Is This Some Kind Of A Joke !?
Is This Some Kind of a Joke?!
The sun’s rays grew intense after the brief rain shower and the sandy path, wet from rain, steamed up into the warm air. A white Toyota Corona stopped hesitantly at the end of the old rough tarmac road that borders the muddy path leading to the dry plain. As the driver perused the unfamiliar surroundings, three passengers exited the vehicle. A slender woman in her late thirties wore a sky blue traditional blouse and dark blue longgyi (sarong). Two men – one tall and one stout – were older, with a rugged appearance. Both wore typical Burmese attire: a dark plaid longgyi and white, long sleeved, banded collar shirt. The stout man approached a tiny shop to purchase betel nut. His accent suggested that he was from Upper Burma. His teeth were stained reddish-black, revealing a life-long addiction to betel.
“Sister, we are looking for Byainmana Village, of the group….” He paused, having forgotten the name of the village group, and turned to his companion for help. The woman behind the lime-stained betel table smiled broadly and corrected the name.
“You mean Byainmatu Village, under the Thaputsu Group, brother?”
Although they were strangers, they referred to each other as relatives, in accordance with the lovely cultural tradition. He was still hesitant about the village name, and his friend, who stared blankly, was no help. He walked back to the car where the slim, pale complexioned woman was busy arranging things in the back of the car.
“Ma Moe, we forgot the name of the village you are looking for. Is it Byainmanar something?”
The tall man was embarrassed about forgetting the name, since his employer had repeated it several times that morning.
Although Moe was younger, the two men addressed her “Ma” as a sign of respect.
Moe took an umbrella out of her traveling bag and put it in her handbag, along with her diary. She replied patiently. “It is Byainmatu, not Byainmana. Well, Ko Win Bo, let’s go and see how U Tin Win is doing”. She walked to the tiny betel nut shop and politely spoke to the vendor. Her quick, light intonation indicated that she was from lower Burma.
“Sister, could you please give us directions to Byainmatu Village under the Thaputsu Group? The office advised me that it is located somewhere around here, but further off the main road.”
The vendor now realized that the visitors were from the big city, and figured that they were officials, because of their private car, a rare site in those parts. Most could only afford to travel in an overloaded truck. How exciting! She eyed Moe up and down, trying not to seem rude, then indicated the direction. She wondered what made this city woman come to this remote village, so she ventured a question.
“Are you looking for somebody from Byainmatu Village? I know some people from that village.”
Win Bo replied that they were not looking for anyone. Rather, they’d come to see a water well. The answer was puzzling. Moe smiled sweetly, thanked the vendor and said goodbye.
The two men looked at each other urgently as Moe started to walk in the direction indicted by the vendor.
“Ma Moe, it’s three miles, which is six miles return. The road is muddy and there’s a sand stream. Are you sure you still want to go? ”
Her main purpose in coming all the way from Rangoon was to see a water well in this specific village. She’d flown to Bagan early in the morning, then drove to Myingyan District, Taungtha Township, through infamous Mt. Popa, the extinct volcano and legendary home of the powerful, awesome 37 Nats (spirits or gods). Byainmatu Village is 360 miles north of Rangoon, in the dry plain region with a woeful shortage of fresh water.
The monsoon usually touches central Burma’s dry region in mid-June, but this year the weather was out of rhythm, and the rain came earlier. The heavy rain last night and the shower this morning softened the muddy sandy path.
“It is quarter to ten now. How long will it take to walk three miles?” Moe looked at her old but reliable watch as she posed the question, but she seemed to be talking to herself. Before the two men could respond, Moe decided that it would take two hours return.
“It is quarter to ten now. It will take two hours to go and come back. We’ll spend about half an hour there, and we shall be back here around one o’clock in the afternoon.” In her customary fashion she was quick to decide and quick to act. She looked at the thin layer of gray clouds and the sun trying to break through. She bit her lower lip as she always does when she is feeling determined and stubborn, and said, “Let’s go”.
