Burma 2015: Colorful Girl Circles, Mandalay, Day 8

A day of exploration and inspiration in Mandalay.
By Nicki Maxwell
Eugene, OR
The morning was off to a rigorous start climbing the 1700+ steps to the top of Mandalay Hill. From the top of the hill we were transported to the World’s Biggest Book. It sits on 13 acres and the marble pages (729 of them) are housed in white pagodas. If you can read Pali (an easier form of Sanskrit) it would take 450, eight-hour days to read.
Our final stop was the Golden Palace. It is made of teak and gilded with gold. The carvings throughout and the portability of this structure are remarkable. In 1878 it was moved from the walled palace complex to Mandalay to become the royal apartment of King Mindon. Buildings were typically constructed for portability so that kings would not be forced to leave their exquisite structures behind.
In the afternoon we visited an urban school with Colorful Girl Circles. There are 7,000 students so there is a morning (grades 4, 5 and 10, 11) and afternoon (all others) schedule. This means students are in school for just four hours a day.
We were invited to move from observers of Colorful Girls Circles to participants today. One of the girls opened with a bell and statement to get started.  The focus of today’s activity and discussion was tolerance and discrimination. The facilitator passed a small, stuffed rabbit to the first girl and asked that each of us tell how we feel about this time together. The rabbit was passed around the circle until everyone had checked in.
The facilitator planned two activities. The first is an icebreaker that got us into groups except for one person, our own Patricia Andersson. There was no group for her to join. This outcome provided a springboard for discussion.
Most of the girls are from Shan State and the ethnic group Palaung. Their native language is not Burmese and it’s easy to imagine the discrimination they face when they arrive at this school in Mandalay. From their own experience, they are able to articulate the benefits of appreciating differences. They seem to be committed to that perspective.
The second activity had groups working together silently for 10 minutes to create a shape from several geometric pieces given to each person. Besides working silently there are rules to follow in how to work together appropriately.
Executive Director Brooke Zobrist closed with a comment about the need for patience when you have what you believe is the “right” solution to a problem. One girl in my group faced this dilemma in our process. It was clear that she heard Brooke’s admonition.
The disparity among the topics of discussion in the schools we have visited is remarkable.  From the program at the nunnery where Girl Determined is giving a thread of hope to the young orphans to the village where the need is for support in understanding their menstrual cycle and staying in school against the wishes of their parents to this one where girls are demonstrating their capacity to problem solve and think critically. The program is obviously tailored to fit the needs of the girls wherever they are.
Their enthusiasm and energy leaves us hopeful that the struggle for democracy in this country will one day be lead by a Colorful Girl.  
Photo captions:
The Kuthodaw Pagoda covers 13 acres. There are 729 marble structures, each house on page of the book containing the writings of  Buddha. Together, they make up the world’s largest book. 
Claudia Bonilla of St. Petersburg, FL, at the Golden Palace. Photo by Nikki Maxwell.
Colorful Girls in Mandalay. Photo by Nikki Maxwell.