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Myanmar Clown tour…… Rakhine State, September 2013-09-10

So, the 10th of the 9th and I am to leave Myanmar on Thursday the 12th. I am sitting in the Shwe tha Zin hotel after a short day of only one show. Alex our team photographer and liquid intake control officer returned to the room. He just informed me that one of our shows on our 4-show-a-day tour here in the Rakhine State, in one of the monasteries, was visited by the local nationalist party whose aim was to disrupt the show and slag off us western NGO´s. After seeing how much fun the locals were having at the show they gave up and left. If there ever is a win and lose then this was a win for the help organisations in this area. We are there to give a breath of fresh air and not for any political agenda.

Backdate. 3rd of September. I landed in Yangon airport in Myanmar (previously called Burma) and then got the taxi from the airport into town to the Beautyland 2 Hotel where I had stayed on my previous two trips here. The traffic was noticeably thicker and the majority of the cars on the road much newer than they were only 3 years earlier. On my first trip to Myanmar in 2009 I was overwhelmed by the amount of old vehicles, being the old car and bus nerd that I am. At the hotel I met Alex and the rest of the very tired Swedish team from Clowns without Borders Sweden, Karin and Camilla. The plan was to put our show together and travel to the Rakim State where we would do shows for the children in the area.

As of about a year there have been extremely raised tensions in the area. It is the old ‘Religion verses Religion’ conflict that shows it’s ugly face in so many places. This time it is the Muslim Rohingya people being persecuted by the extreme nationalistic Buddhists. The supposed Islamistic master plan had been uncovered and, after killings, riots and house burnings, a group of around 120 000  people are living in Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps around the Sittwe area. Of course everybody suffers from the situation but for the Rohingya people, in the camps where they are not allowed to leave, the situation is very tough. Our plan is to do shows for both the Buddhist children and the Muslim children in the area .

4th of September. After Breakfast we met May, a local artist whom I had worked with on two previous projects in Myanmar. We took the taxi to the airport and after waiting for a while we boarded our Mandelay airlines propeller plane for our flight to Sittwe. After landing in Sittwe we showed our papers to the authorities, had small greetings to other NGOs from the same plane and then made our short ride to the hotel. One phone call later we had our schedule for that day. Meetings in 90 minutes with theNGOs working in the area and also a show to get some feedback about what is suitable and what is not in the show. The meeting was fine and there was a lot of excitement about us being there, people to organise shows and a schedule being born. Two minutes into the meeting and it was obvious that the two-shows-a-day schedule would not be enough. We decided that four shows a day was needed so that we could reach as many children as possible on our short visit.

The next obstacle was the preview show. The night before we had discussed the show and how it would look over a cup of coffee on mini plastic chairs at a mini plastic table on the side of the road in Yangon. Now our preview show was also going to be our very first run through of the show as well. Forty minutes later we were done and the crowd of around 100 people loved it. One local woman working with the NGOs said that before the show she was stressed with the work load she had then five minutes into the show this was forgotten and she moved into a parallel world of enjoyment for a moment. She felt refreshed after the show – that is one of the reasons why we are there. Other than a few adjustments the show was passed and it was time to prepare for the next day.

The first show at save the children, Sittwe

5th of September: One of the local NGO workers, Jen, (later to be nick named by us as generator) picked us up at the hotel. We had a meeting with one of the more influential monks in the area. He had previous contact with Clowns Without Borders in other parts of Myanmar. He was familiar with our work and was very keen to help to organise shows in the area. We then headed out to some of the camps to look at some proposed locations for performing our shows. The camps we visited were very wet and low lying. There was a lot of mud and a lot of people. The tracks were atrocious and living conditions by our standards appalling. The people were beautiful and, despite their situation, you didn’t have to dig too deep to find a smile. We did our second show ever as a preview for the Rohingya community workers and leaders in the camp. They loved it and said that it was suitable. 150 people.

