Stories: Children, Communities, Futures

Some people might get to work by cars or motorbikes, others by public transport. For Than, it’s a walk down a narrow and muddy road. During the wet season, between May and October, it’s a battle through floodwaters.

The 28-year-old single father takes the two-kilometre walk from his home in Buchai village, in remote southeast Myanmar, each day to his farm, where he grows a variety of vegetables to sell at the markets.

The farmer’s life is challenging, he says, as his source of income is largely dependent on the weather and climate. The past year has been more difficult than usual, with poor weather affecting crop yields.

“The weather has not been good this year,” Than says. “My business is not doing well.”

For five months of the year, during the dry season, he works at a rubber plantation to supplement his income so he can raise his six-year-old son Hein.

Supporters of ChildFund’s Gifts for Goods program have been helping to alleviate the difficulty that farmers such as Than and their families in rural Myanmar face, particularly during the wet season, by providing a variety of seeds to diversify and boost farmers’ incomes.

Than, who grows snake gourds, long beans, chillies and okra on his farm, received cucumber seeds, which grow well at this time of the year in Myanmar.

“I planted all the cucumber seeds I received from ChildFund,” he says. “I have also already sold some of the cucumbers.

“I am happy that we have been provided the seeds because there are some people in my village who can’t afford to buy the seeds for their farms.”

When he makes a profit from selling his vegetables at the market, he puts some money away for Hein’s future.

While Than left school after Grade 4 to help his parents, who were also farmers, he wants a different life for his son.

“I’ve been farming for eight years and my dad has been doing it for 20 years,” Than says. “Our lives haven’t changed.

“I don’t want my son to be a farmer like me. I want him to become an educated person. He said he wants to be an engineer so I’ll try my best to get him the education he wants.”

Somphanh never got to see what his country looked like before it became one of the most bombed places in the world.

Born in northern Laos in 1973, his entire life has been lived in the aftermath of a war that ended 45 years ago – a war in which I, and many other Australians, served.

Between 1964 and 1973, more than 2 million tonnes of ordnance was dropped on Laos in an attempt to block the Ho Chi Minh trail. Effectively, one bombing mission took place every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. Almost a third of those bombs failed to explode on impact and today litter the countryside, lying in deadly wait for a local farmer or curious child to make one false move.

The effects on families like Somphanh’s today are far-reaching. Their livelihoods have been constrained by the limitations of having vast tracts of land contaminated by unexploded ordnance (UXOs) – land that could otherwise be used for cultivation, for schools and hospitals, for new roads and infrastructure.

The father-of-three often spends five days at a time away from his family, toiling on a corn farm near the Vietnam border. The farm does not produce enough income to provide quality food for his children. As a result, when his oldest daughter, Oudai, was 11 years old she was the weight of an average Australian eight-year-old and feel ill so often she had to repeat Grade 3.

Somphanh’s second oldest, 11-year-old Khamsawei, complains about headaches and stomachaches and says she’s unable to concentrate in class because she is so tired. This is a common complaint from children who do not get the proper food and nutrition they need. Not only do these children miss out on a childhood filled with laughter and joy, they can become locked in a cycle of poverty that will ultimately affect their children, and future generations.