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Building bridges – with hair

Two women sit before a pile of donated hair for the bridge- and road-building project in Sagaing Division. (Photo: Libby Hogan / DVB)

“I’ve been growing my hair for nine years,” says 25-year-old Myo Myo Aung as she swings a lock of hair over her shoulder and calmly rests her hands on her bulging pregnant belly. “I decided to sell my hair originally because I was having a baby, but then a lady at work said, ‘Instead of just cutting it and selling it, why don’t you donate it and do good deeds?’”

In an unassuming neighbourhood on the outskirts of Rangoon, a monastery is tucked away behind a row of houses. Its small golden stupa and cluster of wooden buildings would not stand out anywhere in the country, but one thing immediately catches the eye: the line of women waiting on the steps of the main building, all with hair that is at least waist-long; some even have tresses cascading to the floor.

With three quick snips of the scissors, nine years of growth hits the floor. Myo Myo Aung kneels at the feet of a saffron-robed monk and offers her hair. Together they chant a blessing. And then the hair is placed in an old hessian bag stuffed to the brim with other black locks.

This hair ceremony is part of a ritual that’s focused not on the afterlife, but on a very worldly goal: building a new bridge.

25 year-old Myo Myo Aung gets ready to cut off her long hair and donate it to the “Gold Hair Bridge” project. (Photo: Libby Hogan / DVB)

How it all began

Despite Southern Sagaing Division being part of Burma’s dry zone it also has sudden sweeping storms in the monsoon season.

One day in 2006, Buddhist abbot Sayadaw U Weiponla was travelling in the area on a bus when a woman who was heavily pregnant went into labour. Due to the muddy roads slowing the bus, the lady could not get to a hospital in time and died. “As I witnessed the situation, I wanted to fix it,“ says Sayadaw U Weiponla. It was this devastating event that moved the senior abbot to seek a way to improve infrastructure in his area. But the challenge was, how to raise funds?

He proclaimed his goal and invited donations at his monastery. The donations were steady but on the third year of the project, a 21-year-old village girl changed the pace of donations. She offered her hair as she was too poor to donate money. Burmese hair is a much sought after commodity in China, where it is used for wigs and hair extensions. The monk accepted the donation and so the “gold hair bridge” idea was born.

Initially they planned to build just one bridge. In 2009 the first bridge was built and named, “Swe Zan Bin” (gold hair bridge). The name quickly caught on and attracted more donors. Soon “hair donation ceremonies were being held in village after village and town after town, and gradually the word reached cities like Rangoon and Mandalay,”  recalls Sayadaw U Weiponla.

Once the hair has been donated it is collected and cleaned. Hair merchants go to the monastery directly to then buy the prized locks before selling them to wig factories.

Due to the overwhelming response from over 100,000 donors, so far 22 bridges and about 20 miles of road has been built.

A lady cuts her hair to donate to the ‘Gold Hair bridge’ project. (Photo: Libby Hogan / DVB)

Untangling the symbolism of hair

In Burmese culture there is a saying – “For a woman, your beauty is your hair” – and the longer it is, the better. Well-groomed, glossy hair decorated with jasmine flowers is as quintessentially Burmese as the golden strokes of thanaka paste that grace the faces of most women in this country. While hairstyles are changing, with more women in the workforce and new fashion trends, long, black hair still retains its timeless appeal.

“For Burmese women cutting your hair by force is painful, but donating with your own free will is very good for karma,” says Chit Chit Myint, a Burmese woman whose own black hair — faded to a shade of silver — is swept into a chignon decorated with roses. The mood of women giving their hair at the monastery is one of joy — there are no regrets, despite the perception of long hair as a symbol of feminine dignity.

Sayadaw U Weiponla says people donate their hair for two reasons: “Firstly, they want to contribute, to be a part of our charity work. And secondly, from the religious point of view, there are two types of donations — material donations and the donation of body parts.”

Buddhists also believe donating body parts is nobler. Sayadaw U Weiponla adds: “By donating hair, the donor is cutting her attachment to the hair and while it wouldn’t bring her straight to nirvana, it can serve as a step forward to nirvana.”

A statue of a woman with long hair marks the first “Gold Hair Bridge” built with hair donations. (Photo: Libby Hogan / DVB)

However, the gold hair bridge project isn’t rooted in religion. “This is not for one religion, it is for all religions,” says Chit Chit Myint, who volunteers at the monastery. “It’s also for everything; cars, human beings, sick people, students.” Chit Chit Myint is a philanthropist who sponsors some high school students from rural backgrounds who qualify to study medicine but cannot afford the tuition fees. She has also donated US$30,000 to the gold hair bridge project.

“[Building these bridges and roads is] different from other religious issues like when we build a stupa,” she says. “Then it is for the next life, or for nirvana, but this is for the present.”

Another volunteer at the monastery helping with the hair donations is Daa Ni Ni Phar, a Muslim retired accountant.

“Building these bridges is meant to help people and it has nothing to do with their religion. It’s about humanity. The initiative is led by a monk and I am contributing as a human being, on humanitarian grounds and religion is not relevant here,”says Daa Ni Ni Phar.

Chit Chit Myint (left) and Daa Ni Ni Phar (right) stand with Ma Myo Myo Aung, who has just donated her hair. (Photo: Libby Hogan / DVB)

Future plans

Previously villagers used inflated inner tubes to ferry people across the river. Now with people crossing the bridges by foot or bike, the standard of living has increased.

“Every time you visit you will see the development — new houses, new people, new businesses — that’s a good thing,” says Chit Chit Myint.

As well as building new bridges and roads, the donations are also funding a tree-planting project beside the new roads and building an education centre for children who can’t afford to study in schools.

“We will continue our charity work in places we can, where the government cannot reach and where there’s opportunity for us,” says Sayadaw U Weiponla.

The labour behind a lot of these projects is also from people who volunteer their time for a day, a week or even longer.

The hair donation movement doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. “This is ongoing and we will never stop,” says Chit Chit Myint.

Women continue to donate their hair without hesitation — giving the one thing they all possess for a greater cause.

Sayadaw U Weiponla stands at the largest bridge built thanks to hair donations and private donations. (Photo: Libby Hogan / DVB)