Friday, December 27, 2013

Story of a community and a temple

There is a village lost in the wilderness of the Black Mountains under Wangdue. It is called Athang Rukha. It had only 118 people then, called the Oleps, with a distinct culture, language and way of life. I came across this village in 2007 when I was a freelance journalist and a filmmaker. An NGO (Tarayana) sent me there to document this people before changes ultimately swept this group. However, my visit there was life-changing for me. The poverty, misery and hunger was shocking. The community was divided. Each family I guess was struggling. I even wrote one of the most powerful articles for a newspaper titled, What does GNH mean to her? ("Her" was Ugyem, who lost her son in a jungle and the daughter-in-law in another freak accident. She lived in total misery).
UNDP's Toshi Tanaka helped secure the SGP funds for me.

But I not only complained. I also worked for them. I went back to the village carrying food, cloths, medicines and above all, myself. I then volunteered for Tarayana Foundation that had started to build permanent houses. Until then they were in temporary make-shift bamboo shacks. Tarayana had secured a UNDP project of USD 49,000 to pay timber royalties, carpenter hire charges and roofing materials. The project entailed the entire village to come together and build one house at a time. Passang Tobgye, Tarayana's field officer was stationed there while Sonam Pem, the project officer, and I would visit the place almost every month. I sourced another small amount from the SGP funding to irrigate the land, introduce fishery and light up their homes with solar lamps. I also filled the gap between Tarayana and the people there. For example, while the men were at the construction site, they were missing out on feeding their families. They worked as day labourers in neighbouring villages and got paid in food grains with which they fed their families. So I took the responsibility for the food supplies for over a year. Gradually, within two years we made a turn around. The village began to prosper. They grew their own food, sent their children to school and began to imagine a better life. Over the same period I became very close to them. In fact I know each and every family in Rukha by their names. My acquaintance also extended to half of Athang gewog as Tarayana extended the project areas to Lawa, Lamga, Mitana, Samthang, Harachu and Kashajeko. 

Now I am them.

Towards the end of 2008, when they were almost on their feet, they asked me if I could rebuild a temple on the same site where there used to be one. I refused it flatly telling them that I was there to help them and not to help the Almighty because He was capable of taking care of Himself. He didn’t need my help. Instead, we needed His – wherever He was.

But the community insisted and came back to me again and again. One thing that I noticed was that people who were earlier not talking to each other or getting along, for whatever reason, had also joined the campaign to convince me. I agreed. At that time I was actually not only bankrupt but also deeply on overdrafts with the bank. But I realized that a temple goes way beyond the spiritual needs.

Fast forward to five years, we have a community temple. As I expected the temple is a place that binds the community. It is a place where people meet informally and also where community meetings are held. And when people meet they talk, which is the first step towards peaceful coexistence. Because it is a sacred place, people respect each other and do not indulge in social vices. In fact people with problems come and seek divine interventions. I am not sure if they are heard, but they sure go away feeling that they have been. And more often than not, with the confidence they got from the temple, they overcome their difficulties. It is a place where children play and old people pray. When I go there, I normally sit and read a book or pull out my laptop. It is a beautiful place to work too.

On 25th December 2013 I could finally organise the long-awaited consecration of the temple after several delays caused mainly by lack of funds. Except for the valuable seed grant from Tarayana Foundation, we (the community and I) were left very much on our own. But we pulled on. May be it was the blessings of the guardian deity Pelden Lhamo who is believed to be residing there. May be I managed to make the people believe in themselves and in a better future for their children. Whatever be the reason, a community that was close to extinction just few years back went on to build their own houses, be self-sufficient in food, send their children to school and build a temple to look beyond this mortal existence.

I am happy to have been part of their transformation.

Monday, November 25, 2013

One year later, movin' on

One year has passed since the terrible incident that nearly killed my wife.  One year since I had to drive back from Kalikhola in the middle of the night towards Thimphu - not knowing if my wife was still alive. Or how my two little daughters were coping up with the shocking incident. 

As my car negotiated the endless curves up the foothills of Southern Bhutan passing by the Kharbandi Gompa, I made a deal with the Almighty – and with myself. If my wife comes out of this alive, if I get my life back, I would dedicate myself to work towards mitigating the menace from this emerging youth issues so that no one goes through what I was going through.

My wife survived albeit with a permanent damage to her inner ears that still bothers her. Nonetheless, considering what could have happened, and also after learning of some people I knew who had been through similar cases, my wife and I are more than happy to be get back our normal lives. We have no grudges against the assailants. We refuse to claim any damages. We would like to believe it was an accident. The two boys were drunk after all.

