Charity Works




In 2015 I initiated a trash clean-up project at a meditation and refuge centre called Thabarwa in Thanlyin (an hour and a half bus drive from Yangon). After being shown around the centre and seeing all the waste that lay strewn in the road, I approached the head monk with my idea of implementing a recycling system, and he gladly accepted the offer, asking instantly what I may need. I requested some water barrels be sprayed in order to represent the various segregations, and a map of the centre to plot where to lay them – so he sent us to the head engineer who listened carefully to my instructions as if I were the teacher and they the pupil, noting alternative solutions to ideas I had that may be more appropriate (spray painting rather than hand-painting for smoothness and efficiency despite the increased costs perhaps) and noting how much money they handed to me in a small writing booklet as is still tradition, and highly outdated almost everywhere else in the world.


There were about seven volunteers at the time, seeing that the country was still in its early days of ‘democracy’, and the first to join was a local Burmese layperson, we now call Auntie Mya Mya, whom I was lodging with. We needed to create banners to put besides the barrels, so a Spanish graphic designer, Gil Serrat, was the next volunteer to design the vector icons of waste categories. Then a Burmese nun translated the text we had written and added it to the graphics.

The graphics took a while in between the heat and the electricity black outs, and we were on day eight. I realised how slowly things appear to get done in Myanmar, how much I had to keep persisting and pushing for changes and so on. No doubt this feeling was due, mainly to my own lack of patience, but it made me appreciate how different time must be for a less-developed country as theirs.

It was raining hard and auntie and I were on the back of a motorcycle to the nearest printers. We chose ten smalls, seven medium-larges and one ginormous banner, envisioning this on the side of the main building to be seen from a distance. (Little did I know but using that space for anything other than a monastic treasure, or rather, placing something related to ‘trash’ so high up above the ground for all to see, was not acceptable in Burmese culture; hence the polite decline despite its cost at the time of placement.)

By the twelfth day the printers called us to collect our vinyls and we brought them back to the engineers who mindfully listened to our requirements of a frame per poster made of treated, rough teak wood, joining with the same precision and care as a gallery painting might warrant.


The day had come to announce the initiatives to the locals. Our little group who had met nightly to discuss solutions to the trials and tribulations of the project each took a staple gun and began attaching the smallest banners to the sides of straw huts and hallway entries where the 3,500 strong inhabitants lived. As we stapled, the office administrator announced the segregation instructions on a white dictaphone and the old monks and nuns, laypeople, volunteers and patients sat up in intrigue and delight. It was a sight to see, how such elderly, frail and sick people could have so much genuine enthusiasm, support and positivity for the project, and perhaps in particular, the foreign education and motivation we, too, represented.


I had to leave by the end of the second week, although I had planned to visit the municipal and beg, somehow, for a trash car that circled the town outside the centre to come in and collect the trash too. There were many criticisms that that idea, namely that the Burmese would not understand how to separate the types of plastic, cardboard and wet waste for instance, despite my physical examples at every bin to groups who cared to watch. Then, they said, Yangon doesn’t have a recycling facility yet, so all the waste goes into landfill anyway, what is the point to recycle? I argued to begin was the key, and that the food waste could be used to create compost for plants at some later point. And finally, the sheer madness to barge into the municipal as a foreigner who had no idea the way the current system operated was delusional and again a waste of time (if not mine, the other people’s).


Yet a year later, after a volunteer on the project reported the theft of the bins by poor villagers needing a plastic barrel for rain water collection more importantly than trash collection, I met a person who had volunteered to improve the operations at the centre, and targeted the trash to begin with. He had somehow also thought it best to get a trash truck collecting the waste daily, and this time the effort had pulled itself off.

Thabarwa now has its own local trash truck that each inhabitants comes out to empty their waste daily. I recorded the process on film (the first ever film I had made), stayed in touch with the centre over the years and found myself shooting for my first feature-documentary (currently in production) of that very same monk, and winning over a dozen film festival awards for a short fiction film I made the last time I was there – a whole new world revealed through this project, which otherwise would have been inaccessible to me, suddenly showed me so much I had misunderstood about myself let alone the nature of reality – simply by practicing and observing the practice of ‘giving back’.

Charity works 🙂



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