl but soon finds out she is a woman made of steel.

It’s 4:15 AM and we are off to Mandalay. Mandalay. What a magical word it is. I’m so thrilled I manage to stay awake. We share rolls stolen the night before from the hotel buffet.

Mandalay airport is a gigantic building with no-one in it. It was built by the Chinese government. More violent discussion ensues about who to trade with should the country open up sufficiently.  Shihab is not keen on microfinance, which interests me. He says it just creates another financial underclass. I guess he’s seen it in Bangladesh, up close and personal, so he knows what he’s talking about.

Lovely red-stone temples in the shape of my hat dot the landscape. They’re called ‘stupas’. You can go into any of them and have a nice chat with Buddha.

Almost dead with fatigue, we stop at 10 AM for a cup of good old Myanmar tea to which I’ve become unhealthily attached. It’s time to start work and the HQ for ActionAid is 100 miles from the airport.

We’re visiting one of the 71 villages ActionAid works with in the dry zone – just to get an idea of how they deal with the many hardships and how ActionAid has been helping.

After a pee-stop at the tiny office we proceed by oxcart over tremendously rutted roads. Tindy and I fling ourselves into the back of the cart and it sets off loudly.  I cannot recommend oxcarts over rutted tracks, picturesque though it undoubtedly is. The bone-rattling it causes is enough to waken a corpse. Even here it is known as the Burmese Roller-Coaster. Tindy yelps with pain. “Are you alright?” I shriek. “Yes!” he shouts, "but I think I have just lost a testicle."

When we arrive at the village, which is called Sue Yit Tan, we are greeted with much enthusiasm, especially Tindy who continues to cause huge reactions of delight wherever he goes. Garlands of jasmine are placed about our necks and we are smeared with protective Tanaka tree balm, the pale paste we’ve seen everyone wearing.

I am awash with sweat and cannot wear my contacts owing to the continuing jet-lag.

I met a 69 year old in Naypu, who has never left the village, and his wife DawThein. They are both enthusiastic about the work the fellows are doing – DawThein says that in her day there was simply no room for development at all, women were completely ignored and just survived as best they could in the tiny spaces they were allowed.

Someone hands me a green tea in a half-pint mug. How did that get here?

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DawThein smokes a large leaf cigar contemplatively.

A woman of 25 called Thin Thin Tin explains how fellowship works: “ActionAid were introduced to this village by three field assistants. The Elders got together and were asked to choose someone to become their village fellow. They chose a boy but he wasn’t interested and my Dad was the village head and asked if I was interested and I was. I was surprised he asked, because I had to fight for my education. My parents wouldn’t send me, I used to just walk eight miles and make them teach me.”

Explaining herself in front of the two elder people is clearly not easy, so when I take her aside with Ni Ni, she finds it possible to enlarge on her life. She tells us that having got to school, the teachers would often beat her for being late. “I challenged them,” she says.  “Finally, the headmaster agreed to stop beating students for lateness.”

I asked her why her parents didn’t want her to go to school.

It’s because there’s no money for transport and they worried about my security. But I said, look it’s my mind and it’s my body. I will learn how to protect myself.

This tiny, frail-looking creature must be made of steel. “Being courageous taught me to be courageous," she says.

Carry on reading Emma Thompson's diary