About Jim, about finding purpose in life!
„Mingalabar! Would you like to have some ice-cream? We just finished making our coconut special one!“ The girl welcomes me in perfect English. I am in Kalaw, a small town in the mountains of the Shan State in north-eastern Myanmar. A wooden sign „Homemade cake“ brought me here. But how come everyone here is fluent in English?
About 15 years ago, Jim was on his way to India to attend a conference about children rights. His wish was to act, to do, create, help. Finding the bigger picture. He talked to his network and friends and shortly after he found himself working at the Thai-Burmese border at a refugee camp where the crisis by then was high. Many kids got stuck there, the conditions being inhuman. Jim started as manager of an orphanage, working mainly with kids from sex workers. Kids that had no-one caring for them, for their future, their health or their daily meals. A few years later, he went to Myanmar. And stayed. This is the very short version of how he came to Myanmar.
Jim is a teacher from the United States. Traveling through the Shan state in Myanmar I had the chance to meet and interview him. We are sitting on the first floor of his house which has a lovely garden. The smell of freshly baked cake gives a homely feeling. A real gem in Myanmar, specially in the Shan State. Not only am I impressed by what follows the next hour but deeply touched. This is exactly the kind of person More than Travel wants to find, write about and spread their ideas, their love, their work, their courage!
Myanmar still holds a confusing position within development aid work and involvement of foreigners. Officially democratic since 2016 and open to tourists since a few years, there are still many areas off limit, closed to foreigners, fights, murderers, rapes going on. Those regions change but specially the border regions with Bangladesh in the Rakhine state (Rohingya minority) and the Shan state are still focus of heavy fights. The United Nations blame Myanmar for a genocide of the Rohingya. The situation is, to put it simple: complicated.
Many areas still lack the most basic needs like access to water and sanitation, healthy nutrition, electricity, internet, education. Over the last years, Jim developed a holistic approach to tackle more than one of these topics. He is a consultant for holistic child education, adult education, train the trainer and learned how to build sustainable houses with local materials. His organization is called Whispering Seed, a registered charity in the US. „It was difficult, if not say impossible to register in Myanmar, but when things started changing we opened a part of Whispering Seeds called Whispering Earth. This is now our mud and bamboo consultancy and training organization, part of it is also about permaculture.“ They involve local communities and parents and include a component of life skills about natural house building, charcoal making, organic farming, soap making in the trainings. „Part of the training is bamboo preservation, construction and sustainable bamboo forestry. Bamboo constructions usually only last for 3-5 years, then they rot. A simple treatment allows the bamboo to last up to 100 years. Help is coming from an Indonesian team and we work with all kind of partners.“
Jim needed a strong and reliable local network, Myanmar is dotted with monasteries. They teamed up and are now part of the Myanmar network called “Socially Engaged Monastic Schools” with over 700 of them. He is doing a series of holistic teacher trainings to create hubs within monastic schools, „so that these bigger monastic schools can have mud buildings, organic farms, a sustainable design, water catchment, good teachers with critical thinking. And then we train teachers from there to go out and act as multipliers. Currently, we got about 6 of these network hubs.“
Another project is the Café I am sitting in writing those lines. Jim adopted 4 kids, the eldest in her early twenties now. They’ve been in Kalaw for over three years and have been trying to open this space for many years, but only opened a few months ago (end of 2016). Why is that? Lets talk about the special challenges being a foreigner in Myanmar doing community work brings. He sighs and talks about all kind of obstacles. Without stating them in detail (due to the political situation and the safety of his family) there is forces, finding all kind of ways to prevent him from opening the Café or continuing with training projects. He has to leave the country for Visa reasons every two months. That includes taking a 10 hour bus, flying to Bangkok, stay there, fly back and take another 10 hour bus. “Kalaw is safe.” He says. “Also trekking though different minority villages to the Inle lake is safe. It is the only region in Myanmar where the government allows foreigners to move freely (during the 3 day treck) without being registered in hotels. But just east of Taunggyi it is a mess.”
The Sprouting Seeds Café looks like a Café, but is run as a training center. „Now it is kind of a Café, a bakery, we are starting an eco shop and we teach knitting, we make soaps, …“ Jim continues. „We run this as a training center and through our network of schools, we bring groups in. Also the tables and chairs in the Café, we did ourselves. We want to be a volunteer hub so that both local people and foreigners can come in and plug in to things.“ As stated before, the situation in Myanmar is not easy and foreign volunteers can not just show up at a project and get free housing and meals in exchange for their work like in many other countries. Housing has to be registered. But since Jim is running a company, the Whispering Earth, he can give business visa
The newest idea is starting a Yoga space in the Sprouting Seeds. If you are a Yoga teacher wishing to live for a few months in Myanmar, please contact Jim! Also, for other kind of volunteer work, like the mud house construction, he can help setting you up with the right people.