Schooling in the Chin villages

The mind once enlightened cannot again become dark.

Thomas Paine

img_2966 I’ve visited quite a few schools in Asia and they consistently take my breath away. I am always astounded at conditions in rural Asia and that anyone learns to read and write at all. But they do. According to UNESCO, the Youth Literacy rate in Myanmar is 96 percent. Youth Literacy is defined as young people between the ages of 15 to 24 who can read, write and understand a simple statement about everyday life.


img_9845How teachers teach and children manage to learn in some of the poorer schools is astonishing.


img_2976The schools in the Chin villages were amongst the poorest I’ve seen and quite a shock after the International schools in Asia where I consulted every winter for twelve years. International schools were originally set up to educate the children of ambassadors and executives of large companies who were working overseas and would eventually return to their country of origin. There is a network of these schools all over the world and nowadays they serve not only the children of traditional expatriates but also the children of the wealthy in the host country. The facilities themselves are stunning and the resources available to teachers and students simply amazing.


img_2949In the first Chin village we visited, the school for the teenagers (I am loathe to say high school) was a hut in the centre of the village. It was easy to identify by the number of flip-flops lying outside – and by the noise.


img_2948The hut was alive with the buzzing of teenagers. Algebraic equations were on the chalkboard but Algebra was clearly the last thing on their minds. There seemed to be no adult in charge: whoever had demonstrated the equations was no longer around.


img_9847The students were sitting or kneeling in Myanmar-style on the floor, in front of desks that were very low to the floor. Most students seemed to have paper and pencils but no other resources, except the chalkboard with the mysterious equations, were evident.


img_2963The school for younger students was at the end of the first Chin village. It was a substantial building but I felt sorry for the young female teacher trying to instruct children who seemed more interested in fixing their hair than in learning.


Collaboration - Myanmar-style

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The children were a cheery bunch – but a handful for one young teacher to work with. There was only paper and pencil as resources for learning and none of the visual aids – computers, smart boards, TVs or the rest of the paraphernalia – that western teachers have access to.


img_9870In the second Chin village, the senior school seemed more orderly with a teacher writing the exquisite Burmese script on the chalkboard. He also went round and sat with small groups of students while they worked.


img_9874The Burmese or Myanmar script was developed from a southern Indian script in the eight century. Originally the script was square-shaped but rounded letters developed in the seventeenth century as a result of using palm leaves to write on: straight lines would have torn the leaves. It is a syllabic alphabet, which means each letter has an inherent vowel.


(I previously came across a syllabic alphabet when I was teaching in the Eastern Arctic forty odd years ago.   Inuktitut, the language of the Canadian Inuit or Eskimos as they used to be called, is written using syllabics).


screen-shot-2016-07-31-at-5-20-00-pmThe Burmese alphabet consists of 33 letters and twelve vowels. It is written left to right and no spaces are required between words. It is a tonal language and diacritical marks are used in the written language.

The translation is as follows:


This is what it sounds like.


And here is a short video that demonstrates the shapes of the letters with their sounds.


One advantage of a syllabic alphabet is that if you know the language and learn the orthography, you can write anything you can say. This is definitely not the case with English and its haphazard (almost) spelling.


I enjoyed my visit to the Chin ladies but left thinking that if Education is the route to a more prosperous life, as we are so often told, what will become of the younger generation. School seemed so inconsequential to many of them. Most seemed destined to be chained to life in their village with its round of chores to support a subsistence level of living.


img_9867And so I found yet another reason to be glad I was educated in Britain on the heels of the 1944 Education Act, which ensured that all children, irrespective of social or financial background, got a fair shake at an education.


Chin ladies with tattoos – Lines before their time

My body is my journal, and my tattoos are my story.

Johnny Depp

Chin lady with tattoos
Chin lady with tattoos

The trip on the Lemro River was interesting  but it did feel good to get out and stretch my legs. The path to the village where the ladies with the tattoos lived was flooded with bright mid-day light and soon I was wishing I was back on my plastic chair in the boat. The trees at the end of the path gave welcome shade.


Path to the village
Path to the village

From the river, the village looked deserted but, as in most of Asia in the middle of the day, the villagers were sequestered in any shady spot. Even the children were staying out of the noontime sun.

Walking into the villages is like stepping back in time. There was no evidence of any of the conveniences of the modern world that we take for granted.



Village house
Village house on stilts

The houses, on stilts so air can circulate below and also provide shade, were all made by hand and of local material. They seemed to be made of mats woven from palm leaves. Much of life is lived out-of-doors, usually under the house for that’s where it is cooler.


Weaving on a waist loom
Weaving on a waist loom

Some kind of Chin telegraph had announced our arrival for the ladies were busy at their looms or displaying their wares. The traditional craft of weaving has endured and there were lots of pieces on sale.


Weaving on a loom
Weaving on a loom

I had been a bit nervous thinking about taking photos of their tattooed faces and desperately wanted some close-up shots. The light in Asia is nearly always a problem, especially at high noon. It is an additional problem when the contrast between the light areas and the dark are intense. Most cameras, even very good digital cameras, have a problem when the dynamic range is too large: bright highlights are easily blown with washed out colours and details are lost in the dark areas.


Portrait of a Chin lady

Portrait of a Chin lady
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But I need not have worried: the ladies were gracious. They were quite happy to pose and, as I got more confident, I asked them to move into better light and so there would be a better background. One even closed her eyes and motioned me to take a photo of the design on her eyelids. She was so sweet that I did as she asked but with an internal shudder. All I could think about was how painful that must have been.


Eyelid tattoos
Eyelid tattoos

Girls were tattooed at about the age of nine. Whether this was a puberty rite or a cosmetic treatment, I don’t know. It was done with sharp thorns from a plant and the ink was a mixture often involving soot. A woman in the child’s family, often the grandmother, did the tattooing.


I thought the women all looked extremely handsome and that the tattoos (lines before their time) hid the inevitable ravages of Old Father Time. Showing their tattoos, along with selling their weaving, has become an income generator for them.


Myanmar style sun screen - thank
Myanmar style sun screen – thanaka

The Burmese government outlawed tattooing in 1960 so nowadays young girls content themselves with applying circular patterns with thanaka.   Thanaka, made from the bark of a tree, is a much less painful option. The bark is powdered and made into a paste, which is yellow. Women, men and children use it as a sunscreen.

Boy with thanaka sun screen

You will see more children in the next post as I write about schools in the Chin villages.