There are strangers in her kitchen, and three-year-old Meita doesn’t welcome the intrusion. Eating a bowl of rice with her mother and six sisters in their rustic, basic kitchen, Meita’s round cheeks are painted with thanakha, a pale yellow paste traditionally worn by women and girls in Myanmar. Her eyes are wide, wary of our presence, because foreigners are rare in the remote wilderness of the Chin State,* which is a gruelling 135 km-drive from the nearest major city.
Meita’s home is simple. The only furniture is the low table at which they are eating their breakfast and some tiny timber platforms they use as stools. There’s a small room for sleeping and an unfinished upper level that doesn’t yet have floorboards.
Meita is too young to understand why we’re here or to relish growing up in the freedom that’s now possible in a more democratic Myanmar after decades of isolation and repression. She also doesn’t understand that, like 70 per cent of the half a million people of Chin State, she and her family are living below the poverty line.
A lack of income-earning opportunities has led to one in three residents moving away to find work. The narrow road to her village was etched into the side of the mountains by the villagers through a food-for-work program funded by the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) and the World Food Program (WFP). We’re here to interview Meita’s father, Re Bik Thang, who’s a participant in ADRA’s Poverty Reduction Initiative and Community Empowerment (PRICE) project.
He’s a farmer, and he works with his wife to clear and cultivate the communal land, growing maize, legumes and elephant foot yam, which is a valuable export crop. They also grow rice on terraced land along the riverbanks and raise a hardy mountain mithun cow in the surrounding forest.
Last year, Tropical Cyclone Komen ravaged the region, causing widespread flooding and landslides. Tonnes of rock and sand washed down the valley, burying up to 80 per cent of the terraced land in some places.
“Since the floods and heavy rains, we have no more place to plant rice paddies,” Bik Thang laments. “It’s really difficult for our family to survive, because there’s no terrace anymore. We tried to clear the sand, but it was too hard.
“Our lack of money means we haven’t been able to finish building this house,” his wife adds. “Sometimes I feel angry at my husband for not being able to provide adequately for our family.”
This poverty has many dimensions, including poor education, lack of family planning, insufficient nutrition, inadequate housing, unsustainable agricultural approaches—each compounded by the devastation of the natural disaster.
Without a strong local economy, when they grow older, little Meita and her sisters may have to move away to find work in distant cities or even move overseas to get low-paid work as factory workers, labourers or housekeepers.
To combat this problem, ADRA’s PRICE project is working with villagers to improve living standards for people like Meita and her family, helping them to support themselves without having to move away. Following extensive community consultation, a project was designed that focused on agricultural development, natural resource management and village infrastructure development.
Local community mobilisers form self-help groups (SHGs) to organise training and establish savings and loans groups to improve cash circulation in the local economy.
Everything about the PRICE project is geared toward benefiting the community in the long term. The cows are farmed communally, and the land they cultivate is communally owned. The loan scheme works to sustainably build the community’s resources over the long term. Borrowers have to pay back their loans with interest, which creates a bigger pool of funds to lend for the next round, thus increasing the project’s impact. The amount keeps growing over time to the longer term benefit of the whole community.
As Bik Thang shared his story with me, I was amazed by the generosity of the people in his village. He told me that others in the community have been helping him to build his house. Despite having very little and living in adversity, the people in Bik Thang’s village still give generously.
As I think about little Meita, I’m filled with hope that she will have a better future than her parents. And I imagine her 30 years down the road, telling her children about the importance of being generous.
* Chin State is in northwestern Myanmar. It borders India. The mountainous state occupies territory about the size of Switzerland. It’s a predominantly Christian state, is home to around half a million people and is one of the most isolated, under-developed and poverty-stricken states in Myanmar.
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