FBR REPORT: The Secret of the Karen’s Hard Journey
Karen State, Burma
17 March, 2006

Note: This was written by a physician helping many people and organizations here, including FBR. We are grateful for his help, insights, faith and love for the people here. The following is a story he wrote after a short trip he took with a volunteer, Ben, and a Karen relief team to bring relief to internally displaced Karen people and to participate with them in the Day of Prayer for Burma.

We had been walking along the rocky river bed through the jungle for a few hours when we ran into four skinny boys. They looked to be about 10 or 11 years old and were hunting the shallow water and slippery rocks for something to eat. With the pride, seriousness and expertise a soldier carries his gun or a boy his slingshot, each of these boys carried a small handmade fishing spear. Depending on the model, the sliver of bamboo had one or two long thorns wedged into one end at various angles. The weapon was powered by a piece of rubber that was attached to the other end. And these young hunters had skills. They showed us a little plastic bag filled with all manner of slimy goodies. Minnows, crab, crayfish. Ever fixed on my destination and almost missing the beauty of this moment, I asked the boys how much further to their village.

“Oh it’s only a sling shot away,” they said.

One boy offered to show us the way. As we walked, the Karen leader of our expedition, Pai Boh, and I talked about different philosophies of journey. How, for example, do villagers in such remote areas measure the distance of a journey? I doubt if the boy we were following had ever seen a car as there are no roads for tens of kilometers. There were only mountains and dense jungle and in this kind of jungle, tens of kilometers could take days to cross. Not that our little guide would know about the finer units of time either. He had no school to teach him about such kinds of things. He owned no watch. I doubt if there was a single watch or clock in this hut. What did a one hour walk or a ten hour walk mean to him? Instead, Pai Boh said that villagers in these kinds of places use other units to describe distances. Like one sling shot distance: the distance one’s sling shot could propel a rock. Or one rooster’s crow: the distance you can hear a rooster crowing. Or one pipe smoke: the distance one can walk during the time it takes to smoke one pipe. There are, however, some important variables. For example, it seems that during a one pipe smoke walk, you are allowed time to sit, rest a while and relight the pipe. The slingshot unit must also have had some variables we didn’t know about because 30 minutes later we were still walking. As we started to tease our little friend about his estimation of the power of his slingshot, I prompted Pai Boh to ask the boy again how much further to his village. Pai Boh dissolved into laughter at his answer.

“One cut” or “One beat”, he replied.

I couldn’t help laughing as well. It could have meant anything. We would get there when we got there and in the meantime would just have to enjoy the walk. We arrived at the village about 20 minutes later still chuckling.

My trip was part of an ongoing effort by the Karen to help those of their own people who have had to flee the terrors of the Burma Army. The Karen leadership and many indigenous relief programs are trying to help their people caught in the conflict inside Burma. Like the Free Burma Rangers, this not only means physical aid in the form of food, clothes, and medical care but also fostering a sense of hope and simply showing love to those in need.

Although the two villages I worked with on this trip had been forced from their homes several years ago, they still struggle just to survive. Even in my visits to remote villages in Pakistan, I have never seen such a group of people, teetering on the very edge of survival. Earth Mission had provided us with several hundred dollars worth of medicine, so I could treat some of the acute problems but it would only scratch the surface of the need I was confronted with. Many of the children in the first village suffered from a protein deficient diet. I was flabbergasted to find so many swollen spleens in anemic looking kids, presumably from chronic untreated malaria. Many of the huts had already lost half of their little sons and daughters and I had no doubts that many of the kids I was seeing would not survive another year. A chronic respiratory disease that I could only guess was TB, afflicted many of the adults. I had no medicine for this, so I gave them what I had … some ordinary cough syrup. It certainly would not change the course of their disease one bit. I saw one lady with Beriberi, a vitamin deficiency. I did have some B vitamins and gave her enough for a couple months – but then what? If I looked for any lasting impact we might have made on these people’s lives, I couldn’t help feeling depressed. Our work would do little to change the ultimate destination for any of these lives.

