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Safer schools for Myanmar's children after cyclone Nargis

May 05, 2011

Plan Asia, an organisation for child rights, is building schools in Laputta township of Myanmar which was devastated by cyclone Nargis in 2008. Disaster drills are conducted in these new schools strong enough to survive any new catastrophe.

children-myanmar-schools.jpgLaputta, Myanmar: It was an unusually quiet night in Laputta. Devastated by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, the dimly lit town watched the news of Japan’s recent quake and tsunami with compassion and an eerie anxiety. The powerful waters of the Laputta River were only 100 metres away. “The tides will be really bad tomorrow evening. We have to return early before it gets too dangerous,” Zin Moe, my Burmese colleague, said with a worried look on her face.

In the following days, the news coverage of the Japanese tsunami shifted from the devastation to the resilience of the survivors. And the world responded quickly with empathy and a lot of money.

Japan is one of the richest countries in the world; Myanmar one of the poorest. Is it sensible to think that those living in flimsy huts in villages accessible only by boat could afford to be as resilient? Those who earn less than $1 a day and die of preventable diseases like diarrhoea? Can they too face a disaster as devastating as Nargis with grace and strength?

Missing pupils

Earlier that week, Daw Phyu Phyu Thi, a teacher at one of the schools supported by Plan International, poignantly captured the extent of Nargis’ destruction when she said, “There were 130 students at this school. On the first day back after Nargis, I rang the bell and only 30 turned up.” She bit her lip, trying to hold back her tears.

"After Nargis, the children’s faces all changed with this lingering look of sadness…but they are getting better as time goes by," said the teacher, who had also been coping with her mother’s death.

But what does getting better mean? Is it really possible to “live in the present”? Does moving on mean living happily ever after without the memory of those we have lost, as if they had never existed?

Mulling these questions on the boat on my last day in Laputta, I thought back to 5-year-old Wah Wah. She recalls a few things about her parents. "I remember their names, my father feeding me and the family eating together… I also remember that they are dead," she said.

Many children lost someone – or everyone – they have loved. A lot of them still wake up in the middle of the night crying for their parents.

They told me it’s particularly hard when there are grey clouds in the sky, because it reminds them of the last day they were together as a family. Some children say there’s nothing they want more than to say 'Ah may' (mother) and 'Ah phay' (father) again.

Ten-year-old Zin Mar Htet told me if she could say anything to her dead parents, she’d tell them she would take care of them when they are old.

Stronger buildings

Three years after Nargis ripped the Irrawaddy delta and countless families apart, it seems to me that those who survived have accepted that the pain will probably always be there. They live alongside their sadness and try to make themselves useful.

In fact, making themselves useful is how many have been coping with their loss.

Distressed as they are, the children have also been busy with learning, living and laughing at school. A lot of them dream about becoming engineers, because they want to build strong buildings like their new, bright green schools where people can take refuge if another cyclone hits. “I’m not scared when I’m at school. The strong building makes me feel safe,” said Wah Wah.

Before Nargis, monasteries were the only buildings robust enough to offer any hope of survival. Now, with Plan’s support, there will be 51 new schools - more strong buildings that will save more lives.

During the construction, hundreds of people came to help. I saw 13-year-old Hlaing Hlaing Maw crary buckets of heavy concrete in the sweltering sun. She said she was doing it because she wanted a new school. Adults came because they, too, wanted to fill their minds with hope. The buildings have become the manifestation of the communal strength and drive to live.

Disaster drills

“Earthquake! Earthquake!” teacher Daw Phyu Phyu Thi shouted while banging the table repeatedly in a disaster preparedness training session run by Plan’s local partner organisation.

Her sprightly class of 30 got under the tables in a few seconds, giggling. Like them, communities have been learning how to protect themselves from natural disasters. They now know there are ways to limit the extent of death from a disaster like Nargis.

Like Zin Moe predicted, the tides were strong on my last evening in Laputta.

Seeing me get off the boat, 12-year-old Aye Min Soe, who had been swimming, hurried out of the river and ran to me. “I’ve got a show for you!” he said excitedly, and started contorting himself into an acrobatic position - bent over backwards, feet on his head. "This pose is called finding lice with your feet," he said, managing a cheeky smile to the cheering crowd.

Aye Min Soe lost his parents to Nargis. He keeps moving around, staying with different people near the market, working in exchange for some food. He doesn't have any relatives - or anyone else to look after him. And yet he keeps on entertaining his fans.

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