A Hidden Gem


When I told the majority of people that I would be travelling to Myanmar in November I was greeted with a look of confusion. This hidden gem is still known to most as Burma, a forgotten country between Thailand and India in Southeast Asia.

This trip, an initiative of Catholic Mission and the Catholic Education Office Ballarat, proved to combine three of my great loves, travel, education and my life as a Catholic.

Our little group consisting of Kevin and Norah (Catholic Mission Melbourne) and Carmel and Kerin (educators from Ballarat), experienced a moment in time before the world discovers this hidden gem. Myanmar is slowly emerging from a long period of military rule where oppression and compliance were a way of life. As a country, Myanmar is slowly expanding as a tourist destination but for some people we would have been the first foreigners that they saw. However, change is in the air. ATMs, Wifi and tourists are increasing quickly. As a country, it is not yet overwhelmed by Western fashion – everywhere still you can see men wearing skirt-like longyi, women smothered in thanakha (traditional make-up) and betel–chewing grannies with mouths full of blood-red juice. People still get around in trishaws and in rural areas horse and cart are still predominant. The people are gentle, warm, inviting, engaging, humourous, considerate, inquisitive, passionate and longing to become more educated. The culture is philosophical with patience, perseverance, strength and spirit. I experienced a generous hospitality, breathtaking scenery and the majestic pagodas of Bagan.

As an educator, I had the privilege of experiencing some new initiatives and hearing the hopes for developing a better education system. Catholic education has been outlawed since the military rule and education has all been based on a rote system, where learning the exact answer to a test is the only desired outcome. The Bishops and other leaders we spoke to yearn to provide education that equips their young people to deal with the opening up of their country and gives them opportunities for the future. The people of Myanmar are rich in passion but there is a lack of resources and training. I was inspired by the leaders of the Church and other educational leaders who have a drive to develop new ways of teaching and learning. It is a complicated and tricky situation, but there is hope and I believe that a visit from a group of Australian educators has helped to keep their spirit alive.

As a Catholic, it was wonderful to be a part of the 500 year Jubilee of the Catholic Church in Myanmar. The Catholic population is less than 2% of the country, but when we gathered with over 70,000 people to celebrate Mass there was a feeling that the Church is very much alive and vital to the lives of many. Everywhere we went, the Catholic community welcomed us with a generous spirit of hospitality. I witnessed churches being built, communities supporting each other and the tangible presence of the spirit. There was also a sense that I was living out a very important part of my faith, to be present to those who are poor in material goods and to live out my faith beyond the confines of my own community.

This immersion experience aimed to listen to the Church in Myanmar and in particular those involved in educational pursuits in the Dioceses of Yangon and Kalay. Although we are unsure at the moment how this growing relationship will progress, I pray that it is just the beginning of the church supporting our brothers and sisters in Myanmar as they work towards their dream of educating their young people, something that I take for granted almost everyday.
I wish to thank my school community, St Colman’s Mortlake, the Catholic Education Office Ballarat and Catholic Mission for their support in allowing me to participate in this amazing opportunity. As well as my fellow travel companions who were vital to the success of this trip.

Stacey Atkins

1 – Bagan
2 – Stacey and trainee teachers
3 – Boarding house classroom
4 – Part of the 70,000 crowd at Jubilee Mass
5 – Celebrating the Jubilee Mass
6 – Presenting children gifts from Australia
7 – Bookmarks from Australia