A Proper Home
May 2005

Towards the end of March I started making some inquiries regarding how to improve the housing situation for Hay Mar Soe and her mom (Inle).

In reply I received the following message - and then things moved quickly...

"Kate" is Hay Mar Soe's english name. Larry and Sherrel Olsen are American missionaries in Mandalay for 23 months.

Mar 30 2005

Dear Gregg,

Sherrel and I visited Kate and her mother a few days ago and, yes, they need a place to live! Also, the mother needs to find a job that is not so dangerous to her health, (mixing toxic oil and treatment chemicals for customers, with her bare hands and arms clear up past her elbows)

We have checked on some prices for housing and it ranges from 5000K, (US$5.50) for poor quality in dangerous neighborhoods, 10000K, (US$11.00) for livable and ok neighborhood housing, and from there up to 50000K, (US$55.00) for good housing.

The mother could get work washing clothes for families, etc in most areas of the city, and it would be nice for them to be closer to Kate's classes and safer from the floods that afflict where they are now. (Their little room is about 3 inches deep in water right now.)

Kate is doing well and seems happy in spite of her circumstances. She is certainly a brave person. Her mother is an impressive person to know. Let me know your thoughts and we will help all we can. We have not mentioned anything to them about this.

Best wishes, Larry D. Olsen.

Just a few days later...

Apr 3 2005

Dear Gregg,

We learned that Kate's mother was sick, so we made another visit to their home. She was weak and feverish. We gave kate $15.00 for a doctor visit and medications, as well as some healthy food. That money came from the money you gave to us. I hope that was ok. Today Kate reported that her mother is much better, but still weak. Daw Ma Ma Naing is looking for some places for us to check out. The Dr. said that the water in their room, on the floor, and her being in the river washing clothes so much, is contributing to her problem. I think it is a combination of malnutrition, moisture, bad drinking water, chemical poisoning from her work, and hoplessness. They are both worthy of much better circumstances.

We are involved in many projects to help the poor, and LDSC, (Latter Day Saints Charities) is funded to help whole villages with clean water, sanitation, etc. Individual cases like this still rely on the individual charity of people like yourself. There are so many cases, yet it really makes a difference to the one.

There is an urgency with Kate and her mother. The rainy season will start in a couple of months. Her health is not going to get better where they are. Let me know what you want us to do. We will check out a few places and report back in a few days.

Best wishes, Larry D. Olsen.

Employing the help of Ma Ma Naing - the founder of Hay Mar Soe's school - as well as Larry and Sherrel, things happened quickly and within a month, Hay Mar Soe and Inle were in a new home - perhaps the first proper home that Hay Mar Soe has ever known.

Larry wrote:

Apr 26 2005

Dear Gregg,

It's a done deal! Kate and her mother moved in yesterday. We found a nice little house with a yard and space for a garden, etc. The rent is paid up for one year. The rent came to three leks, or $323.00US, plus $27.00US for a brokers fee.

Yesterday, I took Kate and her friend shopping. When they moved, their entire belongings fit into 4 gunny sacks. So, we bought furniture, ie, desk, 3 chairs, table, bookshelf,and a kitchen cupboard. The total cost was just under $50.00US. We will get some bamboo panels and a few other household items later this week (approx $50.00US) So, the grand total for one year is about $450.00. We realize this may be a little over what you might be able to handle at once, so if you need to, just send what you can, when you can. Time was of the essence to get this place and it is the best deal available.

There is one more item needed at the home. The well is not working and water comes from the neighbors at present. I can get a new tube well drilled for about $200.00US. I'm going ahead with this. If it exceeds what you had expected to pay, please let us know and we will take care of the difference. Having a good water supply will make their life much easier.

We believe that Kate and her mother are now in the best possible circumstances. Their health and welfare will be greatly improved. You can rest assured that all is well with them. They are closer to us now, and we, and Ma Ma Naing will be able to watch over them carefully.

We admire your desire to help this little family. Thank you for giving us the privilege of being involved.

Sincerely, Larry Olsen.

Thanks especially to those who have contributed to the till!

As an added bonus, I'm including below a bit of writing from Bernice Johnson. I met Bernice (an American who has spent a lot of time with Burmese students in Chiang Mai) in Shan State, Burma. She subsequently visited Hay Mar Soe in Mandalay.

Bernice's visit occurred in Feb 2005, before the move.

Feb 2005
by Bernice Johnson

Min cycles to the house of Hay Mar Soe's friend, Khaing Khaing, and leaves us there. Hay Mar Soe and her mother live in the basement. Clutching my hand tightly, Hay Mar Soe says, "I am scared. I am really scared."

"Why are you scared?"

"I am poor. I am very poor," she says. "Would you like to go to a restaurant?" I wonder at the sudden change of plan. "If you would like to," I say.

