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Work on the Playground

Myanmar, December 8, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jeremy Barnicle/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Jeremy Barnicle/Mercy Corps

Be Toot, Myanmar — To be honest, it doesn't look like much: a group of 20 or so people moving clumps of mud from one spot to another in a field surrounded by a few buildings.

But this is an important project, insists Mercy Corps program manager Mra Sabai Nyun.

"This is the village school, and this field is the playground," she explains. "But Cyclone Nargis caused so much flooding in this area that there's still lots of standing water here, so the school kids have no place to play. The school master asked if we could fix it."

So I am seeing a work crew of village residents — largely the parents and older siblings of the kids at this school — hauling mud across the schoolyard to fill in these big, swampy pools of standing water.

It is hard and dirty work, but Zin Min Nyi, a 19-year-old with a fashionable haircut, says he's having a good time.

"It's actually pretty fun," he says. "Lots of my friends are working here too and it feels good to work on a community project."

"But what about the money?" I ask.

He smiles a little sheepishly and doesn't answer.

"We in Myanmar never want to say it's about the money," my colleague Mra Sabai tells me. "It's cultural — but of course people need the money."

Life has been tough for Zin since Cyclone Nargis. His father died the night of the storm, their home was heavily damaged and the family grocery business still isn't back on track.

When Mercy Corps convened a community meeting some weeks ago to discuss the village recovery program with local residents, Zin immediately signed up for this project.

"We had to take a loan — at 20 percent interest — to repair the house," he says. "The first thing I am doing with this money is repaying that. The rest we will invest in the grocery business."

Zin and his mother, who is also participating in the program, make about $2 a day, so the combined income for their household from this project will be $60-80. In an area where the average annual cash income for a family is $65, this represents a significant cash infusion at a time when people need it desperately.

"People often lose the means to their livelihoods — the tools of their trade, let's say — in a major natural disaster like this," says Michael Gabriel, Mercy Corps' country representative in Myanmar.

"So among all the other challenges they face, they can't get right back to business: the fishermen have lost their boats and nets, the farmers their seeds and draft animals, the carpenter his tools and shop. These cash-for-work programs earn them the cash to replace some of those lost assets and get back to earning money the way they know how."

The village recovery program here in Be Toot is just ramping up, but Mercy Corps managers expect to employ several hundred people over the next few weeks.