The two men looked at each other again but said nothing, because they knew it was pointless to try to stop her. So they followed. The betel nut vendor watched in amazement, especially at Moe, who walked with a great sense of purpose in high-heeled city sandals.
After half an hour walking on the muddy, sandy path they came across the sand stream as expected. The stream was warm and running fast, but luckily the water level was only calf-high. They took off their sandals and waded through the warm, clear water, holding up their longgyis with one hand and carrying their slippers in the other. (The Burmese always wear sandals, slippers or flip-flops, never shoes.) At the far bank of the stream they spotted a couple of white stupas (pagodas) in a toddy palm grove atop a small hill. The sand dune on the river bank shone under the sun’s ray. Moe felt the rough sand under her feet, the water was crystal clear, and the sand glistened like silver and gold dust. Happy-go-lucky children played in the stream. Women talked and laughed as they beat the laundry on the riverbank, all the while keeping a watchful eye on the children. Cows grazed nearby. Moe admired the beauty and serenity of it all, so different from Rangoon, the largest city in Burma.
After crossing the sand stream they reached a junction with paths leading to every direction. Which way shall we go, left, right or straight?” Win Bo asked. Tin Win looked at Win Bo as if so say, “Why are you asking me?” A nun carrying a red plastic basket on her head walked slowly in front of them and Tin Win ran ahead to ask directions. Once again he forgot the correct name of the village. Moe and Win Bo caught up with them, properly greeted the nun and asked for directions. The nun used her sleeve to wipe the perspiration from her forehead, adjusted the head pad and perfectly balanced basket on her clean shaven head, looked at them kindly and indicated the direction.
“Keep left until the next junction, then follow the straight path, which should end at the Byainmatu Village. It is still a long way from here. Our nunnery is just a few yards from here, and you are very welcome to rest and drink some cold water.”
Moe politely declined the nun’s kind offer, knowing that drinking water is precious in this area. Suddenly they realized that they’d forgotten their bottle water in the car. By now the sun was high in the sky and it was getting hot, despite the dry wind.
They followed the left path, passing a cemetery, a ground nut farm, and a family having lunch under a shady neem tree. Then they noticed a familiar stand with two clay water pots, which can be seen on main roads and at junctions throughout Burma. It was poignant that even in this arid land, people generously share what little water they have with strangers, travelers and passersby. It is a firmly held belief that to proffer water is to give everything one needs, since there are ten benefits of water. It is supposed that this meritorious act will bring good kamma, and a better future life.
Win Bo and Tin Win rushed to the stand, blew the dust from the plastic cup and dipped it gently into the pot so as not to agitate the sediment. Win Bo tried his best not to touch the cup with his lips as he drank. Tin Win then drank so greedily, it was as if he was going to swallow the whole cup. Then they realized that they had forgotten to offer any to Moe. They had already been walking for an hour, and had not yet reached the junction.
They kept following the left, hoping to meet someone to assure them that they were on the right path. Suddenly they heard stomping feet, and heavy breathing behind them. The path was narrow, so they gave way for the people behind them to pass. They saw two strong young women carrying a yoke with two tin water buckets.
The girls looked curiously at them. Tin Win smiled at the girls and asked the direction to the Byainmatu Village. This time he remembered the name.
“Daughters, does this path lead to Byainmatu Village?”
The girls nodded and said, “Yes it does. We are from Byainmatu Village and we are on our way to home. You can follow us”.
Moe noticed that the buckets were full of water, which meant that the girls had gone somewhere to fetch it. That made no sense, because there should be a well in Byainmatu Village. It was the very reason that Moe had come all the way from Rangoon, and had been walking in the heat and dust for more than an hour.
“Is it still far to get to the village?” The conversation between Tin Win and the girls continued.
“No. It is not far. Where do you come from, Uncle?”
“We are from Bagan – Nyaung Oo. How long until we reach the village?”
“Not long, just a little while. Are you looking for someone from our village?”
“No. We have come to see the water well. How many minutes from here to the village, do you know?” Win Bo insisted on knowing how many more minutes they had to walk, oblivious to the fact that people from the countryside would never measure time by minutes or hours, but rather by moments.
