Beauty and Brilliance

2 November 2015

We have just received a copy of two articles written by Baroness Cox for British Global and Travel Health Association (BGTHA) magazine Travelwise and thought we’d share them with you. In Travelwise 54 Spring 2015, Baroness Cox shares about the inspirational story of our partner in Chin State, Burma – Dr Sasa. Find out more about the work of Dr Sasa and Health and Hope here.

When you travel with me and my small NGO HART, you have an amazing kaleidoscope of experiences: you will be exhilarated by beauty, inspired by visionary people doing unimaginable things in highly challenging circumstances and heart-broken by the cruelty of oppressive regimes which inflict gratuitous suffering on their own people.

I would like to invite you to join me on two journeys travelling to the high mountains Chin State, homelands of the Hill Tribes of north-west Burma, bordering the Indian State of Mizoram.

The first journey is a personal story of a relationship with a courageous young doctor. It is combined with the other journey: a physically challenging but exhilarating venture with dramatically scenic travel through breathtakingly beautiful mountains with sheer drops plunging thousands of feet through densely wooded valleys into rocky gorges carved out by crystal clear rivers.


Figure 1. The beautiful hill tribe country

First, the personal journey to meet Dr. Maung Taing San, or ‘Sasa’ as he is generally known.

Sasa was born in a remote village, Lailenpi, in Chin State. In these remote villages in Hill Tribe areas, there is no health care and as young boy Sasa grew up witnessing his three best childhood friends dying of diarrhoea. Later, he lost his best friend, whilst trying to get him urgent care for pneumonia: he and three other young men tried to carry him on a stretcher to a township several days walk away over high mountains and across rivers. As they were crossing a river swollen by rain, they slipped and his best friend, too weak to swim, drowned. Sasa also saw women die in childbirth on kitchen tables.

Not only do the people in remote villages in Chin State suffer from a lack of health care provision. They also suffer from many other problems associated with the ongoing political and military situation in Burma.

Despite some recent reforms, all is not well in the beautiful land of Burma (we use the name ‘Burma’ rather than ‘Myanmar’ because the local people prefer this). The iconic pro-democracy leader Daw Aung Sun Suu Kyi has been freed from many years of house arrest and there have been some positive political changes. But the Burmese Government still allows the Burmese Army to carry out military offensives against civilians in some of the ethnic minority areas in Shan, Kachin and Rakhine States, inflicting great suffering on innocent civilians.

The situation is different in Chin State as the State Government signed a Peace Agreement with the Burmese Government. Therefore, it is not suffering from war but does suffer from military occupation. Burmese soldiers in towns and villages render civilians vulnerable to extrajudicial killings, forced labour and other forms of oppression, such as denial of education beyond Grade 10.

It was within this context that Sasa’s village community were determined to enable him to become a doctor so that he could bring life-saving health care to his people. Barriers to further education were just the start of their challenge…

So began the long, arduous journey from ‘Jungle Boy’ to ‘Doctor’!

First, in order to attend High School, Sasa had to make the arduous, journey to Rangoon (Yangon): a long two week journey by foot, then boat and bus. In Rangoon Sasa was subjected to a life of abject poverty, living in squalor, sleeping between a cow and a stinking latrine. He also faced the need to learn Burmese. Eventually, Sasa completed his school studies and left as Head of School. He returned home and spent some time as a teacher for children desperate to learn. But the community in his remote village were determined to enable him to continue his journey to become a doctor by undertaking pre-clinical studies in India. So the villagers collected everything they could sell (chickens, vegetables, eggs) and walked for five days over the high mountains and across the fast flowing rivers to the border between India and Burma. With just the little money raised in this sacrificial way, Sasa began life in India but difficulties abounded. He was imprisoned as an illegal migrant and then having to work on construction sites, while learning Hindi and English, to make enough money for his college fees. Sasa eventually gained entry to college and finally graduated with the accolade of ‘Mr. President of the College’.

In India, Sasa discovered that he could study medicine cheaper in Armenia than in the UK or USA. With my small NGO HART [Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust],I have been working in the historically Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh, to support a Rehabilitation Centre (see previous issue of Travelwise). So I first met Sasa in Armenia! He was studying medicine in his sixth language, with a unique script. He was very lonely and weary, having to combine study with work in a Chinese restaurant to make enough money to pursue his course.

We became friends and I invited him to England. My family here in the UK had the privilege of virtually ‘adopting’ Sasa, inviting him to England for vacations and also arranging clinical experiences unavailable in the post-Soviet medical training in Armenia.

Eventually, after phenomenally hard work, Sasa passed all his exams.It was an enormously happy day when we were able to share his graduation with him, witnessing him qualify with Distinctions in Medicine, Surgery, Obstetrics and Gynaecology!

