The Shanta Foundation has spent years helping residents of the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar
In 2006, American backpackers Mike and Tricia Karpfen built a school for the Pa’O people of remote, mountainous villages in Myanmar (formerly Burma), after spending time in the country two years earlier. When the couple later returned to the area, they found that no one was using the beautiful school they had built.
“They started touring local villages, asking parents why they weren’t sending their children to the school they had built,” said Wade Griffith, executive director of the Shanta Foundation. “It was a very American approach to the situation: ‘I did this thing for you. I know what is best. That should have fixed everything. But Mike and Tricia learned to listen instead of just telling the villagers what they needed.
The reasons why the children were not going to school were much more complicated than the Karpfen expected: the biggest obstacle to the education of Myanmar’s young people was the need for them to work on the farms. of their family alongside their parents, so that the family does not starve.
Often they physically could not get to school because the monsoon rains had caused the rivers to swell so much that they could not cross them, especially when there were no bridges in their area. They also suffered from numerous illnesses caused by the often contaminated drinking water.
“Mike and Tricia realized they couldn’t help people in Myanmar by just giving them a quick fix like a school or new pipes to pump their water out of,” Griffith said. “They needed to help the villagers with a more holistic approach. Something more innovative and sustainable.
This is the guiding model of the Durango-based Shanta Foundation, a non-profit organization that aims to help the impoverished people of Myanmar over the past 17 years to strengthen their infrastructure with the full involvement of the Burmese people. Those who work with Shanta have found that success can only be sustained through community-led development.
“Local people need to be involved in what Shanta is doing with the development of the village,” said Seinne Lai, country manager of Shanta in Myanmar. “They have to be able to get things done on their own, long term.”
Originally from Myanmar, Lai has worked with the Shanta Foundation since 2017, organizing and implementing a community effort with a team of 25 Myanmar citizens. She recently traveled to Durango as the keynote speaker at a fundraiser hosted by Shanta at the Riverbend Ranch.
“Farmers live in extreme poverty,” Lai told those present. “Even before COVID came along and the Civil War.”
On February 1, 2021, the civilian government, led by the National League for Democracy, was overthrown in a military coup, which expelled Myanmar’s elected State Councillor, (Prime Minister) Aung San Suu Kyi, and replaced her with the country’s army chief general, Min Aung Hlaing, who took over as head of state.
Since then, the army has shelled and burned many villages in Myanmar in an attempt to maintain control. In retaliation, the civilians formed a militia known as the People’s Defense Force, made up of people from all walks of life: housewives, farmers, doctors, engineers and a remarkable number of young adults who were forced to arming with homemade ammunition. muskets, catapults and bombs against a heavily armed military force with aerial firepower, according to the BBC.
“The (civil) war made it so much worse,” Lai said in his speech. “People are starving. We had to deal with that and a pandemic, but even the lockdown didn’t stop us. We continued to work with the Shanta Foundation to provide drinking water and other resources to the villages. The local people continue to work hard to rebuild and improve the quality of their villages and their lives.
Despite the devastating destruction of the civil war, the Shanta Foundation has managed to help the people of Burma improve health care, education, water supply systems, roads and even set up community banks. With a more realized and robust plan of action and more funding, the Shanta Foundation now has the means to extend its concerted efforts to Zambia, a country in East Africa also in difficulty.
“The changes I see are inspiring and humble,” said Tricia Karpfen. “What we did there was not just a one-time event. … All the pieces are connected and they come together, so the quality of life and sense of opportunity for the whole community has been enhanced by the programs we have supported.
Says Griffith: “I can’t be happy while others are suffering. We can always do something, you know?