I began my education at my parents’ primary school at Pangmu village in the Sinlum Hills, which overlook Yunan, China. I remember my father had to admonish me with a cane many a time because I did not show enough interest in my studies and was slow in learning.
As with all Kachin village schools of the time, my parents’ school was a vernacular school where Burmese and Kachin were taught. Kachin was taught up to the Second Standard only, as there were no teaching materials beyond that grade. Primary schools as a rule were government aided Christian mission schools or Buddhist monastery schools, and were tuition free.
Anglo-vernacular middle schools on the other hand, were town schools, which taught English and Burmese, and tuition fees were required. But English being the official language, parents did their best to send their children to these schools. A middle school education, with adequate knowledge of English and Burmese, was a sure way of securing some kind of clerical position with the government.
After completing the 4th Standard, I was sent to attend the Anglo-Vernacular Middle School run by the American Baptist Mission (ABM) at Bhamo. As there was no boarding facility at the ABM School, we Kachin students who wanted to learn English, had to board at the Kachin Baptist Vernacular School, paying a monthly fee of 4 Rupees, the local currency of the time.
I was only 8 years old when I was sent to Bhamo, and was so homesick I was in tears most of the time. I first stayed with the Karen headmaster Thra Kyaw Dwe and his wife, who were like parents to me. It was only later on that I transferred to boarding school.
Thra Kyaw Dwe had come up from Bassein with other Karen teachers and preachers to help the American Baptist missionaries spread the Christian message to the Kachin tribes inhabiting the hills adjoining the Bhamo Plains. Thra Kyaw Dwe and all the Sgaw Karen missionaries were very close to us Kachins, and were like family to us.
Throughout our middle school years my siblings and I walked the 23 miles from Pangmu to Bhamo – back and forth – carrying our bedding and clothes in a big bag. Our mother would send us off with lunch packets of rice, wrapped in banana leaves.
At the Kachin School, the food was so poor it was mere subsistence fare. The rice was not too bad, but all we had to go with it was boiled, cut up leafy greens, with salt as its only seasoning. It looked and tasted like pigswill. And that was what we had – day in, day out, morning and evening – throughout the school year. Not even once did common vegetables like potatoes, pumpkins, cucumbers or taro roots cross our plates. Once school started, stifling tears, we braced ourselves to partake of this most unappetizing food.
As for clothes, the cheap but hardy, dark blue denim-like Chinese “ta-bu” cloth served as the main material. No shoes graced our feet. When I asked father to buy me an umbrella for the rainy season, he said strong winds would only blow it away, and instead bought me a very cheap conical hat, the kind Chinese peasants wear. Only when I got to college did I begin to have some presentable clothes. The duration of my school years was spent in very difficult, needy circumstances.
But our parents, although they could not provide us with nice clothes or ample spending money, fortified us with fervent prayers every time we left for school. Also, mid-way to Bhamo, we would stop by without fail at the residence of our uncle Lawdan Duwa Zau La and aunt Maran Doi Bu, to receive their prayers. It was their collective prayers that gave us the strength to withstand the hardships and attain success in our studies.
I sat for the 7th Standard Anglo-Vernacular government exam in 1922. This was the end of the road as far as schooling in Bhamo was concerned. I would have to go farther afield if I wanted to continue my education. At that point in time, neither my parents nor I had any idea of how this might be pursued.
But it so happened that in the summer of that year, Rev. Sowards, Principal of the Sgaw Karen High School at Bassein, came up for a visit to the Sinlum Hills. Sinlum was a popular summer destination with the missionaries for its cool mountain air, lush green forests and warm hospitality of my father Rev. Lahpai Zau Tu, pastor of the Pangmu/Sinlum Church.
Even though it was still too early to know whether I had passed the exam or not, my father approached Rev. Sowards about my situation and that of another student Zau Lawn, who like me had sat for the 7th Standard. Rev. Sowards at once said, “Come with me to Bassein. Come attend my school.” And so Zau Lawn and I accompanied Rev. Sowards all the way to Bassein, a delta town some 500 miles away from the Sinlum hills.
Only after reaching Bassein did we learn that we had passed the examination. The Karen brethren kindly accepted us two wild, hill Kachin boys with open, loving arms. As a result, Zau Lawn and I were able to receive a high school education at the Sgaw Karen School for about 3 years at very little cost to our parents.
The Bassein school was a large wooden building, housing class rooms and a large devotional hall. There were about 1,000 students, most of them boarding students. The school was subsidized largely by the donations of Karen Christians, and so board and tuition was nominal, almost free. The teaching of scriptures and music played a large part of the school curriculum. The school brass band, complete with bandmaster, was considered the best in the country at that time. It was a very grand school by the days’ standards.
The school had quite a few modern conveniences like a steam cooker to cook all the food, and generator to supply the whole school with electricity. However, being that it was a church subsidized school, nothing fancier than dahl curry was ever on offer at our everyday meals.
In1925, after finishing 3 years of high school at the Sgaw Karen school, Zau Lawn and I had the opportunity of continuing our education at Judson College in Rangoon. Rev. Sowards again arranged for us to attend Judson tuition free, as ABM sponsored students. Thus the two of us became the first Kachins ever to receive a college education.
Judson College was located at 143 St. John’s Road, now headquarters of the Burma (Myanmar) Baptist Convention. Judson College, formerly known as Baptist College, had been merged with the larger liberal arts college, University College, to form Rangoon University in 1920. Judson, while part of Rangoon University, remained a separate entity administered by the American Baptist Mission. The college had about 250-300 students, the majority of whom were Christians.
As I was preparing to sit for my Senior Intermediate Science (I. Sc.) exams, I happened to see a notice put out by the Forestry Department of Rangoon University. It called for applications from students to take up Forestry after completing the I.Sc. course. Eligible students would receive a generous government stipend for the duration of the course and a guaranteed position as Forest Officer upon graduation.
As we were financially strapped every time I made ready to set off for college, I thought the government stipend would be a welcome relief. I was also attracted by the prospect of becoming a government officer, a very prestigious position in those days. So I decided to discuss this with my father when I went home for the summer.
But father saw things differently. He said, “I gave you an education so that you would be a help to our people – a good leader and guide. It is not so that you would enjoy the trappings of a government official. I don’t want you to consider any other field than education or health.” He sternly added, “If you’re so concerned about earning a livelihood, leave your studies and come work on my farm!”
And so I decided not to pursue with the application. Father evidently felt that the greatest priority for us Kachins, backward as we were at that time, was to uplift our education and health standards.
Zau Lawn, after completing his I.Sc., transferred to Agriculture College at Mandalay, and I was left on my own to continue with my B.Sc. course. I was having difficulties with the Pure Maths course I was taking, so my American lecturers arranged for me to take an Applied Maths course instead. And so I managed to pass my B.Sc. exams in 1932.
The Rangoon University convocation for that year was held on July 29, and degrees were conferred on graduates of its four colleges – University, Judson, Teachers Training and Medical. It was a grand occasion with the Governor of the Province of Burma gracing the occasion, handing out the certificates personally.
Just as I was the first Kachin to receive a university degree, a Po Karen woman was the first non Anglo-Indian female to graduate from Medical College. She received a great ovation as she stepped up to receive her degree.
I entered the work force as a Deputy Inspector of Schools for the Kachins the same year.