Besides the medical team, we were accompanied by a couple dozen students from a Karen Bible School, their pastor, leaders from the Karen Youth Organization and the Ranger 49 team (a group of dedicated young Karen who have also trained with the Free Burma Rangers). Gathering around a big bonfire in the evening, these young people provided quality entertainment to the villagers. They sang old Christian hymns as well as traditional Karen songs. They sang a couple modern worship songs, in English. The energy, the laughter, the beauty of the presentations in the firelight was mesmerizing. A dozen toddlers, many probably with swollen spleens, anemic, probably more than a few with fevers, sat in the front completely still and completely captivated by the program. I can still see their little attentive faces flickering in the fire light. Their brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers sat back a little, but just as hungry for the love and hope being demonstrated.

In this kind of environment, steeped in the daily struggle to live, end goals and destinations of a journey become less important. The little things along the way take on much more importance. In such a context, the songs and drama provided by the Karen young men and women were actually much more than entertainment. Our medical care was more than a hand full of pills. It was a moment of hope. It was love along the way. It was important and I was really, really, really proud to be a part of it.

The morning after arriving in each of the villages, while my medical team and I saw patients, the rest of our teammates distributed gifts. The presents weren’t much compared to western standards. Earth Mission, the Free Burma Rangers, GTO and Partners (organizations who work with us) had all donated things .. tooth brushes, toothpaste, shampoo, soap, shirts, hats, crayons, photocopied coloring books, balloons, a soccer ball, PlayDough. Jim and Melly Pearson, (Caryl’s parents) had even brought some old Pearson matchbox cars on their recent visit to Thailand. I watched one little girl clutch her brand new, used white matchbox car. I’m sure she didn’t have a clue as to what it was. But it was important because someone had given it to her and she knew it. Another moment to savor along the way.

Our primary reason for doing this trip at this particular time was to be able to participate in the Global Day of Prayer for Burma from within Burma. On Saturday night, the pastor of the Bible students organized an all night prayer vigil. Groups of three or four of us prayed for an hour, taking turns through the night. The former head of the second village was one of the only Christians in the village and he offered his simple bamboo hut as a place for us to pray. The pastor and I set up our hammocks in a corner of the room. After my prayer shift, I went back to sleep. Prayer teams quietly came and went through the night. Frequently waking up, I looked over and saw the backs of three or four figures silhouetted in soft candle light. Some silent. Some quietly praying. Some reading scripture. In comparison to the 400,000 strong Burma army, some probably only a dozen kilometers away … in comparison to all the landmines in the area … in comparison to the suffering and sickness of the villagers, those quiet bowed silhouettes seem like grasshoppers against giants in the land. But maybe, just maybe they too are very important.

On the way back home, Pai Boh did a kind of strange thing. He made me give my backpack to one of the other young people. Usually, the Karen way would be to politely offer a suggestion to that effect, but this time he was insistent. I wasn’t tired. I wanted to be seen as carrying my own weight. I was enjoying the effort and didn’t really want to give up the pack. One of our talks on our trek, however, had centered on finding the joy of a journey. Instead of allowing the difficulties to grab our attention or focusing on the end, we should choose to find the beauty and the joy of the divine along the way. Thinking, he might be trying to tell me something, I finally consented and gave up my pack. As we walked the stream without our packs, we could now take time for a little swim in the deeper pools. It was hot, my clothes dripped with sweat but the cool water was invigorating. At one point, we followed the stream through a short cave under a mountain and out to the other side. In the middle of the wild jungle, surrounded by the sounds of birds, insects and falling water, the coolness of the cave, the fellowship of good friends and the promise of home around the corner … it was something straight out of the Lord of the Rings. While the students carried our packs through the cave, Pai Boh and I swam through. The students sang one of their songs in the amphitheater-like entrance. It was all simply magical. It wasn’t the beginning. It wasn’t the end. But it was a beautiful magic moment somewhere along the way. As such, it was also something important to recognize and be thankful for.

And I think that was exactly what Pai Boh was trying to tell me, why he very emphatically and unKaren-like made me give up my back pack that last leg of our trip. He wanted me not to just focus on our destination but to take time to enjoy and to be thankful along the way. It was important to him. Similarly, if I look at the situation in Burma and only focus on the end of the suffering, fixate only on designing a set of goals towards development or improving health, I won’t have the energy to stay the course. It will only lead to despair. I will quit. But that is not the way of many of the Karen I have met. Theirs has truly been the hard journey and many seemed to have found a secret source of strength that is greater than their suffering. I believe this is it: they take time and are careful to look for the beauty, the joy and the divine in the simple things all around them, despite the hardship of the journey. May God give all of us both the wisdom to plan and aim well but also the eyes to find and enjoy him all along the way.