Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Child Street Singers

The Irrawaddy News

RANGOON — The three kids are sitting in a circle under a street lamp near Yankin Market in Rangoon. Their clothes are worn-out, filthy and wet with sweat. It is almost 8 pm and the street corners are dark.

A 14-year-old boy wearing a dirty white cap beats out a rhythm with two sections of bamboo, while his 12-year-old sister sings "I've Learnt to Love with You," a popular song by rock singer Zaw Pai. Singing in a high-pitched voice, she holds a baby girl in her arms. A dirty milk bottle lies flat on the pavement beside her. The third girl, an 8-year-old, is counting the money they have earned that day in a side bag.

These children sing for much more than their supper. (Photo: Aung Thet Wine/ The Irrawaddy)
The girl’s voice is filled with weariness. Her sorrow and hunger can be heard despite the romantic words of the song.

"Uncles, Aunties, please help us. Please give us some food, your leftovers. Please give us some money for food. Please," she begs after her song. A 500 kyat note and a couple of hundreds float down from the high-rise apartments. The three rush out to pick them up.

They are just three from a multitude of destitute orphaned children surviving on their wits or perishing in a near absence of social welfare under the Burmese military regime.

The boy introduces himself as Nay Lin and his sister as Zin Mar. The baby girl in her arms is Nu Nu Htwe, their cousin. The young girl who collects the money is called Htet Htet.

"We haven’t even got 3,000 kyat yet, so we can’t go home. Perhaps we’ll get home before 10 p.m." Nay Lin explains. Instead of staying at home with the prospect of going to school the next day, they have to wander the streets looking for food.

The children have lived with their 80-year-old grandmother in a poor quarter of Southern Dagon satellite town ever since they lost their parents. They managed to learn to read and write, but now they have no money for school anymore.

"She is just five months old. Her mother, my elder sister, died a month ago. My grandma can't keep her at home, so we have to bring her with us when we go out to beg," Zin Mar said.

The infant is feeble and skinny, and she is sucking her thumb hungrily. She looks sick. Her eyes are inflamed and yellowish.

Zin Mar picks up the milk bottle and puts it into the infant's mouth. Nu Nu Htwe starts impatiently sucking some brownish liquid from the bottle.

"I feed her with tea, ovaltine and Red Cow brand baby milk formula, if I can, but I can't feed her unless we get enough money for food," Zin Mar said.

"I've been singing on the street since I was young. I was just a lone singer, then," Nay Lin said, explaining how started on the streets. He said he left home on the outskirts of town before 10 in the morning, and he usually returned around 9 p.m. I would sing and beg from city dwellers and passers-by the whole day.

"We have nothing for breakfast when we leave home. When we have earned 500 kyat from begging, then we can have breakfast. I frequently eat Mon Hin-Gar (a kind of Burmese vermicelli). It only costs 100 kyat from street vendors. Some families give us a pack of food for lunch or dinner. If we don't get food, we have to buy it ourselves. Sometime we have nothing and go without," Nay Lin said.

Their grandmother is senile and ill, and she is suffering from hypertension and arthritis, the children said.

"We go home if we get 4-5,000 kyat for a day. This is enough for food and a little medicine for grandma. But we are really worried about the baby. She can't eat solid food like us, so we have to earn some money to buy her tea or milk powder," Nay Lin said.

They leave on foot to beg for their keep come rain or shine. Walking on Rangoon’s streets, they sing the most popular songs by famous rock singers, such as R. Zarni, L. Saizi, and Zaw Pai.

"I learn these songs at tea shops, and when I get back home I practice singing them. I often sing L. Saizi songs. The ladies are crazy about him," Zin Mar said.

There is no rest day, and in the rainy season begging becomes more difficult as many areas become near impassable. On such days the children collect vegetables growing naturally in ponds and fields and sell them in the market. However, selling vegetables barely earns enough for them to eat.

Although he begs on the street, Nay Lin remains determined in his ambition. "I want to be a singer, but not on streets. I want to be a singer and have my own concerts," he said.

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