‘We had been supporting an orphanage in Mandalay for many years and as we kept going back we became attached to the kids and they had become attached to us.’

One of the places that I have enjoyed going to the most was Myanmar. The country is beautiful, full of history and many lovely people. We have done many projects in the country, including clean water, cataracts, emergency feeding, but the project that stands out most in my mind was working with a stunning monk called U Nayaka. Contrary to popular perception many monks are really good entrepreneurs. I have seen it in a number of countries now including Thailand, Nepal and Myanmar.

At the heart of Buddhist philosophy is compassion, therefore many monks develop this quality and its expression is often in the form of working with the poor or destitute.

U Nayaka is one of these monks, an entrepreneur who always seems to have a new idea to make money to build on the work that he is doing. He and his brother, who is also a monk, decided to work with children to provide free education for those that couldn’t afford it. When I met him some 20 years ago he had developed a primary and secondary school that was providing free education to about 5,000 children and wanted to build a new building so that he could increase the number to 7,000. We decided to fund the project which turned out to be very successful.

Some years later the US government put financial restrictions on Myanmar. This meant that the Japanese group that had been funding the operation of the school could not continue. This created a real dilemma and it looked like the school may have to close down. It was at that point that The Charitable Foundation stepped in and we took over covering the costs of running the school for many years.

What blew me away was how cheap is was to run the school. It was literally $6,000 to $7,000 a month. Most of the teachers were volunteers. U Nayaka had gone to the middle class families and found woman who would donate their time to teach as a form of Buddhist merit. For this money he also supplied a small medical clinic for the kids. This was the cheapest large scale school I had ever seen. Over time we became good friends. He would often give me simple lessons in Buddhism.

Not only was it cheap it was successful. The academic scores were amongst the best in the country. Over time many of the wealthy of Mandalay, including the generals, wanted to send their children to the school, but U Nayaka always held the line that the school was only for the poor and that he would not charge any tuition fees. The rich could go somewhere else he would say.

Many years after starting to support him I turned up at the school and found 200 teenage novice monks there. Puzzled, I asked him what was going on. He then explained that in Shan State there was an insurgency going on and there was no schooling. What’s more the kids are likely to be pressed into the army of the insurgents or into the Myanmar army against their will.

He had the school and the education was free and he had accommodation where they could stay, although this accommodation was some of the most basic accommodation I had come across, but he didn’t have the money to feed them, so he decided to take them in as novice monks while they did their schooling, that way they could go out with their begging bowls each morning as was the custom for many monks to get their food to eat. This was another great success and demonstrates U Nayaka’s entrepreneurial streak.

Here is the accommodation where they stayed, it was so basic when they moved in I don’t know how they kept the rain out. However, over time it did improve, but still a lot of kids in each room.

We had been supporting an orphanage in Mandalay for many years and as we kept going back we became attached to the kids and they had become attached to us. When we were there they would be all over us and like many children in these places they craved contact, belonging and knowing that someone cared for them.

Often when we turned up they would practice a local dance for weeks beforehand to show us. It was really an emotional experience.

Anyway, after some years an article appeared in the local paper stating the amount of money that was paid each month to support the orphanage. What was not known was that a month earlier an article had appeared about how much the wife of one of the generals was spending on supporting another orphanage. It was about one fifth was what we were spending. She then flew into a rage because she felt she had lost face and then went about organising for the orphanage to be shut down. This took about two weeks. We never saw the kids again. This left both Debbie and I with this sense of loss and incompleteness. I can only imagine how the kids felt.

This experience was many years ago and Myanmar has changed in many ways since. Personal freedoms in the country have improved. There is more civilian oversight so I do not know whether it would be possible for someone to do this today.