Story and photography by Ray Waddington.
While researching an assignment in Burma (Myanmar), I came across an article that briefly mentioned an orphanage in the tiny village of Mine Thauk on the eastern shore of Inle Lake in Shan State. My assignment would take me to this part of Burma to visit a number of surrounding indigenous, ethnic minority villages. Since I would be based close to Mine Thauk during this assignment and because my research showed that few foreign visitors make it to the village, I decided to pay a visit.
U Tet Tun, the manager, welcomed me to the Mine Thauk orphanage on a hot March morning made all the hotter by the humidity brought in from the lake. We sat and began by discussing the orphanage. I learned that it housed about one hundred children aged six to sixteen with about a 2:1 ratio of boys to girls. They all attend the local State-run school in the village, which educates them to the Tenth Grade. The orphanage itself also benefits from the voluntary teaching of two local sisters who give additional schooling in English and math.
I asked if I could speak to some of the children with an additional request that they represent a broad cross-section of the ethnolinguistic groups currently staying there. We started with a group of boys. Their individual history was as diverse as their age range and their ethnic background; so were their future ambitions! A 16-year-old Pa-O boy wanted to be an engineer. A twelve-year-old Taung-yo boy, who lost his father when he was only two, wanted to be a teacher.
As I listened to the stories of how each of these children came to the orphanage it struck me how strong they must be not only to survive the ordeals they'd been through but also to be thinking so positively about their future. I decided I would try to provide encouragement by setting a challenge for each child whose topic would be relevant to their stated career choice or to the subject they said they liked best in school. A nine-year-old Pa-O boy, whose favorite subjects were math and English wrote the word "nine" on the board and, after translation, wrote that nine squared equals 81. Another nine-year-old — this time of Shan ethnicity — liked soccer and wanted his photograph taken in front of the board on which he'd proudly written the word "ball."
We left the boy's building to walk the few hundred yards to the girls' building across the road. Smaller and less modern, the girls' building was about to be replaced by the one that was under construction at the time. It was completed and opened shortly after I left and now houses around fifty girls. Although it was incomplete, I was allowed inside to photograph the place these girls would soon be living in. It probably looks quite basic — even perhaps unappealing — to Western eyes. But to the girls it is a Godsend.
As with the boys earlier, I asked if I could speak to a broad cross-section of the girls. Once again their stories were diverse and remarkable. A fourteen-year-old Taung-yo girl had living parents. They are simply too poor to care for both her and her younger sister so they sent her to the orphanage a year ago. Since then she'd been learning English, which had become her favorite subject. She wants to be a nurse. A thirteen-year-old Shan girl's father had died when she was just seven. She and her younger sister had been at the orphanage for two years. Their mother had come from their village in Shan State to visit them just a few months before my visit. Her eldest daughter likes science and wants to work for the Red Cross Society.
I'd set challenges so far for all the children that I felt quite sure would be within their ability. Next came a challenge for me. A six-year-old Pa-O girl was a true orphan. She'd been here since she was just four. Her ten-year-old sister had been here the same length of time. She liked flowers and wanted to be photographed in the flower garden, but was too shy to be photographed alone. She reported liking English after which I struggled to find a related challenge that was neither too difficult nor too easy. In the end, via U Tet Tun's translation, I told her the challenge was to count to five in English. I started her off by holding up my first finger, saying aloud "one," then silently holding up my middle finger and indicating for her to continue. She did it! Then she surprised everyone by stretching out her other arm and, although she had to pause a couple of times to think, she made it all the way to ten without help. I don't think I'd ever seen a prouder gleam in a child's eye!
To shelter, feed, clothe and educate this girl — or any of the children — at the orphanage costs 15 Euros (about US$ 22) per month. The orphanage also welcomes visitors and volunteers. Although I didn't get time to volunteer at the orphanage I will when I next visit Burma.
A week later I would volunteer at another Burmese orphanage.
Photography copyright © 1999 -
Ray Waddington. All rights reserved.
Text copyright © 1999 - 2023, The Peoples of the World Foundation. All rights reserved.
Waddington, R., (2006) Mine Thauk Pan Ethnic Orphanage, Burma (Myanmar). The Peoples of the World Foundation. Retrieved
December 8, 2023,
from The Peoples of the World Foundation.