The girls paused, ignored the question of time counting, looked at each other, and one of them whispered, “Come and see the water well?!”
Moe, who was already perplexed at the sight of the girls carrying water so far from their village, posed a question. “I thought you have a water well in your village, no?”
“Yes, of course. We have three tube wells in our village”.
This perplexed Moe even more. “I see. But it seems that you went far away from the village to get this water. If there are tube wells in your village, why don’t you get the water there? Is the water not good, or do the wells not produce enough?”
The girls looked at each other again and the older girl replied hesitantly. “The wells produce enough good water, Big Sister, but we have to buy the water from the well owners.”
By now Moe was flabbergasted. “I know for a fact that one well was sponsored by individual donors and dug by the Remote Area Development Committee. Are you saying that you can’t get water from that well free of charge?”
This time the girls did not look at each other, but rather at Moe.
“Are you officials from the government office?”
“No, we are not. I’m from the family who sponsored digging the well in your village. We were informed that it was successfully dug and providing a great benefit to the villagers. We were also told that an opening ceremony with monks’ blessing could be arranged at the village monastery.
Moe talked breathlessly, then paused and looked at the girls, who seemed to have gained confidence in speaking with her.
“Could you please tell me what actually happened with the water well?”
The girls sighed and the older girl said slowly, “We are just girls and we do not know much. We are not involved in discussions about important matters, but as far as we know there are two parts to our village: east and west. In the eastern part, there were already two tube wells in the well-to-do people’s compound. In western part where we live, there was no water well at all. We needed one, didn’t we? They should have dug one where there was none, right?”
The older girl looked at the younger one for support. The younger one nodded her head quickly in agreement. The older girl continued.
“When we heard that the Development Committee would dig a tube well in our village, we thought it would be in our part of the village.”
“So where did they dig the well?” asked Moe.
“They dug it next to the existing ones, in eastern Byainmatu.”
“Well, even so, you can get the water from it, no?” Moe insisted.
The girls looked at her with dismay. Moe was caught totally off guard. She had expected a warm, thankful welcome. She had planned to take a photo of villagers coming to happily fetch water from the well, as she had seen in a documentary on the government television channel. Her entire objective in coming to this remote village was to document the results of her parents’ generosity, including their names on the well. How nice that would be!
“Here we are. U Mar from our village knows better than we do. Please ask him, Big Sister. He can tell you everything you want to know”.
The girls pointed to a dark-complexioned, stout man riding a bicycle toward them. The girls greeted the villager and spoke so quietly, as if they were discussing top secrets.
Moe and her staff looked anxiously at U Mar, who was listening attentively to the girls and nodding. He finally looked toward Moe and her staff and smiled broadly. His greeting was warm, but he got straight to the point.
“Sister and Brothers, the girls said that you came to see the water well that you sponsored.” He chose his words carefully. “Before you came, did you report to the relevant authority in town?”
Already annoyed by the unexpected news and conversation, Moe grew even more irritated by the reference to “the relevant authority.” Why on earth should she report to the so-called “relevant authority” just to see a tube well that her family had sponsored?
She replied warily. “No. Why should we? We just came to see if the well is functioning and in good condition, Brother.”
Win Bo stepped in, recognizing that Moe was about to lose her temper. U Mar looked at him and said, “I can show you the well that is in the home of the previous village administrator.” Moe’s agitation was growing by the minute.
“A water well for whole village should be easily accessible to all villagers, no? Why it is in an individual’s home?” Moe begrudgingly kept these questions to herself and listened to her staff.
“The girls said there are three tube wells in the village. We understand that the government only digs wells for villages that have none, and for villages with a fresh water shortage.”
“It is correct that there are two water wells in our village’s eastern part, but they are owned by two wealthy families. They have their own compressor and engine to pump the water. We want to buy water from them, but they won’t sell, so we fetch water from a natural pond. It is a bit far from the village, but it gives enough water for villagers during the rainy season. In the cold and hot seasons the pond dries up, and it is difficult to get water. In those months we have to walk further down to the river.”
