It had only been six months since I last visited Dr Myint Maw and the Healthy Living Helping Society, yet even in that time Yangon has changed rapidly. The once deserted streets are now choked with thousands of Japanese imports, construction sites have popped up on every corner, the country swept up into the global economy.
However, certain elements of Burmese society remain untouched by the march to modernisation. Taking the taxi out to the Marga Monastery in Yangon’s northern reaches, people are still living in ramshackle wooden huts on the sides of the roads, metres away from malarial swamps and rubbish tips. The HIV-positive are among those still most marginalised, giving ever more impetus to the work of Dr Myint.
My visit to HLHS was to see the newly-constructed vocational centre funded by The Angus McDonald Trust. On my last visit the centre lay in ruins, its wooden walls decayed after it was destroyed by Cyclone Nargis in 2008. I was shocked. Inits place stood a robust plasterboard and iron-framed building, built to withstand the torrential monsoonal rains.
A smiling Dr Myint greeted me at the door. “It’s good isn’t it,” he grins. I can hardly speak.
Once inside I am greeted by a dry and airy room - a far cry from the dingy and damp classroom inside the monastery where I first was introduced to Dr Myint and the HLHS team. The new multipurpose space can be used for training sessions, administering medicine to HIV sufferers, and conducting education sessions to prevent the further spread of HIV. Whereas previously they only had limited access to the monastery classroom, they now have a space that they can use every day and keep equipment safe.
Since construction was completed in June, Dr Myint has been conducting a newly invigorated hair and make up programme. Seated around a central table are ten new trainees all of whom are HIV positive. They tell me they are coming close to the end of their six week course.
The trainees were racing to see who could finish applying the make up to their subject, another student, the fastest. Clearly wanting to impress their trainer Ko Zaw, they worked at a frantic pace, smiling but often shooting competitive glances across the table at their peers. Ko has over 15 years experience teaching hair-dressing and make-up application. She cuts an imposing figure at the head of the table, but she often leans in and gives a helping hand, guiding her students gently as they apply mascara or eye shadow.
One of the trainees, Ni Ni Wai, hopes to open her own beauty parlour in a neighbouring township. The money she makes will go towards caring for her 5-year-old child, who is also afflicted by HIV. As a former sex worker and HIV sufferer, Ni faces significant community stigma, but Dr Myint and the vocational centre have provided her with both a safe space and the means to earn a sustainable income.
The apparent success of the HLHS vocational centre gives me hope that this community-based model may later be replicated around Yangon by The Trust.