Me, a Motorbike and Moving Moments
by Major Wendy Caffull
|Major Wendy Caffull accompanied her husband, International Emergency Services Field Operations Officer Major Mike Caffull, on a journey to Myanmar (Burma). She reports for All the World on the challenges being faced by the emergency relief workers and the huge impact their work is having on the lives of people who lost everything in the destruction caused by Cyclone Nargis.|
Villagers from remote communities arrive by boat to pick up building materials
THE moment the plane touched down in beautiful Yangon (Rangoon), the capital of Myanmar, I was aware of the immense privilege that was mine to share in some of the emergency work my husband has been involved in for the past few years.
As soon as we left the comfortable coolness of the airport into the heat and rush of the outside world I knew this was going to be an experience of a lifetime.
My first impressions were of smells, heat, noise and busyness as people pushed to be the first to take our cases to our transport. Then my journey into the unknown really began.
As our driver took us along the roads of Yangon I was aware of an apparent lack of concern for health and safety. As we travelled I saw people hanging off the back of buses which looked to me like trucks with the roof taken off! There were motorcyclists with no helmets, trishaws - three-wheeled rickshaws - that looked as if they shouldn't be allowed on the road, and cars and buses with tyres that had no tread on them.
Even more amazing were the tiny street stalls. They were everywhere, selling cooked Burmese food, with incredible smells. Some of these stalls held very little and I wondered if this was all these people had to make their living. People were sitting on the floor all along the paths. Some were asleep, others waiting for buses.
|Major Wendy Caffull holds on tight!|
|Commmunity members and Salvation Army team members work together to build new houses|
|A mushroom-growing scheme|
|Growing crops for the first time since the cyclone struck|
|Sharing a meal and fellowship|
|Majors Mike and Wendy Caffull look into a house that has been decorated with a Salvation Army red shield|
Then I had my first sight of some of the typical housing for people in Myanmar - what I can only describe as tiny shacks made of bamboo, some with tarpaulin, on stilts, looking decrepit and yet for some people these were their homes. In the next few days I was to learn a great deal more about the way of life and the hardships these beautiful people face.
Our first task was to visit a village where The Salvation Army provided housing materials for families whose homes had been devastated by the cyclone which hit the country in May 2008. This particular village had seen a disaster happen the night before we arrived, as one of the bamboo shacks, which was a home and a shop, had caught fire.
As the homes and shops were so close together, the fire had spread to seven of them in the space of 10 minutes. Fortunately there was no loss of life, but these poor people who have so little had lost everything - again. Although we were not able to visit our 'new' homes in this area due to restrictions on foreigners, some of our translators checked on these while we went to the home of the parents of someone whose livelihood had been destroyed in the fire. As we sat on the floor of their home we cried with them as they explained how their son and his wife had lost absolutely everything.
As we drove past the burnt-out structures it was easy to see how they caught fire so quickly. It was amazing that the villagers had managed to save the rest of the places in the dusty street. It was a quiet journey back to our accommodation as we all realised just how much we had in comparison to these people, who once again had been left with nothing.
Day two meant a long journey to some remote villages where The Salvation Army had again assisted in rebuilding some homes. This time I was able to go into the new homes that the people had built for themselves with materials The Salvation Army had provided.
The joy on the families' faces was wonderful.
They were so proud to invite me into their one-roomed new homes and offer me Chinese tea and some kind of cake that had been made especially for us. Many of them kept saying 'thank you, thank you, thank you' as we walked around their village. Each family had added their own style to their new homes and we were touched to see that one had made their own Salvation Army shield and incorporated it into the house's decor!
Another village to be visited in this area was not accessible by car. I was informed that I was to ride side-saddle on the back of a motorbike over fields, along roads made of stones and tiny dirt tracks. Also, to keep in with the tradition of the people I was wearing a lungi (similar to a long wrap-over skirt). Clinging on for dear life to the motorbike and the captain who was driving me, while making sure my skirt didn't flap open, and trying hard not to fall off on the very bumpy roads was an experience I will never forget! It was worth it, however, as when we got to this village I was able to help out in the feeding programme that is ongoing here as well as see more new houses.
It was an incredible experience to witness the next 10 people who were to be recipients of new housing this week come to receive materials for their new homes. The whole village turned out to help them. They counted out the bamboo poles for each family and then everyone joined in carrying the different materials each family would need to their respective plots of land. They had already dismantled what remained of their old properties - it wouldn't have taken long - and the rebuilding of the new homes became a community project. I was amazed to hear that within four days the new homes on stilts would be completed.
One of the many moving moments was the giving out of bamboo poles to people in villages only accessible by small boats. The poles were to help the villagers rebuild their livelihood. They were farmers who had lost everything in the cyclone and, as their fields had been contaminated in the aftermath of the cyclone, they had to wait six months before they could start to plant anything again. A few weeks before our visit the emergency team had given out seeds and fertiliser for them to start again, along with basic tools required for farming. Now they were receiving the poles for the trellises for their vegetables.
One woman showed us how her new plants have started to grow and explained that she waters them twice a day - with a watering can and water she has to walk a long way to obtain. It would appear that much of her time is taken up with walking backwards and forwards for water to make her plants strong and healthy. Despite the labour-intensive work, she was not moaning about her lot but she was thrilled with the help The Salvation Army had given her to enable her to become self-supporting again.
The emergency team helped another village to start a mushroom farm, again by providing the raw materials to enable the villagers to work together in producing a good crop they could sell on. It was amazing to see the immense hard work that many people put in to make the mushroom farm work, and to see again the community spirit as everyone gets involved in some aspect of the process. At the end of the visit we were given a bag of mushrooms that had already been grown from this new venture. These people are so grateful for all that has been done for them so that they can work hard to become self-supporting - it really is most moving to see their commitment and hard work.
I will take countless memories and lessons from my brief time in Myanmar. It was humbling to sit on the floor in people's homes as they offer to us, as their guests, food from the very little they have. They are most hospitable and want to share what is theirs. It was especially moving also to see the community spirit as villagers help each other in the rebuilding of homes and communities. Some of the villages we travelled to seem to be from another age and it was amazing to see how even small efforts made by The Salvation Army are making a huge difference in the lives of the people there.
I met some amazing people. Not only the villagers but also the wonderful Salvation Army officers and Salvationists from the Myanmar Region who have given of themselves and their time tirelessly to help their fellow countrymen and women, and who are using God-given opportunities to pray with and for the people they are working among.
The Salvation Army Emergency Services team has once again been there to meet the need of the people. Team members are using the money that has been donated to the people of Myanmar so well, and are still identifying emergencies that need to be addressed following the devastation of Cyclone Nargis.
'Where there's a need there's The Salvation Army' may be an old slogan, but my experience of this week in Myanmar proves it is still true. I am privileged to belong.
Major Wendy Caffull is Under-Secretary for International Personnel at The Salvation Army's International Headquarters in London