"No," she says decisively. "Come with me."

She leads me down steep concrete stairs littered with orange peels, plastic bags, discarded slippers. We duck through a rectangular opening into a small dirt cellar that is her home. A few boards are laid across the floor; a strong urine smell fills the air. It nauseates me. I want to vomit, to cry, but remembering how frightened Hay Mar Soe was about bringing me here, I try to act as though I am accustomed to such surroundings.

Eat now, cry later, I tell myself, and settle down on a log next to a wooden box with a tin washtub turned upside down on top of it. Hay Mar Soe lifts it off to display pickled tealeaves, shelled and unshelled peanuts, mandarin orange slices, small bananas, and an empty pink bud vase set upon a white cloth.

She gets a basin of water from the floor, pours it over my hands, and gives me a rag to dry them. "Now we can eat," she says.

I sprinkle peanuts on top of pickled tealeaves and bring a forkful to my mouth. "This is delicious," I say, meaning it.

She looks gratified, "Gregg like this very much," she says. "I am dutiful daughter. When he is here, I cook for him." The urine stench seems less strong, and I suspect she does not smell it at all.

At one end of the small room is a wood platform bed, a large mosquito net suspended above it. "I'm glad you have a mosquito net," I say, hoping it keeps out mice, rats, and other stray animals. "Gregg buy for me," she says, and I have a deeper respect for the friend I made in Kentung.

Hay Mar Soe points to a metal box beside me. "That is my box, that is my box," she says, the way another person might say, "That was my grandmother's porcelain vase." She stands up, rummages in the box, and comes up with a small book, A Guide to Myanmar. She wraps my hand around it: "For you," she says, looking pleased with herself. Thanking her, I glance through a few musty pages: The population of Burma is about fifty-two million; travel agencies offer cruises on the Irrawaddy River.

She hands me another book titled Intermediate English. "This is my school book," she says. "My teacher says I need a cassette player-there is a tape with our book. I must listen." She resumes her position at the table.

"My mother is working very hard for me, so we can buy one," she says, and I imagine her mother on her knees at the edge of the Irrawaddy, heaps of unwashed clothing on the riverbank beside her. She lifts blouses, shirts, and longyis into the water, soaking and soaping them, slapping them against rocks, lifting them out and placing them to dry on the riverbank, wishing the unwashed pile were even higher, so she might buy a cassette player for her daughter at day's end.

"I would like to see some cassette players," I say.

Hay Mar Soe pops up, walks to a rough wooden altar on the wall at my left. The altar holds a plate of oranges, three small glasses of water, and a picture of Buddha. She kneels in front of it, flattens her body so her buttocks touch her heels, presses her forehead to the ground, and rises to her feet again in one fluid movement. She empties the water glasses onto the floor and refills them from the basin of water she poured over my hands. "Excuse me," she says. "I will change my clothes." She gets a red skirt from her metal box and sets it beside her. Then, she unwraps her longyi, and pulls it to her chin, holding an edge of the fabric between her teeth. She reaches for the red skirt and pulls it on under the tent of her other longyi, which she drops to the floor.

"This is my lucky skirt," she says. "A little bit short. When I am in sixth standard, I win a prize. My teacher, she knows I have no clothes, cannot come to award ceremony. She gives me this."

The long skirt emphasizes her slender body, makes her look taller than her five feet, and I silently bless her teacher. "I am ready," she says. Then she looks down at the skirt and laughs apologetically, "A little bit short," she says.

Trying to get out of the narrow cellar opening, I inadvertently knock my head against a wooden support. "Oh, no," says Hay Mar Soe, stroking my head.

"Are you okay?"

"I am playing Jackie Chan," I laugh, but she looks troubled.

She holds my arm tightly as we walk down dusty 26th Street back toward the Nylon Hotel. The cassette shop is on the way, she says.

Hay Mar Soe has high expectations of her English class, but says, "I don't care if I am rich. I want to be noble woman. Noble woman. You know?" A noble woman? "Do you know a noble woman?" I ask.

She looks at me from the corner of her eyes. "Jess. I know. But cannot say." I say the lady's name. "Is she a noble woman?"

"Oh, oh!" she gasps. "Cannot say her name. Jess. Cannot say her name." Her fear of being overheard runs deep-no one is near. It is a while before I realize she probably meant "a Nobel woman," referring to the Nobel peace prize the lady won in 1990, but noble serves her intent.

The cassette shop clerk shows us three recorders. We settle on a Sony that will allow her to record as well as listen to tapes: twenty-six thousand baht, thirty dollars U.S., a small price to lessen my shame about my plenty and her need.

Hay Mar Soe walks me to the Nylon, pulling me sharply aside when vehicles approach. "Don't worry," she says. "I am with you. I take care you," and I trust that she will.

copyright ©2005 - Gregg Butensky

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