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Changing times

Myanmar, November 30, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Erin Gray/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Hla Nu, who restarted her noodle shop after the cyclone with Mercy Corps' help, chided me when I asked her about change: "We can’t ever know what’s next. We can only look forward.” Photo: Erin Gray/Mercy Corps

Change was a theme that kept cropping up during my visit to Myanmar earlier this year. The changes the country has seen since my grandfather lived there in the 1940s. The changes Cyclone Nargis brought in 2008 to the thousands of families it affected. And the changes that Mercy Corps is helping people make in their own lives.

This month is certainly no different. With signs of political shifts in Myanmar, as well as historic visits from U.S. Secretary Hillary Clinton this week and UK International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell earlier this month — the people of Myanmar are set to see yet more change in 2012. There’s a sense of momentum building, and the words of Hla Nu, a 49-year-old grandmother I met earlier this year, seem more apt now than ever.

Hla Nu owns a tiny noodle shop in a remote village. She spoke to me between serving customers and shooing her grandchildren out of the way. When I asked her how her life had changed over the past few years, see cackled and chided me: “Things are always changing,” she said. “Sometimes for good, sometimes not. We can’t ever know what’s next. We can only look forward.”

Over the years, she told me she's learned more than most about change. She runs her shop from the porch of her traditional bamboo-pole-and-mangrove-thatch house. The house, like much of her village and others like it across the Ayeyarwady Delta, was almost completely destroyed by Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

“I used to sell noodles like this to my neighbors before the cyclone," she told me. "But when Nargis came we lost everything. All my equipment was destroyed, our house needed to be rebuilt, and we just didn’t have any way to afford it all."

"My husband is a labourer and sometimes he gets work but sometimes he doesn't, so we had to rely on what little money he could make here and there to get by. My family depends on me and the money my noodle business makes, so it was difficult without it. The amount we made each day wasn't enough to feed us all, and there was no way to save to buy equipment to make good noodles again.”

Hla Nu and her family weren’t alone. The cyclone destroyed the homes and ways of earning income for families right across the Delta. To help, last year Mercy Corps awarded grants to small business owners in 35 different villages. Each of the 353 small business owners received around £28 U.S. to buy essential equipment and supplies to help them start earning again.

Hla Nu told me: “With the grant, I could afford to buy the equipment I need to make noodles and really get my business going again. Now that I have my own equipment, I am very busy because people know I make good noodles. Because of that now we have enough money to get on with our lives. This is a good change."

For people across Myanmar, things are changing. And there's a good chance that this time, as for Hla Nu, it'll be a change for the better.