Karin  in Rohingya IDP camp

We then went back into town where we were going to meet our other very helpful NGO worker, Barbara, who had arranged for a meeting with the Minister of Development to ask for permission to do the shows in the area. The first thing he said was you look like a lot of jokers. He wanted a show schedule and a letter asking for consent by the morning. If we fixed these then he would give us permission. The Generator, Barbara and our helpful monk set to work in organising our schedule. We returned to our hotel, ate dinner and then worked on the show doing some fine tuning and fixing props.
6th of September: As we had not received the full permission yet we had a sleep-in till 7.30 am. I was first up to the dining room for breakfast which was a mix of everything topped with a Malaria tablet. When Alex came up he looked slightly troubled. He asked me if I had seen my ukulele that morning. He suggested that I go take a look at it. This is my first Uke, quality German craftsmanship that had been with me many years. Apparently, although this Uke had been with me to Myanmar on two previous trips, the bridge holding my strings was not happy with the heat and humidity and decided to remove itself from the instrument. Shock, horror, panic and then action. I went out for a walk to try to find someone that may have strong enough glue to fix my uke. I wanted two component epoxy but try explaining that to people who do not share the same language as you can pose a problem. I saw a man cutting wood at the front of a shop so my uke being made out of wood, I decided that it was worth approaching him. I showed him my uke and despite my efforts to describe my wishes for a two component epoxy glue, he promptly fixed the instrument with a tube of glue he had behind his counter. He said one hour and it will be good but I walked away feeling less confident. The uke lasted the whole trip and is still good today. Something to be said for local knowledge and he wouldn’t let me give him any money.

Back to the Hotel and then it was time to finish the last preparations for the show.

Lunch in the hotel and then we carried the show down the three flights of stairs to meet the car from Save the Children to take us to Mingan Monastery where we would do our first show for the children. The first show of a ‘marathon’ that would be aiming at four shows a day for the next six days. We stopped at a shop on the way and bought four umbrellas as it was at the end of the Monsoon season and we figured that they could come in handy, in more ways than one. The car took us as far as it could and then we got out of the car, on-foot down a very muddy road in the drizzle to the monastery.

There are Rakhine and Rohingya  IDP camps in the area and the Mingan monastery was at one of the Rakhine camps. They were expecting us; the School was filled with around 400 kids and a group of say 10 teachers.

The show worked really well and there were grins from wall to wall -with some outside of the walls as well.  We drank a quick coffee with the Head Monk and his group and then walked back through the mud to the car and commuted to the next show at Chan Pyu Monastery. We set up straight away and did the next show for around 250 kids. Sweaty and slightly worn, we returned to the hotel, carried our show up the three floors and settled in for the evening, putting together an umbrella dance for the final act and going through some things in the show.

Chan Pyu Monastery

7th. Woke up at six and went up for breakfast. Picked up at seven by our new driver for the tour and after a half hour’s drive for our first show of the day. We arrived at Kathayah Monastery and were led in to the temple to a group of the maroon clothed bald boys listening to very loud music and watching pictures on a big television. There had been some confusion and the Head Monk had not been told we were coming.  We waited for half an hour and then went to another building where we met the main Monk. Apparently there was a Buddhist exam on so it looked like we could not do the show.  We got back to the first room and the Monk boys and a little group of children were still sitting waiting for us to do the show. We decided to do a quick quiet show to ensure that their wait wasn’t in vain. It ended up around 100 kids at the show and our efforts were worth it.

We packed up the show, got to the car and drove to the next show at Sant Pya Yo, a School. We were led to a big green room where there were about 200 people, a big Buddha, 3 clowns and one photographer. Our tour planner Jen, (Generater from IMF) made it to the show. This was the first time that she was allowed to enter a Monastery school in the year she had been working in the Sittwe area. Clowns can open doors and break down barriers.  The performance was taking form more and more with every show; changing slightly and growing in strength.  We returned to the hotel for lunch and then we were picked up after an hour for the next two shows.

