PFP in Thailand 2015
The Big Picture
Leaving the 42KM school on the Thailand/Myanmar border after completing PFP’s pilot programme brought mixed feelings. We left with our bags a little lighter, our hearts larger, and our heads fuller with the experience. Our work in Thailand had been tough, but it left us with the conviction that the positive impact of Play for Progress had been invaluable to these children.
42km is a school in rural Thailand that provides nearly 100 Burmese migrant children (ages 3-18) with some form of basic education. It is overseen and supported by Spanish NGO Colabora Birmania, and while they are constantly working to provide better education, the main function of he school is to ensure that the children are kept safe and provided with food during the weekdays. The children we worked with are incredibly vulnerable. Over 70% of the local population (men, women, and children alike) will be forcibly drawn into human and/or drug trafficking that is prevalent in the Mae Sot region.
As it was possible to send only two of our seven person team to launch the pilot programme in Thailand, we concentrated our teaching efforts on the smaller-scale education modules, which included rhythm and singing games, world music, and instrumental instruction.
Rhythm and singing games teach children how to positively contribute to achieve a group aim and help to develop listening, musicianship, and communication skills. We also actively encourage 'composition' (so that the children can learn how to create their own personalised games), and we incorporate aspects of performance so that the children develop the ability to confidently stand before their peers and share.
Our world music module was also a hit! We had the pleasure of introducing world music traditions from around the globe to the children through audio files, telling histories and myths of various regions, showing pictures and videos of exotic instruments being played, and using maps to pinpoint exactly where the people who played this music lived. By the end of our programme, the hostel children had learned (for the very first time!) about music traditions from New Zealand’s Haka and Oum Kulthoum’s voice to Celtic traditional music and South American samba.
While we provided individual lessons on both flute and guitar, the highlight of our instrumental instruction was the series of evening jam sessions that we held for the children who live at the school (ranging in age from 3-18, many of them orphans). Depending on their preference for the night, half of the class would sing, play guitar, and develop a rhythm section with Anna and the other half would go with Alyson to learn about different flutes, recorders, and have additional musicianship tuition.
When we arrived on site, we quickly learned that the children had not been exposed to the same quality or quantity of education regardless of age, and that their age did not reflect the level of schooling they had received. In fact 42km's equivalent of "kindergarten" catered to children from age 6-13. We could see the children observing us closely as we arrived on site and moved into the teachers' bamboo hut, but by the end of the day, the smiles were prevalent and laughter was louder than even the wild roosters.
The adults were a bit harder to win over, especially as we saw the reality of the division between children and adults that is traditional in both Thai and Burmese communities. The teachers initially didn’t seem sure of what to make of our musicianship classes, and stood away from our instruction, but the enthusiastic participation of the kids and our appreciation of their culture soon persuaded them to join in and see the value of the programme.
One of Play for Progress’s aims is to get the local teachers and carers involved in our daily activities and exercises so that they can choose to continue to use our method of teaching (and perhaps specific exercises) after we leave. The nursery teaching was the most enthusiastic of the teachers, and was keen to help us implement our methods and even came up with some singing exercises for us. We had various games that we heard being played while we were wandering past the classroom later in the day. Offering different ways to communicate and including everyone in a non-pressure environment is vital to the growth of a healthy community. The simple yet effective way that we see the methods PfP making a difference is further evidence of the importance of the arts in this role. By the end of our stay the teachers were joining with our activities; singing, clapping along, grabbing hands, smiling and photographing every movement, as well as laughing along with the children. The cumulative effect this had was that everyone seemed more confident about joining in and felt part of the group.
Over the course of our programme, many of the children opened up and shared harrowing stories of their personal experiences with violence, loss of family, displacement, and other traumatizing scenarios that no one--let alone a child--should have to experience. One particularly clever eleven year-old girl named Yuzana shared her story (in quite a blasé manner, it should be noted) of how a relative was murdered in front of her, and how she has grown up as an orphan because the remaining members of her family have contrived HIV and live in a shelter.
Born blind in one eye, orphaned, and socially impeded because of her traumatic upbringing, Yuzana does not find much joy or comfort in social situations--except when she has a chance to sing or play percussion.
Aye Myat Noe
One young girl will remain particularly vivid in our memories. Her name is Aye Myat Noe and she is nine years old. Very reserved, wary of being touched, and generally stand offish, she regularly refused to participate in activities. She stood on the edge of the class room space, watching the activities, but never wanting to get involved. We struggled throughout the week to engage her in both group and private activities, as we did not want to cross the very fine line that distinguishes between inviting a child in to participate, and forcing them to take a step forward when they are not ready. We increasingly felt that we were failing her, that we were unable to connect or help her break through her barriers. This was the case, that is, until the night before we left. We gathered the hostel children together and held a competition around a particularly complex rhythmic pattern that we had taught them. She approached from the far corner of the room, slowly, but with purpose. It was apparent that this was the moment for which she had built up her reserved courage. She was here to play. She was here to win. She was here to show all her peers just what she could do. And she did! This little girl was the winner of the competition of her age group! When we approached her to award her the prize and the due congratulations, she grabbed onto us with a more forceful, heartfelt and clinging hug than we have ever felt before. The rest of the night was spent in jubilant celebration. She didn’t let go. And neither did we.
Perhaps surprisingly, The hardest reality we had to face while in Thailand and Myanmar was not seeing the poverty of the children we worked with--we had both researched and spoken to people who had been out there as well as having had some previous experience working in fields of child health/education--It was seeing the children we couldn’t help; those washing in the polluted Salween river that divides Myanmar from Thailand, the children begging on the border bridge, and those whom we knew were ‘employed’ in the infamous child prostitution industry. In a world where this is the norm it is hard not to be become disheartened or overwhelmed by the size of the problem. Thankfully the impression that the children we could help left on us helped us come to terms with the fact that you have to start somewhere to make a difference and you have to start small (and local) to grow.
What we saw and experienced at 42KM remains with us now, and processing everything will take longer still. The differences we made, if only temporary, validated our beliefs in the arts as a method for the improvement of disadvantaged lives, and has only strengthened our resolve and desire to return.
Play for Progress is currently in discussion with larger NGOs and corporations to secure contracts and support that would enable us to develop annual programmes for children within safe spaces in other areas of conflict. Since winning the Deutsche Bank Award for Creative Enterprise in 2014, we have hosted a fundraiser at the Deutsche Bank Headquarters and an on-line fundraising concert in cooperation with the Rotary Club of Chelsea. We will return to Thailand in 2016 and are in the process of developing a programme for the underserved our next programmes on the road to our next project and can’t wait to take our program to children worldwide. If you would like to help us please don't hesitate to get in touch! Any donations can be made via the Play for Progress website at www.playforprogress.com
We look forward to hearing from you,
Anna and Alyson