Hard Work in Each Grain of Rice

Despite the challenge of a series of natural disasters over recent years, Burmese farmers do not complain about their lot in life or bemoan their fate. Instead, they have continued to work hard on their farms, hoping for a better harvest next time. Witnessing their perseverance and resilience has made me cherish the rice in my bowl even more.

Farmers harvest rice in the field under the hot sun. Myanmar is one of the world’s major agricultural countries, but due to various factors, the cultivation and harvesting of rice there is still done mostly by manual labor. A lot of hard work goes into each grain of rice reaped from the fields.

This February, I was part of a Tzu Chi delegation from Malaysia to Myanmar to distribute rice seeds to flood-affected farmers. As soon as we stepped off the airplane in Yangon, we were met by the warm, cheerful greetings of our fellow volunteers in Myanmar: “Mingalaba! Hello!” they called out to us in Burmese, one after another. Their warm greetings rose and fell, intermingled with the sounds of car horns coming from an endless stream of traffic on the streets.

This disaster relief trip would bring me into contact with scenes outside my spectrum of familiar daily living experiences: Vehicles fought for their place on the road, inching close to each other and creating one close call after another; rich people and poor people alike readily gave alms to monks on the streets; farmers in the countryside, their faces dripping with sweat, smiled at us as we passed.

Our trip took us from Yangon Region to Bago Region, from urban areas to the countryside. Almost every local farmer we met and talked to had grown up working in the fields with their grandparents and parents. Regardless of the sizes of their farms, their incomes were based almost entirely on the yield of their crops.

No matter how many generations live together, all the farming families we visited live cramped in simple, crude stilt houses left behind by their ancestors. The floors creak with every step and you can take in the entire layout and furnishings of a home in a single glance. Light filters in through ruptures in the roof, walls, and floor. Some families don’t even have running water or electricity—they live just as their ancestors did. They’ve inherited their farms and their fates of depending on the weather for their livelihoods.

Myanmar has suffered a series of natural disasters over recent years. Those disasters, coupled with the scourge of pests, have taken quite a toll on the crops. Farmers have seen their incomes decrease year after year. Many of them have had to take out loans to plant their crops, repaying the loan after the subsequent harvest. One bad harvest too many means that they might lose even the ability to buy seeds to plant.

Despite their misfortune, they accept what has happened philosophically. “We can just eat what is growing in our field,” some said. “Even if there is nothing to eat there, we can pick wild vegetables and fruit and catch fish from the streams to eat.”

In the summer of 2018, Myanmar was once again hit by severe flooding. Vast areas of farmland were submerged in muddy water. Feeling for affected farmers, Master Cheng Yen instructed volunteers from Myanmar, Taiwan, and Malaysia to distribute mung bean seeds. Those seeds would help carry farmers through to the next planting season for rice. Tzu Chi followed those seeds a few months later with distributions of rice seeds.

When we arrived in Myanmar to distribute rice seeds in February 2019, we could see farmers everywhere busily bringing in their mung bean crops. Seeing them rejoice in their bumper harvests, we were excited for them too.

The farmers who had received help from Tzu Chi were very grateful for the foundation’s aid. Some of them brought rice, mung beans, or watermelons that they had grown themselves to distribution venues to give to volunteers or donate to the needy. Others even donated cash. Some joyfully took volunteers’ hands and, despite the language barrier, babbled on about their lives over the last few months.

Farmer Daw Thein Ei brought home-grown watermelons to a Tzu Chi distribution venue and gave them to volunteers. She also brought three large bags of rice and a small bag of mung beans that she and her neighbors wanted to donate to the needy. Yan Yu Zhu

At the mercy of the elements

Many farmers enthusiastically invited us to their homes. They wanted to show us the heavily laden mung bean plants in their fields. With farmers leading the way, our vehicle drove down winding country roads, stirring up thick clouds of dust, past boundless expanses of fields all around. Without guidance, it would have been impossible for us to find our way.

Some areas were inaccessible by car, and we eventually had to leave our vehicle and walk. Only then did I realize how difficult it was for farmers to take a trip out of their village. When we asked them at the distribution venue how far their home was, they answered, “Not far.” When we finally reached their village and asked where their home was, they pointed ahead and said, “Just right ahead.” But we ended up having to trek half an hour to get to what they described as “Just right ahead.”

That distance is a long one for us city dwellers, but nothing for the farmers. Most of them can’t afford the cost and maintenance of a motor scooter; their feet have become the best, most cost-effective means of transport for them. The more they walk, the stronger their feet become. It’s no wonder they can cover long distances easily, with seemingly little effort.

After just a few days in Myanmar, carrying my camera and notebook computer everywhere and staying up late at night processing the data I had gathered began to take a toll on me. My back was sore and I was exhausted from lack of sleep. However, after visiting the farmers and seeing their living conditions, I realized that my physical discomforts were trivial. I found that they were nothing compared to what the farmers had to endure.

Despite the challenges posed by a series of natural disasters over recent years, farmers do not complain about their bad lot in life. Instead, they have continued to work hard in their fields, hoping for a bumper crop for their next harvest. Seeing their perseverance and resilience has pushed me to cherish each grain of rice in my bowl even more. I think it even tastes better!

When we talked with farmers, there were almost always children playing merrily around us. Though the lives of older farmers may be inextricably bound to their farms, they have begun to envisage a different future for their children or grandchildren. Some said, “If the younger ones have the ability, I hope they go out into the world to expand their horizons and seek better opportunities.” With climate change leading to an increase in the frequency and severity of droughts and floods, some farmers, even with their resilience, have begun to bow to reality. This, however, is exactly what Master Cheng Yen has been worried about.

Myanmar is one of the major agricultural countries in the world. When the Master learned that a succession of natural disasters had caused farmers there to land deep in debt, she worried that some would give up farming and that over time this might lead to a global food crisis. Therefore, she decided to distribute good-quality mung bean and rice seeds to farmers to help ease their burden. The seeds carried the best wishes from Tzu Chi volunteers around the world.

My ten days in Myanmar left me physically tired but emotionally charged with positive energy. My encounters with the people there have enriched me and made me cherish even more every opportunity to give of myself. I sincerely hope that our distributions will make a difference in the farmers’ lives.

A volunteer uses a cell phone to scan a card a farmer has received at a Tzu Chi distribution. After that, the farmer can visit the warehouse of the government agriculture office in his region at a convenient time to claim his rice seeds.
Volunteers and farmers hold up posters of aphorisms by Master Cheng Yen which were handed out by Tzu Chi volunteers at a distribution venue. Many farmers will put them up at home where they can easily see them.


May 2019