 The next show was in the Sant Gulan Monastery.  It is a giant beautiful temple and there were about 800 people, a giant budda, 3 clowns and a photographer. We did a huge show and once again I was reminded of the reason why we do this. Even though we didn’t have the same language and we come from completely different cultures and situations, the need and will to laugh showed its face again.

Pack up the show, pack the car, drive to Dwaji Myan Monastery, unpack the car, set up the show and then do another show for around 300 people. I say ‘people’ as it is hard enough to estimate how many people, let alone to try to estimate how many children, adults, males or females. Although children are our main aim on these trips, mixed aged groups all having a good laugh together, seeing each other laughing and having a break from the reality which is their life, even if only for one hour – is good medicine. Anyway, I believe we are all children inside. We packed down the show, packed the car returned to the hotel, unpacked the car and carried the show up all the stairs again. After washing off all the sweat and dirt from us and our clothes, we took a ‘tuk-tuk’ to the lookout point and watched the sun go down over the bay. Sittwe, boasting one of Myanmars nicest beaches, used to be a popular tourist destination before all the unrest. Needless to say after returning to the hotel we all slept very well.

8th.   Up at 6am again feeling slightly worn. Breakfast then the packing, un-packing scenario began again. From this point I think I can stop explaining the logistics. Set Roe Kyaw Village Monastery was the first show with around 150 people. As we got into the tour the shows started to blend in to each other and my energy to write and record my accounts and the amount of people at the shows faded like turning off a light bulb. All my energy was going into the shows. It was hot and hard work for us all.

The second show this day I remember, as it was the first show we were doing for the Rohingya people in a school in a Muslim village bordering one of the camps. The people living in the village are also forbidden to leave the area. We met the head master of the school and then did the show in a big open room with around 400 people strategically self positioned so that everyone could see.  The show worked as well for this crowd and we had a giant entourage of happy, laughing children to our waiting car, before disappearing down the slippery road towards our first IDP Camp, Budupaw .

Budapaw.

There were a lot of people in this camp so it was arranged that we would do two shows here in a temporary building used for child health care. It had a dirt floor and the walls were woven reeds and bamboo. A wall was removed for our shows so we could fit more people in.

After the first show for around 500 people we had a break for an hour in a room supplied for us. I went to one of the outdoor toilets and then went back inside and had a sleep in the corner. I woke up and it was only ten minutes till the next show. When I got up to get my gear ready Camilla said, your here. Apparently Camilla and Alex had not seen me come back from the toilet even though I had stepped over them on the way back into the room. Alex and our guide then Karim were out looking for me. Karin said that she knew I was there the whole time and wondered who they were all looking for. After the next show for around 350 people we packed our sweaty bodies back into the car for our rough ride home. Our driver did a great job on these muddy tracks and after smacking my head into the glass a couple of times over bumps I learnt not to look too close out the window.  We washed our costumes again as we did every evening knowing they would be just as sweaty again after the first show the next morning.

9th. Basically the same early start to the day except for the fact that while putting my shoes on I did something wrong to my lower back. The show must go on so we decided Camilla could carry Karin in our tent walk. We drove to Basara camp and set up in one of the small multi-purpose huts. The rain was heavy and we had only 150 children at the first show.

We then drove to the Darpine camp and after unsuccessfully looking for the location for the show for a while, we were met by a couple of guys on a scooter who led us down a maze of narrow tracks till we arrived at the greatest prepared area yet. It was an area used by a group called Solidaritiet who worked with hygiene and learning programs for the kids.

They had moved their fence to gain more enclosed area for all the children.  We set up and did a very hot outdoor show for 2000 people.

We then went for a walk through the camp to see how the people were living.

It was row after row of long houses with paper thin walls between its eight rooms which housed one family in each. Around 60 people in each house and very little privacy for anyone. We were surrounded on our walk by many children and we danced, sang and laughed our way through the camp. It felt like this was just as important as the show.

