Gyaw Gyaw, which means “slowly, step-by-step” in the Karen language, was co-founded in 2008 by Norwegian landscape architect Line Ramstad and members of the Karen community. Besides Ramstad and South Korean/German architect Jae-Young Lee, the rest of the team consists of Karen people, and the core of the group has remained the same since 2008.
The Karen are the second largest ethnic group in Myanmar. After World War II, Myanmar (then Burma) was granted independence from Britain and the Karen were promised their own independent state. Neither the Karen nor other minorities received this sovereignty. Surviving more than 60 years of war, oppression, and violence from the Myanmar government, many Karen fled to the Thai border. Though they can claim refugee status in Thailand, they often have no rights and face the constant threat of arrest and deportation.
Gyaw Gyaw’s development has been organic, governed by a few general principles: source locally, involve everyone, and take it step-by-step. Though they receive program-based support from a small number of Norwegian companies which allows for flexibility in projects and the ability to navigate complex political upheaval, civil strife, and military conflict, their work is deliberately small scale. Their budget is a mere $60,000 annually by choice.
Gyaw Gyaw’s work promotes a combination of both traditional and contemporary building methods. This design choice is intended to show viable alternatives to the common foreign aid model of primarily concrete buildings. By building upon existing local knowledge, materials, and methods, Gyaw Gyaw empowers communities to value and utilize their existing expertise skills.
Previous and current projects include primary, high, and teaching schools, libraries, dormitories, gardens, and a widow house. Additionally, the organization is involved with many community projects, like providing roofing, installing toilets and water systems, fencing, and more.
Having completed over 65 projects and despite the covid-19 pandemic and a military coup that has devolved into a civil war, the team is steadily working forward, building sustainable structures for and with local existing schools.
We had an opportunity to have an extended conversation with Line Ramstad on our podcast, Social Design Insights. Listen to the episodes below.