During his years of medical training, Sasa developed a vision: to train Community Health Workers (CHWs) to establish essential primary health care in their remote villages back in Chin State.

Having graduated and qualified as a doctor in June, he immediately left Armenia to return to his people. They gave him land which at the time was thick jungle on a steep mountain slope. By November, he and his community had cleared the jungle; built a Training Centre with dormitory accommodation for men and women; sent messengers to 153 villages deep inside Chin State inviting each village to elect a guy and a girl to come for training; arranged for 1,000 textbooks to be sent from Rangoon to this remote centre by boat, horseback and porters; and 137 students had enrolled for their course.

Now, please come travel with us as we visit undertake the journey to this remote location on the India-Burma border to celebrate the opening of the Training Centre and the inauguration of the training programme!

We fly to Aizawl, the capital city of the State of Mizoram in North-East India. As the captain tells us we are approaching the airport, all we can see through the aircraft window are magnificent mountains covered with lush green jungle. The plane seems to have nowhere to go, except into the steep mountainsides surrounding us – until at the last minute before what seems an inevitable impact, an unimaginable little airstrip appears just ahead and the aircraft roars to a halt in front of a beautiful little airport.

The road from the airport to the city is an experience in itself! Winding steeply up narrow roads with never-ending bends, each bringing another breath-taking view of high mountains bejewelled with lush foliage – and then: the incredible sight of a city built on what seems to be a precipice! Houses perched on precarious, alarmingly thin stilts teeter over sheer cliffs plummeting down into deep valleys. They rise in tiers of apparent instability, interspersed with churches, also built on stilts and precipices. The scene is breath-taking in daylight. By night, it is indescribable: like a vast pendulant galaxy of lights shimmering across the deep valley.

After a brief stay in the almost Disney-like city, we proceed with our journey to celebrate the official opening of Dr Sasa’s Health and Hope Centre and the inauguration of the training programme for his 317 newly arrived students.

Figure 2. Welcome to the Health and Hope Society!

The vehicle valiantly coped with the challenges of steep gradients, sharp bends, oncoming vehicles in the middle of the narrow roads – and sheer (2,000 ft. at least!) plunges into the deep valleys almost out of sight beneath us. The tip for coping with the sight of those terrifying drops is not to look down – only look up and rejoice in the grandeur of the mountains soaring above!

The end of this 20-hour (we were lucky! It can take 40 hours!) brings us back to the Personal Journey.

What a privilege to share the numerous phenomenal achievements which combined to make possible the Opening Ceremony of Dr. Sasa’s Health and Hope Training Programme for 317 students from 153 villages deep inside Chin State. A litany of achievements to celebrate! Dr. Sasa’s personal and arduous journey to achieve his medical qualification; the massive achievement by the local community, transforming thick jungle into the well-appointed Training Centre; the phenomenal task of transporting 1,000 textbooks to this remote location; the long journeys to the distant villages to recruit the new students and the long journeys undertaken by them to attend the training programme – many involving 3-5 days walking over steep mountains and across turbulent rivers.

A year later, the two journeys came together again!

The students had completed their course and we were invited to attend their graduation. Another dramatically beautiful and stimulatingly challenging (!) journey to this distant land and ultra-remote place! And another inspirational encounter with Dr. Sasa’s personal journey as he celebrates the achievements of his now qualified Community Health Workers.

An expert in tropical diseases and health care in developing countries interviewed the newly qualified Community Health Workers. He concluded that, with the knowledge they had now attained, they would be able to save the lives of 8 out of 10 people in their villages who would previously have died. His professional endorsement added even more to the joy of the celebration of so many achievements!

Dr. Sasa is now training another 600 CHWs in Chin State, providing them with the knowledge to enable them to save the lives of people who would previously have died in several hundred more villages.

What a joy it is to combine overland journeys through some of the most beautiful scenery on this planet with personal journeys of inspirational dedication resulting in life-saving achievements!

As I write this article, we are preparing to leave on another journey with an as yet unknown itinerary! Dr. Sasa has been granted permission by the Chin State Government to develop his training programme back in his home village of Lailenpi. This has now been established and we are to visit it next week. I have no idea at this moment how we will reach the village and this new Training Centre! But I do know that there will be much to celebrate in the personal journey of a young man who has had the vision to bring life-saving training programmes to his people, his courage in undertaking that arduous journey and the commitment of local communities who have sacrificed so much to try to bring health and hope to their people. And I do know we will have an exhilarating, perhaps at times challenging, journey through some of the most beautiful scenery on this planet, hosted by immensely gracious, generous people! What a privilege!


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