He shared that his greatest dream in life is “to make the world peaceful. I want everyone in the world to enjoy fully their human rights.” Sadly, the political crisis in Myanmar is delaying the dreams of many young people including Saya Zenry’s.
Reflection on Teaching
By Fr. Kurt Zion Pala
Columban Fr. Kurt Zion Pala lives and works in Myanmar
When I first arrived in Myanmar (formerly called Burma), I had to learn the Burmese language for almost a year. I attended daily classes with local teachers, including one named Saya Zenry. A graduate of the Teacher’s College, he spends the holidays teaching Burmese to foreigners so he can earn extra money before heading to the village to teach. He is one of the few male teachers in the country, despite the low salary and the demanding work.
After almost a year of learning Burmese, I had to move to the north with the Kachin people. This meant learning another language. Despite this, I never lost touch with my Burmese teachers. In November 2019, I decided to pay Saya Zenry a visit. This turned out to be an adventure I will never forget.
Columban Fr. Kurt Zion Pala with students and teachers
Traveling by bus is a common way for the locals to move around the country. I took the bus from Myitkyina to Yangon, transferring upon arrival to find my way to Pathein. Despite my limited Burmese, I was still able to communicate and find my way. Eventually, I arrived at a small sleepy town by the river.
Near the market is a small dock where boats pick up and transport passengers and cargo. Through one of these boats is how I ended up at another dock.. Once the motorbikes were unloaded from the boats, we traversed a narrow road between rice fields. On the way, we heard joyous sounds of merrymaking people there is apparently a big feast in the village monastery. People were making their offerings and dancing in the compound.
We arrived in the village of Seik Gyi, where Saya Zenry lives and teaches. He introduced me to the family who looks after him in the village and showed me his tiny hut where he sleeps during the week..
The next day we went back to the village school. Having told him I wanted to wear the teacher’s uniform, he kindly offered me his old one. Before that we had to take a bath in the open. I took my longgyi out, wore it and took a bath like locals do. Longgyis are like sarongs or long skirts that are worn by both men and women in Myanmar. In the Philippines, especially down south, Filipinos wear something similar and call it malong.
After the bath, we took our breakfast and headed to the school. He introduced me to the school principal who turned out to be a Catholic. When the children started coming into the rooms. they took off their shoes andarranged them nicely outside the door. They quietly proceeded to their places in the classroom and sat in a meditative position for the next 15 minutes. Early on in their education, children in this village learn to meditate in silence.
“Good morning children,” Saya Zenry said. “Good morning Saya!,” they responded. Saya is a Burmese word that translates to sir or teacher. Saya Zenry’s class is a mix of Grade 3 and 4 pupils. The whole school combined has a population of 24 students and four teachers only. He has a mixed class of eight students. This meant preparing for all subjects and two classes. This is just one reason why teaching is a specialized job.
Although teachers do not get enough salary, teachers are highly respected together with parents and monks in Burmese culture. They are treated like gods. Saya Zenry explained, “Our parents raised us. Our teachers shared knowledge with us while the monks preached the Dhamma. For these reasons, they are considered blessings to us like God.”
After my introduction, I taught them the English children’s rhyme “Jack and Jill.” While singing with the children, I remembered my teaching days, how they were equal parts stressful and meaningful.
It has been more than a year after the junta declared a martial law–taking control of the civil government. Today, Saya Zenry, together with many school teachers, joined the civil disobedience movement and stopped reporting to schools. Most children do not go to schools, too.
After more than two years, I met Saya Zenry again who is among those protesting in the streets. I asked him why he wanted to become a teacher. He explained that that he wanted to change and improve the education system of his country and raise the standard of education by forming highly qualified teachers to educate the children of Myanmar. He believes that only through good and quality education can Myanmar progress and develop. However, this vision is difficult to realize. Myanmar’s education system is subpar. “There are few teachers and not enough teaching aids. Unlike in developed countries, education spending in Myanmar is very low.”
He shared that his greatest dream in life is “to make the world peaceful. I want everyone in the world to enjoy fully their human rights.” Sadly, the political crisis in Myanmar is delaying the dreams of many young people including Saya Zenry’s. The crisis has torn families apart. People have died. Others have been arrested. Many more had to flee to safer areas. He lamented that “the army arrested many young men out of suspicion. Living conditions have also become very stressful. I just want to leave Myanmar.”
Saya Zenry, like so many young people, want to leave the country–to escape and to fulfill their dreams. But not all young people can find the chance or opportunity to do so. He is a bright young person wanting to bring change to his country by being a teacher. Let us continue to pray for him and for Myanmar, and support the young people here.