So, how was it?

Lucinda Coleman chats to Katie Chown, Remnant Dancer and Occupational Therapist, about her recent two week visit to Myanmar, exploring how she is processing her experiences on returning to her life in Perth, Australia.

This most recent visit to Myanmar by Katie was part of a final stage of occupational training for the Burmese Nurture Group Initiative (NGI) Facilitators who are seeking to care for the mental and emotional health of orphaned and abandoned children living at the Andrew Youth Development Centre (AYDC) in Yangon.  Her time was spent affirming the NGI Coordinator in her role, meeting with the Director of Myanmar Vision International (MVI) and finalising a bilingual Training Manual to help staff with ongoing training and care for the AYDC community.


LC: So Katie, how are you?

KC: Before I left Australia, I was talking to my dad about going to Bluff Knoll for a weekend.  Things were freer.  Then I was away.  Then I came back.  The weekend away had been tentatively booked, and all my other work has intruded on my thinking about the time in Myanmar.  It was supposed to be about minimising the chaos.  Now I feel detached.  Every time I come back, I have to question everything again.

LC: What do you have to question?

KC: My lifestyle.  Why do I get roped in to living in a certain way?

LC: Do you regret going to Myanmar this time?

KC: No.  It’s good to question that and be reminded your environment dictates what you do all the time - if you’re not aware of that.  I guess it’s kind of difficult to decide to live differently because you’re disappointing people or people don’t get you.  It’s difficult to explain it.

LC: What’s the value in what you have just done?

KC: It’s been really empowering for me, and for the NGI Coordinator.  It was valuable to talk about the NGI: to be at the point where we could talk about it clearly.  In a way it’s empowering for the MVI Director as well; inside himself he appreciates the divine feminine, but he doesn’t know how to draw that into AYDC, or places where it’s non-existent.  Realising he’s on board, as much as he is, was amazing.  And also the Director of the AYDC is really open to the NGI and the others are trying to understand; sensing it is of value and being prepared to understand it.

LC: Why is the NGI such a unique thing in this Burmese cultural context?

KC: The children in Myanmar are conditioned to not say what they think: to not have, and not express, their own opinions.  The education system is about rote learning and memorising stuff… going to university to do a degree that will make you money.  As for the mental health side of things, it’s still so stigmatised: in the dark.  So even though in the Needs’ Assessment Analysis last year, they recognised the need for mental health service, they couldn’t see how to integrate it in their weekly life, without having to see a counsellor.

LC: What do you say to people who ‘don’t get it’?

KC: You’ll see.  Eventually you’ll see.  There will be an ‘ahhhh’ moment!!

LC: Who is embracing the NGI on the ground in Myanmar now?

KC: The NGI Coordinator, the Director of MVI and the AYDC staff.  There are 7 facilitators; mostly university students and one high school graduate.

LC: What do they think of the NGI and their role as Facilitators?

KC: It’s beautiful. They say:  ok- we don’t know what we’re doing but are happy to give it our best.  We’ll give it a go.  It was a reward just to read the Facilitators’ feedback from last year.  They were seeing how they were learning leadership skills and seeing how that could be useful in their lives; how it was rewarding to build relationships with the children of their group.  They recognised the importance of coming together to debrief together.  So there’s a team with the Coordinators and the Facilitators, which they recognise as important.  This is the part that needs what they call a ‘love gift’ to help get them all together.

LC: What was the most poignant moment that will stay with you?

KC: Just before driving to AYDC for the main meeting with AYDC staff and stakeholders… ah I hate that word!

LC: Why do you hate that word?

KC: I don’t know… it sounds hard and ownership-y… but it’s ok...

LC: …poignancy moment?

KC: Well, just before the final meeting and coming out of the meeting, I was feeling really good about what we had done – and being able to articulate that in simple English… to just communicate it to people.  I feel like it has been too hard to say what it is until now.

LC: So what is it?

KC: It’s a support network.  It’s about helping the kids realise they’ve got resources on the inside that they're not acknowledging.

LC: What role does the Training Manual now have to play?

KC: The Training Manual is a whole overview of the project, as well as a training resource.  It has information in there to upskill and educate the facilitators; kind of like a reference for facilitators.  If they’re stuck on something, they should be able to go to the Manual and get what they need.  Its role is to make it sustainable so that at any time in the future if a facilitator comes in, they can have access to that information, and understand how the Nurture Groups have all come about.

LC: How important is it to be bilingual?

KC: It’s important to again understand that it’s something that has happened in collaboration with someone from a different culture and different county.  I think that will help whoever is reading it to understand this is coming from a different world; a different way of thinking. Both of the languages being represented helps people think ‘outside the box’.  It’s the idea of the ‘meeting place’ and a lot of them want to speak English, so both languages helps them to access and learn that as well.

LC: What would you like those who have invested in this project to really understand about what they have supported – either financially, or emotionally – or practically?

KC: Just that I think it’s creating real change.  It’s not big: it’s just a little bit of change that’s positive.  And that it has changed me.  It feels like a ripple effect, you know?  Like I think a lot more is going to come out of it than that original ‘plop’ in the ocean.  I think over here as well… I’m inspired to change the way I live my life over here as well; inspired to change it.  It’s like a mirror: I’ve gone over to create change in another country but I’ve realised it has created change over here because of what I’ve picked up over there.

LC: Do you think you’ll go back?

KC: Yes.

LC: Why?

KC: To do the evaluation with the NGI Coordinator and to go to the Chin State! Every time I’ve gone to Yangon, I’ve said I’ll go to the Chin State… and I haven’t yet.  And I think that will be like really going to where the people in the AYDC community come from… because they don’t come from the AYDC.

LC: You talked about meeting someone new at AYDC on this trip: a 5 year girl whose father shot and killed her mother and she was brought by officials to live at AYDC.  How do you explain to someone who’s never been there, what encountering a person in that situation is like?

KC: I don’t.  It’s too confronting for people.  And it usually looks like I’m the one putting myself above people just by speaking about it.  But when I am there, with that person, I just recognise that they need to be loved, without being hurt.  I guess that’s also why I’ve done the NGI the way I have as well: not too involved with the kids directly, but setting something up with what’s most stable in their lives already… which is all the people around them already.

LC: Thank you for sharing your thoughts, reflection… and story of how change is within our grasp – depending on what we choose in the small moments on offer in the ordinary everyday of our lives, wherever we are.

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