At the monastic school where I trained my eleven delightful ladies, there are over 800 children. The monastery must rely on donations in order to keep paying teachers and feeding the children.
As I mentioned, a small building with 100 poor children has evolved into a 900 strong person community with secure buildings from international donors. On many of the mornings that I arrived to teach, there was a donor visit happening.
One memorable morning was when the great assembly hall had been pilled high with rice, oil, onions and garlic before filling up with around 50 guests dressed in matching yellow outfits. This was a division of the government, my teachers informed me. They come every six months and bring food enough to feed the 800 children two meals for a month. I was just overwhelmed at the vast quantities of food stockpiled in the building, but I know that I cannot fully appreciate the efforts taken to feed 800 mouths!
Another day, I was invited to accompany one donor for his annual birthday visit. This trip included his son and daughter, both of whom run their own successful businesses in Yangon. This donor has been friends with the head monk since the beginning of this venture, and has watched as the small endeavor has transformed into a much larger scale operation. We watched the children eat a meal of rice and vegetables, which was accompanied by meat thanks to the generosity of the donor. The dining room is large enough to fit 200 children at one time, siting 50 to each side at long narrow tables.
Grades 1-2 are fed first, with the older children helping the teachers to serve and clean up afterwards. It is orderly and well run. Homage is paid before the food is consumed. I think the homage is to Buddha, to give thanks for the food, but it could be aimed at the head monk or the donor as well. Vast quantities of rice are consumed by the children alongside their meat, which many save for the end of the meal.
Whilst the children are busy eating, various dessert vendors set up in the grounds of the monastery. The grounds are fairly small, but have a swing set and a slide for the children to play on during breaks. The sounds of children playing seem to transcend the language barrier and these children sounds the same as many others I have heard around the world. The children formed a somewhat orderly queue to be given ice-cream and fruit. It was on a first-come, first- served basis and the ex-army librarian monk was patrolling the line, making sure that nobody was mortally injured or unjustly pushed out the running for tasty ice-cream.
After watching a little of the commotion, I moved back inside the big hall where a team of donor employees were creating goody bags of candy and cookies for each child. I joined in the very efficient production line at the end bag-tying stage, before jumping behind a wooden table set-up to hand out said bags to a line of children entering through one door and exiting through another. It was all in all a very neat procedure which took a total of 45 minutes from the first to the last child.
Another time was after my final day of teaching, and it was great to have the opportunity to re-visit. I must admit that I think I may have accidentally invited myself along, but no one seemed to mind! It was organized by the daughter of the meat-giving donor and her business. A group of around a dozen or so local mothers and their children came to the monastery to meet representatives from a charity that are working on producing a nutrient rich rice that still looks and tastes like everyday white rice. I showed the visitors around the monastery, putting my knowledge of the place to good use as I pointed out the dinning room, computer room and library. I also introduced my teachers to the guests, and proudly watched as they held brief conversations with the Americans!
I think that in some ways the visits from donors must feel like a slight intrusion, as the children are disturbed from classes and the teachers are occupied with ensuring that the donor guests are happy and well cared for. Overall, both parties do benefit, and the slight deviation from classes can probably be overlooked in favor of the food and clothing that the students receive on such occasions.
NEH Coordinator and Teacher Trainer
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