A Remarkable Woman Who Made Her Dreams Do Come True
In front of me are two two-storied brick buildings and a wooden building. It is almost twelve noon. Some children are entering the school, but most of them have already arrived in their respective classes. I stand still as I look back to the past four years. At that time, in this place, there was only a poor hut, an old wooden building and nine nuns. Today in this 2010 academic year, a total of 350 students from kindergarten to the sixth standard (107 boys and 247 girls plus nuns) are attending the school. There are 80 nuns living at the nunnery and the school has 12 teachers. I have many questions in my mind. What brought this progressive community school for the poor and needy children into the community? Who made it?
The head of the nuns, Daw Vimala Saryi, is 36 years old now. She was the second daughter among eight children of her parents, who were poor farmers working for landlords from the middle part of Myanmar. She is now a Dhammacariya class passed holder in religious education. She became a novice nun at the age of 11. She recalls the memories of her difficult moments, “At the beginning, as a student nun, life was very difficult because my parents could not provide the financial support I needed. As a young nun, I did not have any well-wishers or donors for things such as books and stationery. So, even in illness, I had to go for alms but I never gave up the life which I feel peaceful.”
Traditionally, people thought that monks and nuns should focus only on religious matters. Now however, more and more monks are involved in social and community development works, especially in education, health care, and issues involving children and elderly. Society accepts it and supports this work. People often wonder if nuns also participate in community work.
Daw Vimala Saryi says, “I believe if we, the nuns, can help the community, it will be a great benefit for society and the country. I believe in the power of education. As I did not have a chance to achieve an education in my younger life because of poverty, I greatly empathize with the feeling of children and parents who cannot afford to go to school. In my life until now, if I am asked what I am proud of most, it is that I took part in a competition of outstanding students at the fourth standard. The other two students were boys and I was the only girl. All of my fellow students were very supportive and they were very proud of me, which really made me motivated and delighted.” During her spare time Daw Vimala Saryi taught Myanmar, English and Mathematics to smaller nuns, but she was very often criticized by the elder nuns and asked why she was doing such unnecessary things.
Fortunately, in 2006, a well-wisher donated to her some land located on the outskirts of Yangon. There she started the Zabu Oak Shaung nunnery school now situated in Myaing Tharyar ward, Kyauk Tann Township, southern district of Yangon, where most residents have very low incomes. In 2007, the nuns taught the government curriculum to five primary level children from the nearby wards. Thirteen secondary students were also sent to the nearby school. In May 2008, the school buildings were damaged by Cyclone Nargis but still continued to operate. Eventually they were successful at becoming a government permitted community school, which meant that financial necessities such as costs for students and salaries for teachers were given by the initiators, donors and the community, and not totally by the authorities. In 2008, there were seven teachers and a total of 120 children (37 boys and 83 girls and nuns) joined the school. In 2009, a brick school building appeared and the school grew to 250 students and nine teachers and the fifth standard was integrated. Not only Buddhists but also other religious believers have been accepted to join the school.
Now, children can have other co-curriculum activities, which many other schools cannot provide, such as photography and painting classes. The school also has a clinic, and a library is being organized. Children have also been sent on excursions three times. In her humble words, Daw Vimala Saryi said, “All of the school’s achievements are not only because of me. They are also due to the kind support of contributors, organizations, and youth who helped a lot in the whole process. I just initiated, organized and am maintaining all of their achievements.”
I asked her the reason a nun does such work. Her energetic and impressive answer is “The things that children need cannot wait for time. The time for helping children is TODAY. The child’s blood, bones, flesh and intellectual needs are constantly developing. Such development cannot wait to start tomorrow, it cannot be postponed. So, we must help, protect and look after the welfare of children”.
All of the school’s fruitful development did not happen at a glance. It was built piece by piece and along the way, there ware many obstacles. Before getting permission for opening the school, Daw Vimala Saryi had a six-hour long discussion with the responsible person of the township education department. “I always try to start where I can do the best and go beyond the limits believing in perseverance.”
Daw Vimala Saryi’s ultimate goal for the school is continuous development followed by sustainability and to produce good leaders for the school and the community. When I asked her how she is leading such a big, diverse and growing group, she explained to me her perspective for leadership in detail, which made me remember the saying “Be the change you want to see”. “I want our children to be clever and polite so my behaviors are kept in gently and I say encouragement words whenever I interact with them. If we want brave generations, we also must be courageous leaders” she said.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.