By Fr Eamon Sheridan
From 1936 until 1979 Columban missionaries ministered in the Diocese of Myitkyina, Myanmar. During those years they worked hard to develop and strengthen the local Myanmar church but they were forced to leave in 1979.
Since leaving the country, the Columbans have tried to continue to support the Diocese. The Columbans always placed great emphasis on education and during one period, they opened 47 primary schools, six middle schools and four high schools.
One important part of the educational legacy that the Columbans left behind was a series of ‘Boarding Houses’. These Boarding Houses were developed as a concrete response to the situation of children in remote areas. Due to the large distances involved, children in these areas had no way of getting to school.
The Boarding Houses offered these children food and lodging and the opportunity of attending a school in the neighborhood. The families of the children helped maintain the Boarding Houses through offerings of rice and vegetables.
In 1965 the Burmese Government nationalized all Catholic Schools. The Boarding Houses were maintained however as a part of the mission of the local diocese.
With the departure of the Columban missionaries, responsibility for the Boarding Houses passed to the Myitkyina diocese, which over time found it very difficult to find the resources to maintain the Boarding Houses.
The diocese has the responsibility for employing staff who live with and supervise the students in the Boarding Houses. These people also offer extra tuition to the students in the evenings, especially for those preparing for the final high school examination.
In 2007 I made my first visit to Myitkyina and I was immediately struck by the run down nature of the Boarding Houses. The ones I visited were in an appalling state with the children living in terrible conditions. Many of them were only getting one meal a day. The boarding staff were often only a little older than the children themselves and could offer them very little help with tuition.
At the same time, these Boarding Houses continued to play an important role in giving a place for poor students from remote areas a place to stay so they could attend school.
After a conversation with fellow Columban Fr Eamonn O’Brien, who acts as a consultant to the Diocese of Myitkyina, three things struck me as necessary if we are to make a real difference in the lives of these children.
Firstly, we needed to renovate the buildings of the Boarding Houses which had greatly deteriorated over time. Secondly, we needed to employ boarding staff who were more qualified and could offer better tuition to the children. Thirdly, it was necessary in some Boarding Houses to supplement the diet with meat.
In consultation with the local bishops, priests, lay people and Fr O’Brien, we developed a ‘Remote Education Plan’ to accommodate these three aims.
We implemented this ‘Remote Education Plan’ over the last three years and we have seen a great improvement in the renovation of the Boarding Houses. Many of the previous Boarding staff have now received professional training while new ones with better qualifications have also been hired. In the places where the food supplement was needed, there has been a dramatic fall in illness among the students.
These improvements have only been possible thanks to the support of Columban benefactors.
As the civil war continues, some of the Boarding Houses have been closed. However, better quality education remains the key for these children to have a brighter future. It's a joy to see the thirst for learning that these young people have. In a small way we are offering them an opportunity that they would not otherwise have.
We thank our benefactors for their continued support.
Fr Eamon Sheridan, from Ireland, is currently on the Columban General Council in Hong Kong. You may find him on Facebook.