Reflections from Yangon

Seattle Maryknoll Affiliates Bill and Janie O'Dwyer reflect on their time volunteering in Myanmar (Burma)

We flew to Yangon from Singapore on Oct. 29, 2012. Our visa allowed us to stay in Myanmar (Burma) for 28 days. Brother Lawrence Goh met us and we rode by taxi to the La Salle Brothers House located at the north end of Inya Lake just off Parami Road. We had separate rooms in the Formation House with private bathroom and air conditioning. No hot water. We washed our clothes by hand. Internet access and TV were available in the Brothers House.

The Brothers House provides food and lodging for five La Salle Brothers and about 10 young men who attend La Salle Center. Meals are served at 7am, noon and 7pm. Rice, vegetables and meat (beef, chicken or pork) are available at all meals. We often attended mass at nearby St. Joseph Major Seminary. Evening prayer is at 6:45pm. We had many enjoyable conversations with the brothers and enjoyed their hospitality.

We left the Brothers House at 8am and had a short walk to the main road to get a taxi (cost $2) to La Salle Center for English and Computers.  English classes are on the 6th floor (88 steps and no elevator) with good air conditioning and toilets. About 50 students attend three English classes from 8:30 to 11:30. Another 50 attend from 12:30 to 3:30. Most students are aged 17-25 and about 60% are girls. Many are from remote areas and live in Yangon with others in an apartment or hostel or with family. About 30% are Buddhist and 70% Christian. We ate lunch at the Center with Br. Ling John, Director. We talked to the teachers during breaks between classes.

During each 50-minute class about 5 students were sent to Bill and about 5 to Janie. We spent about 7 minutes with each student listening to their presentation on a particular topic, correcting their pronunciation and asking them questions. During our first week, many of the girls were shy and spoke softly. Once a week several students would come to us at the same time and perform a short play or skit. Students were very respectful to us and the teachers and to fellow students. At the end of our four weeks, the students told us that their time spent talking to us helped improve their confidence in speaking English. We greatly enjoyed our work with the students.

We left the La Salle Centre at 3:30pm and had a short walk to the main road to get a taxi (cost $2) to the Brothers House. Br Ling John or a student negotiated the taxi fare and rode with us. We rested, did some reading or used the computer as it was usually too hot and humid to be outside. Bill did play tennis with Br. Philip and two of the young men a few times on the old tennis court. We had an electrical power outage about once a week, usually for an hour or two.

We got together with Maryknoll Sister Mary Grenough about once a week. Maryknoll Fr. Jim Kolski teaches at La Salle Center on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.

It was hot (90F+) every day with occasional afternoon showers. Motorcycles are not allowed in Yangon which helps reduce noise. Buses are privately owned, cheap and very crowded. We traveled by taxi, often with one of the young men living at the Brothers House, to see Shwedagon Pagoda, the National Museum and some of the colonial buildings (City Hall and Railway Station). One Sunday we went to St. Mary’s Cathedral.

On November 23rd the students had their end-of-term day of celebration and thanksgiving at the Brothers House. It included the Eucharist celebrated by Fr. Jim, musical performances by the students and delicious food prepared by the students. We were honored and thanked by all the students and teachers. On November 24th we flew out of Yangon back to Singapore.