DELTA Foundation Update

Here is an update of the work of the DELTA Foundation by Pete Berechee …

Here is an update of the work of the DELTA Foundation by Pete Berechee
DELTA Foundation & REAL library update, October 2013

Ayeyarwaddy Drifting
Travelling up the riverine waterways to Nwe Ni Khines home, I was entranced as the boat drifted by a lush & verdant landscape, bathing buffaloes and dabbling ducks, herons skimming and dragonflies darting, floating masses of water hyacinth and sacred lotus, in dazzling displays of violet and pink. Amidst this idyllic natural world, were the river dwellers, going about their daily lives, caulking their boats with mud, harvesting lotus stalks, and scratching at the muddy banks for tiny shrimps. Kids in their ubiquitous green and white uniforms and faces splashed by tanakha, paddled their way to school, women in broad-brimmed palm-leaf hats selling vegetables door-to-door from their boats, and fishermen dragging and casting nets across the languid, muddy waters. The soft morning light gave these scenes an ethereal quality, but this not a paradise. Its a hard life here and the communities along the river are striving to maintain their livelihoods, feed their families, as well as make enough money to educate their children.

Nwe Ni Khine the REAL library project
Last year, as part of the DELTA Foundation, I initiated the REAL Library programme, or Rural Education & Active Learning libraries in the Ayeyarwaddy delta. I started a small pilot project in two villages outside Pyapon. With the kind assistance of British Council library staff, particularly the head librarian, Ma Nilar Tin, we were able to provide basic library training to two young inspiring disabled women, Pann Ei and Nwe Ni Khine. They were taught how to manage library systems and maintain a careful tally of borrowed and returned books, labelling and documenting their stock. To start the funding drive, I donated about 100 books to the free-lending libraries in their remote communities.

In late February this year, with support from ActionAid Myanmar, I made a trip out to the two village libraries run by two disabled girls, Pann Ei and Nwe Ni Khine. In these remote villages, Ah Phaung and Bant Bway Su, I found that the libraries were well-managed by the young librarians and their communities had enthusiastically utilized this learning resource bank. No books were missing and meticulous records were kept, which is testament to the library management skills taught by Ma Nilar. Apart from an initial outlay of $150 from the DELTA funds, all books, new and secondhand, have been donated by my Myanmar students, friends and colleagues. This project would not have succeeded without their wonderful generosity. It also helped dispel an urban myth, questioning the value of disseminating the printed word in rural areas. When I started this small project, some Yangon residents said that the people in the countryside werent interested in books or reading, but the success of these small libraries shows the exact opposite, and how much books are cherished throughout this country. It was the lack of opportunities to read and the scarcity and cost of books rather than a lack of interest in reading. The libraries now stock over 150 titles each, plus journals, although we need more to add to the collections (see below for contact information on donations).

On this latest trip to Bant Bway Su (Sept. 2013, again with logistical support from ActionAid), we arrived to find Nwe Ni Khine getting ready for school. She had that same wonderful radiant smile of hers as we entered the shop/library. Books were neatly stacked on shelves and journals were placed in plastic bins (to stop mildew in the wet season). The library records showed that the library was being well-used by the community with regular borrowings. Teachers from the nearby school were consistent users of the library resource and the new principal, seeing its success among the community, is now advocating a similar free-lending library to be based at the school.

From our conversation with the family, we caught up on the latest village news and gossip since our last visit. Earlier in the year, Nwe Ni Khines father lost a large portion of his flock of ducks to local thieves (which were later returned, at a cost to the family; i.e. ducks not thieves!) Then, in the wet season, her mother was bitten by a venomous snake and almost lost her life. Life can be tenuous and unpredictable in these far-flung communities and its a daily struggle for people of the delta to survive on meagre livelihoods, which fluctuate with the climate, nature and the vast unknown. These families live from day to day and are prone to the vagaries of their environment, both the human and the natural.

The shop, which was built with DELTA funds, had been making a small monthly profit in the first six months but that has since declined due to the monsoon period. In the wet season, many of the villagers, including Nwe Ni Khines father, leave the delta for seasonal labour elsewhere. People following this temporary climatic diaspora, leave the family for long periods, so there is not much spare cash at home to spend on things other than basic supplies. As their cash supply is meagre, the family dont accept credit, other than one initial borrowing. This means that most villagers on frugal budgets cant afford to spend scarce cash, and so will paddle downstream to a larger shop which will accept credit until the beginning of the dry season when more available cash comes into households. This has threatened the success of Nwe Ni Khines shop, but the family are optimistic that once the dry season arrives, theyll be able to re-stock and start running a profit again. In the following wet season they will begin to accept credit from reliable customers. Nwe Ni Khines father took an advance payment from his seasonal job to pay off a 10% loan (70,000 kyat, about US$80) from the DELTA Foundation. There is one more payment to be paid in December, and then on Jan 1, 2014, Nwe Ni Khine will become the proprietor of the shop and be able to pursue her own independent livelihood.

When we were last here, the construction of a new school building was in progress, just a short paddle downriver from Nwe Ni Khines house. Funded by SDC, a Swiss NGO, it will house new classrooms and a staffroom, but will also function as a cyclone defence shelter. Called storm/school shelters, this practice of combining the construction of new schools with disaster shelters has become common since the delta was hit by the destructive Nargis cyclone of May 2008. Unfortunately, we had arrived just one day after the grand opening ceremony of the new school, and missed all the festive celebrations.
Check this link below;

The new school/shelter building, Sept 2013 Nwe Ni Khine in Grade 2 in the old school building

Nwe Ni Khine has successfully passed Grade 2 and will attempt to combine 2 grades (3&4) in this current academic year. Her teacher said she was an enthusiastic and diligent scholar and was cnfident that she could reach her full potential. Nwe Ni Khine really likes her teachers and she says that they are very supportive and kind to her. Watch Nwe Ni Khine talk about her life & education in the short film, A Simple Wish, directed by my friend & film-maker, Thet Oo Maung. See below for the link;

Nwe Ni Khine at the library entrance. Villagers reading in the community library, Bant Bway Su.

Unfortunately, because of time constraints, I couldnt visit Pann Eis library on this trip. That will have to wait for my return to the delta in December this year. I hope to spend at least a week in the delta on this occasion and conduct a library exchange, transferring all the books, journals and records from one library to the other. As each library has its own individual collection, this will bring new reading material into both communities and enrich their lives with more knowledge and entertainment.

However, I would like to gain some more publicity to encourage people in Yangon to donate more books and/or funds to replenish the rural libraries. So, if you live in Yangon and have any books or journals in the Burmese language (new or secondhand) that you would like to donate, please contact Ma Nilar at the British Council library before December 15. Otherwise, they can be left at the ActionAid Myanmar office, No.1 Wingabar Rd. Bahan Township. Thank you in advance for your kind generosity.

Image credit@wikipedia