Dr Sasa was born in Lailenpi village in Chin State to Parents who had had no formal education – like many local families they couldn’t read or write, and to this day Dr Sasa doesn’t know his birthdate. He attended the village school, a small bamboo structure which the students shared with livestock. There was no local doctor or medical centre.
When he was still young, Dr Sasa experienced a personal tragedy which went on to dramatically shape his future. One memorably heart-breaking year, a friend of his mother’s died in childbirth, and three of his friends contracted diarrhoea and tragically died on the same day. This, he tells me, was the turning point of his life.
“No one,” he says, “at this time in human history and in the development of medicine, should die because they don’t have access to simple medicine. I realised then that education is the only way to save our people.”
Dr Sasa became determined to pursue education, but with no local high school he had to travel further afield. He went to Yangon to study, and experienced the challenge not only of living in a new area but of overcoming huge challenges – coming from such a small village in a very rural area he had to learn things like how to cross a busy road and how to take a bus. He returned home when he completed his high school education, but was unable to continue studying following the closing of all colleges by the military government in 1997. When Sasa arrived back home he soon realised that his friends were missing the basic medical information he had been learning, and for the next two years became their teacher introducing them to concepts like washing hands to prevent disease. He found himself thinking more about how he could contribute to his country and help rural communities by providing them with basic health care knowledge, which would make a huge difference to quality of life.
Across the border in India a new college opened, where he went to continue studying. From there, Sasa went to Armenia to continue his studies at university, which meant another new country and another new language. He was soon overwhelmed by the university fees however, and was asked to leave. When talking to friends back in Delhi he found out about an organisation that provided scholarships for Burmese students to study abroad – Prospect Burma (PB). Thanks to PB he was able to go back to Armenia to continue studying medicine, and his life began to change in ways he couldn’t have imagined. PB introduced him to his key donor from the UK, who over the next few years went above and beyond to introduce him to her friends and to key contacts in the UK and Jersey. He was invited to spend Christmas with Baroness Cox and spent a month in London meeting many influential people including doctors, members of parliament and much more. Throughout his degree he continued to spend his holidays in London on clinical placements. In 2008 he was introduced to HRH The Prince of Wales, (Prospect Burma’s Patron as of 2016). He told me;
“It was such a surreal experience, to go from this tiny village in Burma to meeting a future King just a few years later.”
At this time, Kachin state experienced the blossoming of bamboo which happens every 48 years across India and Burma. The bamboo flowers en masse, producing a protein-rich fruit which is devoured by local rats. This huge increase of available food results in a sharp peak in the rodent population and when the bamboo fruit has been eaten by the rats they will turn to local villages and continue to devour food, decimating crops and stores. In 2005 the flowering started in Northeast India, and as it travelled down across India and into the Chin state in Burma, the rat population grew and followed. In 2008 the huge increase in rat population devouring crops resulted in a famine. Dr Sasa met with the private secretary of Prince Charles who helped him to secure vital medicine to take back to his home state. While there, he distributed medicine and met with local people to offer treatment. As the only Doctor in the area, he was overwhelmed with patients and at the height of the famine was treating up to 500 people a day. He stayed for three months, trying to treat as many people as possible and contending with regular visits from the military.
After he finished his studies and graduated as a doctor, he decided that the best thing he could do to help was to enable a new generation of Burmese to become Doctors, and to put the necessary skills into the community. In his own words, he decided to “multiply himself”. He called a meeting for village leaders from surrounding areas to come and receive health training, and over 400 attended. They were trained on hygiene and water safety. Sasa knew that food aid, alongside simple primary healthcare measures, such as access to clean water, better nutrition and basic health interventions, could have a significant impact on people’s health and wellbeing.
Through Dr Sasa’s initiative, hundreds of villagers were brought together to build a training centre to launch the region’s first primary healthcare service and “Health and Hope” was born. By 2015, 834 health workers from 551 villages had graduated from Health and Hope’s six-month training course. The organisation also now runs an educational scholarship programme to support the next generation of leaders in Chin State, and has expanded its health work to support the training of Traditional Birth Attendants in addition to supporting local villagers to build Community Health and Education Centres. Health and Hope also continues to respond to the critical issues of food insecurity and malnutrition across the region.