After lunch we went to one of the newer camps, OTG 1. We were expected and there was a group of around 200 children and men waiting in a room for us. No women in the room at all. We set up and then tried to help with organising the crowd. There were a group of men all standing at the front and we tried to get them to move to the side and give room for the kids to see properly. We started the show and had to stop on a couple occasions to calm the crowd and try to get the children to move back. Eventually we decided that it was getting unsafe for the children so we did a quick finishing number and stopped the show early. We packed quickly and left feeling rather uneasy about the whole situation. We went to the next place and did our last show for the day for around 800 people. On the way back to the hotel we learnt that in the biggest camp, Santa Majji which contained over 30,000 people, there had been some unrest and our shows there planned for the next day were cancelled. Back to the hotel, wash, eat then sleep.

10th. This was our unexpected rest day. Generator and Barbara were trying to organise shows at different locations for us. Eventually we went back to the Basara camp to do another show as many of the children there were not at the first one. We started setting up in the room again but after seeing how many people were gathering we switched to plan B and took the show outside so that everyone could see it. There were 600 people and it was a lot of fun for everyone.

After lunch we stopped at a local market on the way home and went for a walk and a bit of tourist like sightseeing which we had not managed to do yet. We were the only tourists there and we had a lot of fun with the people there. We returned to the hotel and started packing our things as we were flying back to Yangon the next afternoon.

11th. Up early as usual for our last breakfast at the Swe Tazin hotel before packing all our things into the car. We drove to the Sittwe hospital where we met our woman from Unicef who was going to meet the hospital boss before doing a show there. We were told that the Boss was having a bath and that we would have to wait. Eventually we met the right man and we were trying to get permission to do some roving in the children’s ward in the hospital. They insisted that this wasn’t a good Idea and pointed us out to a construction site under a roof where people were gathered to see our show. Energy was a bit low and there were just a hand full of children amongst the crowd of around 150. Time was ticking away so we set up and did a slightly shorter show allowing us time to get to the last show of our tour. The hospital head was present at the show and we were given towels by some of the nurses as a thank you. Just getting to do a show at the hospital was a step in the right direction.

The last show was at the public school NR. 15. This was a primary school and all the children were wearing green and white school uniforms. We were led to a long room with green carpet and a stage at one end. The view out the windows was over the bay and it felt like a very fine place to do our last show. The room filled with the 220 children all positioned in tidy rows and their teachers on chairs against the walls and so the show began.

The headmaster was very vocal during the beginning of the show leading the children in applause and sometimes I believe explaining what was happening. He soon chilled out when he realised the children knew what to do and it was a very vocal fun show. It was very obvious that these children had had more school experience as they could all clap to the musical numbers in time and they were very responsive verbally. The typical form of learning in these schools is the teacher says and the children repeat method. As we would say something the children would repeat it in choir very loud back at us. It was great fun to play with, for everyone.

After the show we got changed from our sweaty clothes and had a soft drink given to us by the teachers. The head master wanted a Clowns Without Borders shirt so I took mine off and gave it to him. We left for the airport 30 minutes after we had finished the show and the children were still sitting on the floor in their rows in the long room where we did the show.

An IDP camp from the air.

We flew back to Yangon, then the day after it was back to Adelaide and the other reality of working to pay the bills, renovating and fixing broken down cars. It felt about a light year away from where we had just been. My most vivid memory on this trip was in one of the smaller shows in the small huts that were built for the children to learn and play. After one of my numbers I was resting in the hot tent laying on my back listening to the music for Karin and Camillas acrobatic number. I looked out through a hole in the tent to at the group of children watching and there was one girl probably around the age of ten. She was growing and her face was opening with amazement. She was looking around herself to the other children to see if they were seeing the same thing she was seeing.  She looked so overwhelmed and I believe that seeing this it opened a whole new world of hope and possibilities for her. Maybe in 15 years she might be the one performing for children spreading hope and laughter and remembering that day the clowns came to her camp and changed her world.

Gigantic thanks to Clowns without Borders Sweden, their partners and everyone involved for making this whole trip possible.

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