In a Myanmar seminary with few resources, students have to contribute any way they can.
Peter La Nu takes care of the rose patch. He hoes around each bush regularly to produce quality blooms that he harvests and takes to the market every day after he wakes up at 5:30 a.m. For his effort, he gets the equivalent of about 60 cents a day. Peter’s earnings buy garlic, hot peppers, onions or one of the several jungle plants that add flavor to the rice that’s the staple for his fellow students’ breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Peter is a typical student, and not just because he studies hard and conscientiously and has the same goal as his companions. Peter, like his fellow students, contributes to the daily cost of putting food in their common pot. All the students at St. Patrick’s Pre-Major Seminary in Myitkyina, Myanmar, lend a hand in providing for their everyday needs.
The chores are just part of the challenging life these young seminarians have chosen in a nation that is 89 percent Buddhist and 1 percent Catholic. The main task for St. Patrick’s students is learning English so they can take the entrance exam to the National Major Seminary. Their parish priests support their efforts to get admitted to study for the priesthood in the Diocese of Myitkyina.
The daily chores vary: One keeps an eye on the hens and their broods that scratch, pick and scrape the land along the Ayeyarwady River where the students live and study.
Another has an easier job: he looks after the ducks. The ducks and their ducklings don’t waddle around much, preferring to play in puddles beside the well or hang around the kitchen door in hopes of pot scrapings. Others feed three pigs being fattened for the school’s most-important feast or take charge of the two dogs and their regular litter of pups.
Still others work in the vegetable garden, growing cabbage and mustard plants that are the most-popular greens in their diet. The compound’s several banana plants provide fruit, and the plants’ stalks are fed to the pigs. Potatoes and squash are planted on an Ayeyarwady island when the water subsides in November. The tropical climate, rich alluvial soil, and rapid plant growth keep the student gardeners busy controlling weeds.
The director of St. Patrick’s Pre-Major Seminary, Fr. John Naw Lawn, encourages the students to contribute to their meals and the seminary’s general upkeep.
“Everyone is responsible for the well-being of the student body and the tidiness of the compound,” he says.
Fr. John also insists that the seminarians leave time for recreation. The students swim in the Ayeyarwady when the river is low. Even when the monsoon rain falls by the bucketful, they play soccer or cane ball, a popular derivative of soccer played with bare feet.
The students also enjoy recreational reading, music and singing. Their Saturday treat is a video played on a battery-powered television set.
In all, they are 30 young men between the ages of 19 and 24 who come from several tribal groups and speak Burmese, Jingpaw (the language of the Kachin people) and usually one or two minor languages as well. For some, English is as difficult and as foreign as Burmese, the national language imposed by the military government that has ruled the nation under different names for more than five decades.
Others take to English readily, perhaps because their ethnic group’s mother tongue disposes them to recognize and reproduce English sounds more easily. All of them enjoy a sense of achievement when they open their mouths and ears to hear themselves speak and understand a tongue that must sound strange.
In addition to studying English, students must complete a correspondence course before they begin philosophy studies in the Major Seminary.
For about 10 days each year, they attend lectures in their chosen subjects at the local university. Payment for their courses is made directly by each student to their lecturers and examiners. No one has been known to fail.
The seminarians’ world is full of hurdles not related to academics: poverty and disease are no strangers, and they labor without adequate facilities and resources, such as classrooms with proper lighting, audio laboratory equipment and modern English-language textbooks.
Many students suffer regular bouts of malaria, one of the diseases endemic in their tropical homeland. Most resort to traditional remedies to cure whatever ails them.
All seem to be able to face whatever life throws at them with patience and equanimity. They shrug their shoulders and say, “It doesn’t matter.” Perhaps when you are their age, it is most important to reach the goals you have set with everything else taking a lower priority.
Columban Father John Colgan of Ireland taught English at Myitkyina’s St. Patrick’s Pre-Major Seminary in 2004 and 2005.