As Marjo and I were walking down the Shwe Oo Min Road a few weeks ago, I found myself wondering just how many times we had gone down this same street in the last decade, on our way to offer dana somewhere. We’ve spent ten years-plus walking or riding up and down this road [above, Ariya on her way to a donation 2011-12] — noticing changes, certainly, but perhaps still not completely absorbing the enormity of the transformation that is happening around us. But scrolling through our photo archives the other day, I was struck by the drama of some of the side-by side comparisons — parts of the neighborhood are hardly recognizable as compared to what they were a decade ago, even though we still perceive it as ‘the same neighborhood. Little by little (but inexorably) the village is becoming a city.
Nowhere is this change as dramatic as the lane giving access to Mingaladon Nunnery. I will never forget the first time I went there right after Cyclone Nargis in 2008. There was a stream to cross to get to the little dirt path that led to her nunnery, and the bridge had been destroyed. So to get there, I had to inch my way over a rickety span only as wide as a couple pieces of bamboo. When I asked what they needed, the only thing Sayalay Daw Obhasi mentioned was a new bridge — she shyly told me that the pieces of bamboo were “a little difficult.” (“Yeah, no kidding, difficult. Just a little,” I thought, half way across on the way back home.) So we offered dana for a nice new wooden footbridge, which lasted several years — until 2012, when it was replaced by a big a concrete one.
Then serious change began, as you can see from the following slideshow of photos taken from about the same place. In the last photo, the stream flows from right to left, behind the chain link fence, under the concrete road and the pile of sand.
First someone offered a big Christian school. Then the little farm disappeared, along with its chickens and the gigantic hogs (and sometimes piglets) lounging in their little hut next to the path. Now in its place is a huge vocational training centre with several huge multi-story buildings and a concrete yard. And farther down the wide concrete road, there is now a big water bottling factory clattering away next to the Mingalagonwei Nunnery. The patchwork of fields that was here, with their lettuces, peppers, and jasmine plants is long gone, replaced by apartments, houses, and rental shanties.
The vocational centre has spawned its own mini-boom. Outside the main gate onto Shwe Oo Min Road, now there’s a string of small shops facing U Tejaniya’s meditation cente, and men lounge on their motorcycles taxis, chewing betel nut and waiting for a fare. The road to Mingaladon Nunnery is busy with the buzz and beep of motorcycle traffic, the quiet lane a distant memory.
On the other side of the neighborhood, the long “Dusty Road” we used to enjoy complaining about got paved, too. And the same story repeated itself there, though the changes are a less dramatic. Each time I go by, I treasure the sight of one of the few lettuce fields that remains, knowing it won’t last much longer before being submerged under the tide of buildings and human activity.
It’s easy for us to get wistful, remembering the ‘good old days.’ But people have to live somewhere, and there will always be other people who scramble to make money on that. And livelihoods are important, as are safe roads. Commerce and transportation have always followed population — and so the city expands. This is the way it is: time only goes forward, and more urbanization here is inevitable.
Though we are pragmatic and know that, we also do not forget that urbanization can be stressful for the very people creating it, in ways that are hard to see. Outer, visible changes to a neighborhood are one thing. But the pain felt in being carried along by this wave of growth is much harder to discern. For the fortunate few there are opportunity, and wealth. But for most here, life is a story of a series of small accommodations: little by little adjusting to steadily higher costs and deteriorating living conditions as the neighborhood gets progressively dirtier, more crowded, and less safe.
People’s lives here are changing day to day, in ways that we as outsiders can’t possibly know. Each person we meet inhabits a single pixel of the big picture — the picture of what those small accommodations are, and what the cumulative burden of them is. Taken together, the many stories we hear give us a sense of the whole — and they are not always easy to witness.
Again and again we hear stories of desperation, limited opportunities, and the economic confusion or victimization that come from not knowing how to navigate in the scramble of a newly opened and competitive economy. many of these stories point to a widespread social dislocation that has come with new values, new technology, and eroding safety nets of family and community. And the momentum of this suffering is only increasing.
We can’t stop that. But we can buffer the impact of these changes a little by supporting education — especially for girls. So we are dedicated to that; it is a big part of what we do. Each of the nunnery schools we support was founded as a direct response to steadily growing need in the neighborhood to access to basic education. There were no free monastic schools around here when we started offering donations to nuns in 2008. Now there are four within an hour’s walking distance of each other, altogether educating thousands of kids.
Education at monastic schools is genuinely free — unlike the ‘fake free’ of government schools, where families have to pay for uniforms, books, supplies, teacher’s ‘presents,’ electricity, etcetera. All those little requests amount to a lot, more than many people can afford. But fortunately, education at monastic schools is a viable alternative here, and a good education. These schools give the kids a firm foundation for the lives they will be leading — whatever those are — at no cost to the family.
Metta In Action donations played a large part in the founding of each of these four neighborhood schools, and each year we contribute vital operating funds to keep them going – as well as supporting four other monastic schools farther away. So while we can’t stop growth and change, nor the challenges of them, at least we know that these kids will have the essential tools to face what that change brings.
And who knows what gifts they will bring to the world!