We’ve been driving between 10 and 12 hours a day for 4 days on winding dirt roads in the mountains of Myanmar (formerly Burma). Since the coup d’état of 1962, few foreigners have travelled into these mountains.
It’s the dry season. ‘Difficult as this trip is,’ states MAF Country Director Chad Tilley, ‘it would be almost impossible in the rainy season when the whole place is cut off for five months.’
The road we’re on didn’t exist two years ago. Now, excavators and bulldozers struggle to create and widen roads that disappear in landslides each monsoon season.
We’re heading to Lailenpi, a village in Chin State, the remotest and poorest region of Myanmar, to assess the feasibility of building an airstrip for a community dreaming of a lifeline.
Airstrip development is an essential part of any MAF programme. Many old airstrips in Myanmar sit unused, needing minor work to make them operational. At other locations, airstrips need to be built from scratch – Lailenpi being one of those places.
Dr Sasa, our trip leader, grew up in these mountains. As a young child, he says he remembers his mother’s best friend dying in childbirth along with the baby, and losing 3 of his childhood friends to diarrhoea within 24 hours.
With no clinic, hospital, roads, or even education, he believed nothing would change unless he could help his own people. He needed to become a doctor.
Through a series of improbable and miraculous circumstances, via India, Armenia and England, that boy became a doctor, started the NGO Health and Hope, met Prince Charles – who is now its patron – and began training community health workers (CHWs) in Chin State. Today, 834 CHWs serve across 551 isolated villages.
The work includes training traditional birth attendants and supporting the education of more doctors. For Dr Sasa, a man full of faith, impossible dreams have already come true – so why not move a mountain to build an airstrip?
Making a sacrifice
Before we arrived, Dr Sasa reported, ‘I see villagers praying for MAF to come sooner. In my heartbeat and prayers, I see amazing blessings coming to Myanmar through MAF.’
The doctor made our visit possible by collecting a second 4x4 from across the border in India, driving for five days back to Lailenpi and then on to Matupi to meet us. He even arranged for ‘impassable’ stretches of the road to be cleared.
Our welcome in Lailenpi reflects the excitement Dr Sasa had described to us. The joy on people’s faces surpasses anything we could have imagined. From a hilltop, the MAF team watches the last of 3 groups waiting to welcome us – a line of more than 1,000 grateful people stretching across a field.
‘No one reaches this place without making a sacrifice,’ Dr Sasa tells us. His people understand this.
Move that mountain
We wake the next morning to unseasonal rain. Thankfully, it clears in time for the airstrip assessment to begin. More than 100 people gather by the semi-cleared 300-metre area of a hill that the villagers set aside for an airstrip 2 years earlier, following a previous MAF survey visit. It’s only a third of the length we require.
After measuring gradient, bearing, altitude and GPS co-ordinates, the team treks into the jungle – men chopping a route ahead of them with machetes on the steep slope. I wonder to myself how this could possibly be flattened enough to complete the airstrip.
As the day progresses and various options are explored, ‘moving a mountain’ becomes plausible. With each flicker of doubt from the team, Dr Sasa declares with confidence that it is, in fact, possible. Greater ‘mountains’ than this have moved in his life.
‘Like angels from God’
In Lailenpi, people tell stories of a life lived in isolation, unmet medical needs, poor education and years of famine. Rain prevents our departure the next day, providing a tiny taste of their daily reality.
On the third day, we wake to sunshine and celebration. The village leaders had, overnight, organised an all-day festival for the team – traditional dancing, preaching and a feast for 1,500 people.
In the closing speech, Dr Sasa shares on behalf of the villagers, ‘We cannot express our thankfulness to you because our feelings are overflowing! Simply to say, we all feel you are like angels from God. By coming, you brought us a good day and a reason to celebrate.’
‘Never in my dreams did I imagine you would be here, the poorest part of Myanmar,’ exclaims U Hi Wa, a village elder.
‘Now Chin people will become visible,’ declares Daw Mai Dei, leader of a local women’s group. ‘If your flights bring women from other parts of the world to be friends with women here, you will bring women’s development in the future.’
Another villager, Zai On, exclaims,
‘We have big faith that, through your help, one day we will receive the plane here and that will increase the strength of our children – they will have bigger dreams in this place.’
Just the first step
Deeram Khong, MAF’s only national staff member in Myanmar, believes that ‘the type of work we can do is needed here, especially in Chin, Kachin and Kayah States.
‘A lot of places are isolated from healthcare and education. Because of the remoteness, no one wants to go there. MAF can reach the most isolated people wherever they are. We most definitely need MAF!’
This visit was just the first step in what will be a long process but, as Chad concludes, ‘You must take the first step if you’re going to make a difference.’
MAF and the people of Myanmar need our support to overcome the immense obstacles ahead. Please pray with us that more ‘mountains’ will be moved.
Story and photos: LuAnne Cadd