U Mar stopped talking for a moment and looked at the visitors, who appeared tired and thirsty. Then he continued.
“In late 2004 people from the Remote Area Development Committee came to our village to do a survey for digging a tube well. We were very happy, and grateful to the donors, who had spent a lot of money. We expected them to dig in the western part of the village, where the water source is very deep, more than 350 feet. Digging such a deep well is expensive, which no one in the western part could afford. In the eastern part the water source is only 100 feet deep, so those two families were able to dig. The Committee is from government, they have the funds and appropriate machinery, so of course we expected that they would use their resources for the people who need it most. But they didn’t. Instead, they chose the previous village administrator’s compound, just next to the wealthy families who already have wells. They only had to dig 125 feet.”
“Did they leave a compressor and pump for you?” Win Bo asked U Mar.
“Yes, but the compressor is too small to pump a sufficient amount of water. Moreover, they left before the job was completed.”
“What do you mean before the job was completed?”
“They stopped once the water came out. They asked us to sign a document stating that the well had been dug successfully.”
“And you signed?”
“Yes, we had to.”
Moe could no longer keep quiet or restrain herself. “What do you mean you had to?!”
“They promised to provide a concrete tank and proper piping system later, and we believed them, so we signed. But they never came back.”
“So what did you do?”
“The administrator borrowed some cement, lime, sand and other construction material from the monastery, which was under renovation at that time. He built housing for the compressor engine, connected the pipe, built a small tank, installed the taps and attached the marble plate with the donor’s name. I heard that he spent about thirty thousand kyat.”
“Speaking of the monastery, is it located in the eastern or western part of the village?”
“It is located in eastern part, Sister.”
“That being the case, why didn’t they dig in the monastery compound, which is not owned by any individual? Since the well is in an individual home, he can claim that he owns it. It should not be in his home, don’t you agree?”
U Mar gave a cheeky smile.
“What you don’t know, Sister, is why they chose the administrator’s house. First, they didn’t want to do the survey around the village. Second, they didn’t want to dig deep. Third, they wanted free accommodations and meals while they worked here. But the main reason was that they wanted to save money. The administrator’s compound met all their requirements. They only had to dig around 125 feet, and the administrator provided them with food, tea and betel.”
“Do you mean to tell me that this well is now owned and used exclusively by the administrator’s family?”
“No, Sister, not exactly. When we have a ceremony in the village or when we cannot get water from the natural pond, the administrator — well, he is not actually an administrator any more — runs the pump as long as we pay for the diesel.¹ Here we are. This is the entrance to the village.”
There was no sign with the village name. The girls, who had walked faster, even with the heavy buckets of water across their shoulders, disappeared. The village was very quiet. They went straight to the previous administrator’s house. A shirtless old man with watery eyes came out of the wooden house and U Mar introduced him to the visitors. A boy was asked to bring the new administrator. Before he arrived, Moe went to see the well and found that her mother’s name was misspelled. How typically Burmese, not to take care to spell someone’s name correctly. Some women and children gathered quietly around Moe, staring and whispering.
An old man approached Moe and spoke excitedly. “Is it true that you are the donor from Rangoon?”
Moe smiled warmly and replied. “Yes, Grandfather. I am.”
“We have been so looking forward to meeting you. Thank you very much for sponsoring the well. But it is not working well, you know. We asked the boys who dug the well to give us your address, so that we could contact you and tell you what they did to us. Our village is very remote. We did not dare to expect that you would visit us all the way from Rangoon. Good, good, good. Now you are here. Please make it available to all of us. Please make it produce more water, will you?”
Moe did not know how to reply. She took a picture of the well without any smiling villagers fetching water from it. She took a picture of the marble sign on the concrete tank with her mother’s misspelled name
“Grandfather, it already belongs to the village.” Win Bo replied to the old man on behalf of Moe, who was visibly shaken by the whole situation.
