It took only one week to change Durangoans Mike and Tricia Karpfen’s lives, and in the subsequent nine years, they have changed the lives of hundreds of others with a lot of help from the Durango community.
That week was spent in the Pa O tribal region in the central mountains of Myanmar, formerly Burma, when on a trip they found people living in some of the most dire Third World conditions anywhere on the globe. Their response was to create the Shanta Foundation, which helps the villagers to help themselves in the areas of education, health care, economic opportunities, infrastructure and leadership training.
“I love that it’s local, grass-roots and from the bottom up,” said Candice Carson, who now is an ex-officio member of Shanta’s board of directors after six years of service. “I agree with Buckminster Fuller, that it has to be ‘all or none,’ that we’re all in this together.”
Carson particularly appreciates how Shanta can leverage small amounts of money to make a big difference, especially in the microloan programs for women.
One reason for Shanta’s success, Tricia Karpfen thinks, is its commitment to letting the villagers determine the direction in which they want to go, then helping them achieve their goals.
“One of our core values is that we listen to what they need instead of telling them what we do,” she said. “We’re methodical but adaptable. We’re creating manuals for different programs now, but always with the understanding that there has to flexibility, too.”
Priscilla Clapp, the former chief of mission to Myanmar – which she still refers to as Burma, “because it’s easier, not because it’s a political statement” – from 1999 to 2002, says listening and Shanta’s commitment to the long haul are why it is successful.
“Shanta is one of the most effective small (nongovernmental agencies) that I have seen,” she said at the organization’s fundraiser Thursday evening at the Fort Lewis College Ballroom. “I’ve seen many NGOs come and go, but Shanta goes in and lives in these villages and helps villagers learn to do for themselves. Otherwise, it’s here today, gone tomorrow.”
An emerging democracy
Clapp, who served while the military regime was in power, also was deputy chief of mission in South Africa during the Mandela transitional government and deputy political counselor in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow during the Gorbachev era. She has continued to visit Myanmar several times a year and has been watching the country’s transition to a democracy closely.
“What’s going on in Burma now is more substantial, more far-reaching, more hopeful than other transitions I’ve observed,” she said. “There is a major transformation underway. They freed the press. Political debate is now legal. It’s now legal for civil society and NGOs to organize.”
An almost “fascist” style military regime ruled the country for 50 years until elections were held in 2010, leading to all the changes, she said. But the fledgling democracy is still fragile, and Clapp feels any major civic unrest could open the door for the military to step in and take over again. While many people elected to the Parliament were former members of the regime, the party of democracy supporter and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi is the second largest.
“When you remove a repressive layer of a society, all kinds of problems are unveiled,” Clapp said. “One thing revealed in Burma is a schism between Buddhists and Muslims. Some Buddhists trained in Sri Lanka are Buddhist nationalists in Burma, and they’re tending to radicalize Muslims. A lot of criticism from the outside world is inflaming the situation and runs the risk of bringing jihadists into Burma.”
Tricia Karpfen thinks Shanta may have been inadvertently teaching how democracy works through Shanta’s involvement with the Pa O villagers, something that might have been seen as dangerous before 2011. The most memorable moment was when they were working with a village to help it set its priorities and determine what would most improve villagers’ lives.
“We split them into groups to talk about health care, education and infrastructure and come up with some ideas, which was hard, because they’re so shy,” she said. “Then they all came together and we asked them to vote for their top three priorities from the list, but they didn’t understand and were raising their hands for everything.”
Carson came up with the idea of giving each villager three seeds, and once they’d used their seeds, they couldn’t vote anymore.
“The seed was literally planted on how to make a decision,” Karpfen said, “when you can’t have it all and have to choose. Until then, they didn’t know what a vote was.”
The next stage
In November, Shanta will “graduate” its first four villages, continuing to be available for advice and financial auditing, but stopping the stream of financial support.
“It’s an intricate dance,” Mike Karpfen said. “You have to know when to lead and when to follow. If you lead too much, sustainability doesn’t happen. If you follow too much, change doesn’t happen.”
Shanta now has helped about 130 families create pig farms, which, on average, have tripled their incomes. They now have begun a four-year project with 400 families to raise coffee, which will be their first significant cash crop. More than 100 family small businesses have been started.
Perhaps one of the biggest accomplishments is that the first four students are attending university, with another six slated to start in the spring.
“You cannot imagine how proud all the villagers are that for the first time in the history of the village, some of their children are attending university,” Mike Karpfen said.
Although almost all the classes and textbooks are in English, many students struggle to learn the language. To provide better instruction and allow for extra tutoring, Shanta is planning to build a boarding school for high school students in the nearest market town, with the hope that even more of them will go on to university.
A big infrastructure project was to build a 1½-mile road so villagers wouldn’t be marooned in the rainy season.
“We were a little ambivalent,” Tricia Karpfen said. “We don’t normally build roads, and we didn’t know if they could manage it. We were afraid they would fail.”
Instead, the villagers, with help from an engineer, designed a road with proper drainage and culverts and spent four months on a rotating schedule, breaking up rock for gravel by hand, placing the gravel on the roadbed and using the village’s only truck to drive back and forth over the asphalt because they didn’t have a roller.
“They had a monk who filmed them building the road,” she said. “It was 50 minutes of breaking rock, but they were as mesmerized as if it had been ‘Bambi.’ You could never take away the pride and feeling of accomplishment they got from building that road.”
The Karpfens have been approached to work with villages in other, even more remote areas of Myanmar and have the ultimate vision of working throughout the country, which is one of the poorest in the world. Tricia Karpfen says just an increase of 80 cents a day in income can make a family more financially secure.
It’s another sign of how a little bit goes a long way in the country.
“We’ve worked with 1,200 families in 11 villages for less than $18 per person per year,” Mike Karpfen said. “But we didn’t accomplish so much with so little. We accomplished so much with a lot of help from our volunteers, our staff, our donors, our supporters.”