Friday, March 14, 2014

Kah Tah Blay Learning Center Graduation

by Daniel and Amber Parker

In a break from what we normally blog about here at MT, today my wife and I thought we’d share some of what we’ve been up to lately.

We’ve been living at a field site on the Thai-Myanmar border since July 2013 and today we’d like to gloat a little about a project that we’ve been involved with over the last year – Kah Tha Blay Learning Center (KTBLC). KTBLC is a small school along the Thai-Myanmar border about 2 hours north of Mae Sot.

The school rose from a need to educate young Karen adults because education opportunities, especially on the Burma side of the border, were almost completely absent (some boys could attend limited schooling provided by monks at Buddhist temples).  Until very recently, the Karen were involved in the longest continuous civil war in recorded history – lasting over half a century.  During this time most able-bodied men became soldiers, meaning that they had little role in community developments etc.  Villages that existed in conflict zones were forced to frequently move, with Burmese military troops setting them on fire, often as villagers slept.    

A lot of knowledge was lost during this time.  Traditional approaches to farming were among them.  For those who wound up in refugee camps on the Thai side of the border, very little farming continued at all – there is extremely limited land available and rice is provided for each household.  For these people, some safety was provided by the rice and relative protection of the Thai side, but traditional subsistence practices and leadership roles were lost.  A major goal of the school is to address these issues. Kah Tha Blay means Freedom Country.

The school headmaster and principal are Karen, as are several of the teachers.  Funding comes through an NGO, Project Umbrella Burma, which is based out of Canada – however the ultimate goal is to have the school completely self run (with Karen people raising the necessary funds) in the near future.

The school headmaster (Kshakalu) at Karen New Years Celebration

Singing around the campfire

The school has physically moved around a bit over the years, beginning within a refugee camp as a school/hostel and then expanding to include a junior college for students who passed the 10th grade (there are very few opportunities for students to continue education after the 10th grade in the refugee camp(s)). The junior college was originally built in Burma, but due to the continuing violence and safety concerns, had to eventually be moved to the Thai side of the border where it is located today. Student ages range from about 18 to 25.  Because the school is on the Thai side of the border, they learn Thai, raise a Thai flag in the morning, and say the Thai pledge of allegiance (followed by a Karen-styled version of “We shall overcome” – directed (I think) at the Burmese conflict).  

Perhaps one of the most interesting, probably provocative, aspects of this school is that one of its goals is to address the very real “brain drain” problem.  That is, the most educated Karen usually wind up moving abroad and rarely or never return to their home communities.  The students who are accepted into KTBLC have promised to return to their communities when they are done learning, even if they go on for further training after KTBLC.  So far, it looks like many actually do wind up going back to their homes.  On an individual basis, we see students who we think would do great in a university setting, and we very much want to help them pursue that sort of path.  These are probably the same ones who will go on to be strong leaders that the Karen need in Karen state.
The school is set in a very small village, in a terraced rice paddy field that is surrounded by mountains.  A typical day for them begins early in the morning, when they begin chores around the school or participate in extracurricular activities like sports and traditional “Don” dancing.  They grow much of their own food (which is part of their education process), cook their own food, and are in charge of the upkeep of the school buildings and grounds.  They take regular courses each school year including subjects like English, Community Health, Thai and Math, supplemented with various other topics that volunteers provide throughout the school year - Leadership, Photography, Journalism, etc. The students prepare lunch during the middle of the day and dinner after classes end in the evenings followed by more chores and study hour before lights out. Some are able to visit family members in the refugee camps on the weekends while the others (without family in the camps) remain on campus. 

typical landscape in the area

Over the last half year or so we have volunteered out at the school, teaching public health, computer skills, and creative writing.  Since English isn’t their first language, it can be quite a challenge.  Sometimes they don’t completely understand the knowledge that we try to pass on, but it is probably the case that they at least benefit from hearing English being spoken by a native speaker or from hearing about and seeing pictures from parts of the world (e.g. the U.S.) about which they know very little.  

We’ve grown quite attached to these students.  It’s hard not to.  These are students who REALLY want to be in school, who are thirsty for whatever knowledge someone will pass on to them, even if it’s not a subject that they’re particularly interested in.  

They work hard, but there is also a captivating form of light-heartedness in everything that they do.  Moments are never dull.  Quiet periods during the day, for example while working independently, are filled with students singing; sometimes a single student, other times the whole class. They are very community oriented and enjoy working and learning together. 

several of our students watching Karen Revolution Day ceremonies

Revolution Day 2014

students performing a skit

students performing a skit (note the banana-leaf glasses)

At times during our lectures or discussions a flock of ducks or chickens would wander through the classroom (which are located outdoors). This is so normal for the setting that a student normally stands up and begins herding the strays out of the class while everyone else goes about their business… 

Last week we were just barely able to make their graduation.  We flew back from State College, PA on March 4th, with layovers in Washington D.C.; Tokyo, Japan; Bangkok, Thailand; Maesot, Thailand, and then a few hours drive north to where we live.  Not all cylinders were firing – but we were extremely happy to see them receive their diplomas, to meet their extremely proud family members, and to participate in the ceremonies.  

On the students’ faces we saw a mixture of emotions.  They’re extremely proud of their accomplishments thus far, as they should be.  Many are worried about the future.  Now they have to go off and do something other than be students at KTBLC.  Uncertainty can be scary.  That uncertainty isn’t just for them at an individual level though; Karen State is changing at an increasing (alarming?) rate.  Fighting has mostly ceased, roads are now being built, electricity is reaching rural villages, new schools are emerging, development has finally come and that means the only certain thing right now is that some things will be different.  And that is the world that these students will be returning to.  They return as some of the most educated people in their respective communities and many of them will be taking leadership and public health roles in those communities, starting schools of their own, etc.      


Anne Buchanan said...

Congratulations to your students! And best wishes to them as they return to their changing world. Thanks so much for this post, Dan and Amber. The enthusiasm for and dedication to this project from students and teachers alike clearly has brought many people far. One can't help but wish that such enthusiasm for learning were more widespread here in the US.

And congratulations to you, Dr Parker, on your own milestone, completing your PhD!

Jim Wood said...

A lovely post, Daniel. You and Amber must find your involvement with KTBLC very satisfying. By the way, the "brain drain" problem you mention is found all over the rural developing world. When we were working in Papua New Guinea, we invited several anthropology students at the university who came from our general study area to join us in the field and work on the project, including collecting data for their own use. They made it abundantly clear that they had not invested all that hard work in school just to leave the big city (Port Moresby) and go back to their villages. I'm pleased to see that the KTBLC is teaching some practical, locally-applicable things like farming practices. Maybe they can stem the tide of emigration.

I join Anne in congratulating you, Dr. Parker. The defense was actually fun! I hope you and Amber have had an opportunity to celebrate with lao Lao (or lao Tai), Singha (or something better), and the ever-popular Mekong Whiskey (about which I'm still dubious). Salut!!