A month at the Phaung Daw Oo School
I’m at the Phaung Daw Oo school (Pound door oo), run by a larger than life Principal Sayadaw U Nayaka, a sprightly 75-year-old orange robed monk with contagious smile. He started the school 25 years ago with 10 teachers and 400 students under the trees, as he had nowhere else. His goal was and is to provide education to poor and underprivileged students, who for various reasons are unable to attend state schools. In 2016/17 they educated 8502 students and have 9865 enrolled for the next. In addition, they train several hundred teachers each year to work in the monastic system. The existing school complex is literally bursting at the seams.
The plan is to build a new campus on a 180 hectares of donated land NW of the city in the foothills of the Taung Kyun Forest. Like all great projects it has a deadline, next May they plan to host the 2018 Monastic Schools yearly convention, 2000 delegates from all over Myanmar will descend on the campus. They will need to be housed, feed and have somewhere meet. Today there is one bamboo building, no electricity and a no permanent road to the site. It's an ambitious plan by any stretch of the imagination. Initially I didn’t believe it was achievable but I then learnt that the new capital, Naypyidaw, was constructed in 5 years; from green fields to a metropolis of nearly a million people. They build quickly here!
U Nayaka is one of life’s eternal optimists – somehow what he needs generally shows up. To some extent that’s me. Two months ago my only knowledge of Myanmar was that my grandfather had served here in the Second World War. I'm now writing about being here!
The challenges working here are numerous, basic services that I take for granted don’t exist, there’s no copier for instance. The only printer is a small black and white inkjet, but printer quality paper is so expensive it's not used much. I come from a world were copying, colour prints and paper are used as if they are limitless.
We had little base information, there is no topographical survey, the school has no budget to get a survey. I am learning to be far more ingenious. We are using google earth photos and a site visit as the basis for the design. By necessity the plan will be more a concept than a typical final master plan. There will be lots of adaptation by the site team as they implement it, but that how it works here.
It's a huge learning experience, being submerged not only in a different culture but one with very different tolerance levels to many of my values. And it's thought provoking to see how people live and work with so much less. But they still move forward and the're smiling.