Else (continued): “These past 4 months have allowed me to start discovering Karen history and culture. Through this experience I have gotten to know many beautiful people!”
TMK is what? TMK is a “village” close to Pho Pra, Thailand, on the Burmese border. TMK was built around the school and for the school: about 500 students of all ages (from kindergarten to the first years of higher education) live there, away from their families, in order to have access to a good level of education.
With the exception of a few, most are all of Karen ethnicity and Burmese nationality. They live in dormitories and each one is assigned to a chore each week (cooking, emptying bins, cleaning classrooms, etc.). The youngest (about forty children) live in a house, run by Beebee, a lady with overflowing energy and a witty sense of humor!
Most students only return home for the summer holidays, although some may return more regularly as their village is more accessible. Some families also live in TMK, mainly teachers. Volunteers more or less spend a majority of their time at the center, and some have been there for years and developed a feeling of community.
So TMK can be summed up as few dormitories, a few houses, 2 small convenience stores, a church, 3 Noodle shops (small restaurants), sports fields (football, volleyball, and badminton) and of course the school…but it would be too easy to summarize TMK to its buildings! But anyone who has been to TMK would know it is so much more!
A typical week at TMK?
The days are full with the courses and their preparation. I am not a teacher, do not really have experience in this field and English is not my mother tongue. I, therefore, spend additional time to prepare my courses! I rely on the books available (much more than I thought!) and on my “colleagues” who are other volunteers like me. Not many of us are teachers, but we help each other as much as we can, and we learn from each other.
The first classes are a discovery, both for the students and for me! I taught English classes for grade 9 and grade 10, the equivalent of French high school. The students are mostly between 15 and 20 years of age. English levels varied within the same group and that was a real challenge for me. I had to learn to balance and retain the attention of the students at a lesser level and those who were further advanced. Mission almost impossible, at least so it seemed the first few weeks. I was alone and teaching a group of 30 to 40 students. But I quickly received help and support from other volunteers. Between the few of us, we were able to divide the group. When dividing into smaller groups, I was able to manage my lesson and felt more comfortable and effective for everyone.
Like the other volunteers, I took part in the Night Study, 3 nights a week. Older students were allotted 2 hours to do their homework, group work, review. We were there to support them, help them, answer their questions. The most beautiful moments shared with them was when we discussed, exchanged laughter, and partook in extracurricular games. I get to know them, their history, their culture.
While the daily operations at the TMK center were always lively; my fondness extends to the village as a whole. I was able to take part in the daily life of the village. From the Tuesday market in Pho Pra to the Baptist masses and the celebration of both local and previously accustom holidays. I even partook in outings to the cascades, other villages in Burma.
I lived with four other volunteers in what they call the guesthouse. The 5 of us were from all over the world (New Zealand, India, and France) and a Karen student. The cultural exchanges were so rich.
When I was not in school, I was at the guesthouse or the special homes that housed the youngest children. At the guesthouse, we were often situated under the porch’s entrance amongst the company of children, students, and other adults. Sometimes we would only be there for a few minutes, and other times we were there for hours talking and laughing the day away. I especially liked my conversations with Beebee and playing with the children.
I was at TMK the last quarter of the school year and therefore helped both the students and the staff prepare for the end of the year exams. I participated in the preparation, supervision, and corrections of the test. On D-Day (examination day) I was just as stressed for all 100 of “my” students, Imagine the stress! It was with pride, even though I had nothing to do with them, that I took part in the older students’ graduation ceremony.
Those 4 months allowed me to begin to discover Karen culture and the history of those beautiful people and the community. Despite what they may have experienced (misery, war, exile, distance from their family, etc.), they all had beautiful smiles and open their hearts with effortless ease. They share everything with each other, nothing belongs to anyone but the community. One could arrive at someone’s house and ask for food or take a shower (which did happen to us a few days while our bathroom was out of order !) without surprise, and it was almost strange for them that we ask!
Life there was simple (in the best sense of the word) and peaceful. The most difficult moment was to leave! But I left TMK a few days after the end of the year, many students had already gone to their village for the summer holidays. The good-byes were slightly easier. And I am especially enriched by this life experience: I do not think I will be retraining in teaching, but it is a superb personal experience. I think of their kindness, their curiosity for each other, their desire to learn, their ability to laugh at everything, all the time.
As I was writing these words, I was still immersed in the way of life and it seems obvious to me to live like this, but there were slight variations I experienced when returning to France. I hope to keep the memory of my time there and share my wonderful journey with others.