His small, chubby, brown hands were dirty and he smiled a cheeky grin, as he wiped them quickly on his red T-shirt, which was not much cleaner. The dirt was not “new” dirt, but an accumulation of years of poverty passed down from generations. His family, like many farmers throughout history, had moved to the shanty towns on the riverbank, hoping for a better life.
I had spent the morning photographing the children of this small community who played and swam in the muddy waters of the great Irrawaddy River which rises from Himalayan glaciers and flows for 2,170 km, bisecting Myanmar. According to The World Bank, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, estimate 37.5 percent of the population live in poverty and this figure doubles in rural areas. The settlement beside the river was certainly not one promoted on the front page of glossy travel magazines, featuring maroon dressed Buddhist monks and the Golden Temple of Yangon.
With my camera SD cards now full, I searched for a way back through the maze of shacks to a high stone wall which divided the township. Despite not speaking English, the little boy in the red shirt instinctually recognised I would have a problem retracing my footsteps and extended his hand to show me the way. Barely 5 years old, his smile revealed rotting, front teeth as he quickly pointed in the direction we should take. I was hesitant at first, not because I was afraid of stepping in more mud, animal manure or on lean, lazy, Asian, dogs warming themselves in the sunshine, but rather, I felt I was now over-stepping my presence in this community; the unspoken agreement between a tourist and the village. I had been accepted as I sat quietly and photographed the women and children going about their daily life, but now the direction we were heading was clearly very close to the houses and gardens of this community. At any moment, I was also expecting to hear a protesting mother allege I was kidnapping her child! The little boy tugged my hand to go “faster” as we made our way between a maze of bamboo, green plastic and thatched buildings and small, newly planted seedlings which were struggling for survival. In the distance, I could make out a high, stone wall where large, green, ceramic garden pots had been placed strategically to enable small children and now a western woman, with a camera slung around her neck, to climb up and over a wall; a wall that provided a clear distinction between his world and mine.
I thanked the little boy as he flashed a black, toothy smile and turned to run back to his friends. I watched as they continued to make mud pies and play with fat pigs and mangy, yellow dogs. My thoughts turned to my own children, who not so many years ago, also loved to “cook” and decorate mud pies. How different their lives would have been if they were born here in the slums of Mandalay without healthcare, education and a better than equal chance of succeeding and achieving their hopes and dreams.
Standing on the high stone wall, I took one last photograph of the great, brown Irrawaddy River and the community below. I had now left that world physically, the riverside slums of Mandalay, but this chance meeting with a small boy in a red shirt would not leave my thoughts for many months to come.
I have struggled with what I saw and experienced that day. My photographs did not record violence, abuse or death but I did see poverty in its rawest form. Like many communities in Myanmar, the people through birth and circumstance scratch for a living, trying to provide for their families in any way possible. My photographs cannot describe the smell of rotting, dead animals, garbage, pig, human and chicken manure together with the petrol fumes from outboard motorboats. My photographs captured women elegantly carrying huge baskets of dirty clothing on their heads to the water’s edge where they scrubbed them clean with sweet smelling soap to cover the stench of putrid, brown water. Farmers delivered fat pigs on long boats which were then “encouraged” to jump overboard and swim ashore. Food scraps and sewerage from riverboats were emptied over the side, hoping to avoid those who worked below them; washing, and fishing. Small children laughed and joked as I showed them their photographs in my camera’s viewfinder as their mother prepared a midday meal of green greens and rice, cooked with the muddy water bucketed from the river. Plastic bags, Styrofoam cups, timber, oil and the occasional dead animal bobbed up and down on the current which would eventually wash ashore, maybe not here but somewhere on its journey downstream to the ocean. Bullock carts and ox-ploughs are as much as common today as centuries ago, while tourists like me, carry cameras which probably amount more in value than these people earn in two whole years.
Like many farming families in Myanmar, this community is living on the edge, struggling to maintain a delicate balance between life and death. The little boy in the red shirt and his friends were lucky to be alive considering the conditions they were living in. Health care is unaffordable to the vast majority of the population where acute respiratory infections, diarrhoea, and septicaemia claim many lives each day.
“It is what it is” – a slum, with a continuum of birth, struggle, highs and lows and eventually one day, death. For the families who live in the rural areas of Myanmar and the Irrawaddy shanty towns, there seems to be more struggle and lows than we could ever imagine.
For many of us we complain about the small things; a bad hair day, being cut-off in traffic, or our chai latte is not hot enough.
But does that really matter?
With the life challenges that this one small Burmese boy, in a grubby red t-shirt, has faced already, was it so surprising he took the time to invest in true goodness, without even a thought of payment, to show me the way out of his close-knit community? No, not really. From my travels throughout rural Myanmar, I found the Burmese people, despite their extreme poverty, kind, caring, trustworthy and extremely compassionate. Maybe, these wonderful human traits could have something to do with their devout following of Buddhism?
Hopefully, one day in the not too distant future, this little boy and his friends will have some of the same opportunities afforded to those who live on the other side of the wall, without the loss of some of the greatest qualities humans can possess.
November 4, 2016