The previous and current administrators borrowed some diesel from the wealthy family to demonstrate the engine running and the amount of water. After observing the water flow from the shaking pipe, Win Bo and Tin Win said that the compressor itself was not too small. Rather, the compressor and the belt required some modifications. Moe knew nothing about mechanical matters, compressors nor the well itself. The previous administrator hesitantly asked if Moe could take care of the debt owed to the monastery. Owed to the monastery?! That was too much for Moe. In Burmese Buddhist culture, the worst thing one can do is owe money to the monastery or the pagoda. Moe asked the villagers to immediately show her the way to the monastery. They walked there, at the far end of the village.
The chief monk was a kind, half deaf old man, so they had to speak loudly in order to be heard. That made the visitors uneasy, as they had never raised their voices to a monk. However, the villagers were used to it, so they encouraged Moe to speak up. The monk cupped his hand behind his ear so that he could hear better. Instead of raising her voice, Moe spoke slowly. A little novice offered them green tea and delicious mangoes. Suddenly Moe realized how hungry and thirsty she was. She stopped talking to sip the tea and eat the mangoes appreciatively. For the time being, she forgot her disappointment and embarrassment.
After the refreshments they reviewed the list of what was owed to the monastery for two years, as a result of the well-digging project. Who owed this debt? Moe and her family? The villagers? The Remote Area Development Committee? Moe did not want to make any judgment. She just wanted to clear up the mess once and for all. 3 buckets of lime. 80 bricks. 1.5 viss of cement. One piece of hard wood. One imperial gallon of engine oil. The total came to 26,000 kyat. She reimbursed the monastery and felt relieved.
The villagers offered them lunch, but Moe politely declined, ignoring her staff, who were about to accept. Moe accepted a banana and gave her staff time to drink a cup of sweet coffee, from a ready-made, 3 in 1 coffee mix pack.
Tin Win started to calculate the extra money that the Committee had made. The marble slab indicated that the donation was 1.000,000 kyat. The Committee had advertised a tube well with 200 feet of depth and a 2 inch circumference pipe at 250,000 kyat. A well with 400 feet of depth and a 2 inch circumference pipe was 500,000 kyat. A well with 400 feet of depth and a 4 inch circumference pipe was 1,000,000 kyat. The 1,000,000 kyat donation from Moe’s family entitled Byainmatu Village to a 400 feet well with a 4 inch circumference pipe, fully assembled with all necessary equipment: engine, compressor and pump. Instead of the proper well in the most convenient location, what they got was inappropriate and inadequate. Win Bo estimated that that the Committee actually spent less than 400,000 kyat. So who got the extra 600,000 kyat?
“They never dreamed that the donor would come all the way to this remote village and check up on their work. That is why they dared to cheat like this.”
The villagers unanimously agreed with Win Bo. Moe’s old, reliable watch showed that it was half past twelve noon, time to leave. With scorching sun beating down on them, burning hot sand under their feet, and dry, dusty wind in their faces, they walked back to the main road, hungry and thirsty.
“What are you going to do, Ma Moe?”
“About the well, the Committee, the cheating.”
“What can I do? I can only tell my mother not to dig any more wells through the Committee. If she wants to dig a well in a remote area, we’ll take care of it ourselves. If I happen to know someone who is planning to buy a well from the Committee, I will relate my experience. And I’ll try my best to tell as many people as possible. I think that’s all I can do.”
Her legs were sore, her pace slowed and she lagged far behind. Win Bo and Tin Win waited until she caught them up, and Win Bo asked kindly, “Are you ok to walk?”
Moe bit her lip and replied warily. “If I told you I couldn’t walk anymore, what could you do for me?”
Win Bo was caught off guard and he didn’t know how to reply. Tin Win looked at him as if to say, “You deserved that, for showing so much concern.”
All of a sudden, Moe burst out laughing, which made Win Bo and Tin Win laugh too.
“Don’t worry, guys. I can carry on.”
Just then they encountered a ground nuts farmer. He seemed forlorn, singing a sentimental song as he worked. They couldn’t help but sense his sadness. Perhaps, they thought, the hot, dry land causes feelings of melancholy.
¹ In 2006 Burma, mobile phones were not available to the general public. Moreover, villages did not have electricity, so they had to buy diesel to run the generator, to operate the pump.