On the rescueChithuen Phenday volunteers
carry out 2-3 such rescues every night. Some
follow a 6-month rehabilitation period.
As for my deal with the Almighty and above all, with myself, I started working for the troubled youth through Chithuen Phenday Association (CPA) – an NGO involved with recovering addicts and alcoholics. The group is self-contained in terms of expertise, commitment and in getting things done and runs a rehab centre in Paro and a drop-in centre in Thimphu. Their only shortcoming is, very often, not being able to penetrate the bureaucratic wall and an increasingly indifferent society. While we boast of ourselves as a compassionate nation, there seems to be a deep and life-long stereotyping of people who have erred in life. It is unfortunate and ironic that it should take someone with a “status” to back them up and stand for them every now and then. I am happy to do that but I wish people just opened their hearts and doors to them.

My Teacher: My World? - Teaching isn't 
easy and yet the profession is so neglected. 
No Bhutanese has stayed long enough to 
become a professor nor has anyone moved
from other professions to become one. 
My association with CPA has made me realise that the problem of youth is not so much with the youth themselves. We have families who don’t take back their kids even after they are clean and sober. Some treat the alcoholics and drug addicts like pests. So the problem is actually with the "normal" adults and with the rest of the educated urban elite that are becoming selfish, apathetic and complacent and even hostile to the less fortunate. Such a trend could kill the very essence of our nation – our Bhutanese-ness. That would put our country into a very uncertain future. We have lost some of ancient neighbours to greed and disharmony that resulted in treachery. If we want to avoid their fate, we need to maintain our values of harmony, compassion and patriotism and pass these qualities to our next generation.

However, while with the CPA we were doing the cure - and thus short-term, I needed to get to the preventive aspects of the problem - the long-term solution. In other words, work with our normal kids so that they grow up as responsible and responsive citizens. And that’s one of the reasons that brought me to Kanglung. Figures show that this college produces half of the country’s university graduates plus many leaders.

A Place in the Sun - With my first semester 
students out in the Sun. Classrooms are 
cold besides being worn-out.
My choice of the college and my decision were not bad. I have come across two classes of 76 students on whom I pour my words of “wisdom” to shape them, first and foremost, into good human beings. Then as required by the university, I deliver the curriculum that would make them media persons. I also don’t waste any opportunity to deliver guest lectures to other courses and clubs. I speak, sometimes ad nauseum, on age-old values, respect for elders, reverence for our King and love and compassion for fellow-countrymen. I am sure if they had these qualities, skills and knowledge and success would just follow and our country’s future would be bright. They will be leaders and not losers. They will be more empathetic to their fellow citizens.

I have often said that not much is actually wrong with our education system but everything isn't right with the way we are nurturing our next generation. As a matter of fact, we are not even nurturing them. Most of us are busy pursuing our own dreams, desires and drayangsMany are just struggling to keep up with the growing demands of the society be it in economic terms or with social obligations. The net result is that we are leaving the next generation to Korean movies, ketamine tablets and cough syrups.  This is what we really need to understand.

Life's looking up - The third semester group is quite lively 
and some are turning out to be good photojournalists.
By the grace of the kencho-sum and thanks to our beloved monarchs who have tirelessly worked for us, I am, like many of my generation, doing fine. But the unprovoked assault on my wife made me realise that it is not enough to raise your family in an exemplary manner. Someone somewhere is not fortunate or wise enough to do the same. We then end up with unsafe streets in our own Capital city where actually everyone is supposed to know everybody. Those of us, who can, therefore, need to work extra hard towards fostering the children of our own fellow citizens. In other words, our future generation.

How long will I do this and where would I get? Honestly, I don’t know. I know I am just giving a far shot and I may even be wrong in the analysis of the whole issue. But then it is deal I made with myself and opportunities also came along. And for now, I am having a fulfilling time with energetic and motivated students in Sherubtse who are happy to have me and who are very optimistic about their future. And on the other side of the country I have a group of helpless, directionless and broken kids in Thimphu and Paro who have lost everything life has to offer – including hope.

And as Stevie Wonder sings in A place in the Sun, I will keep movin' on.

  Like an old dusty road,
  I am weary from the load,
  Movin’ on, movin’ on.

  There's place in the Sun,

  Where there's hope for everyone. 

On the first anniversary of that life-changing incident I  offered 108 
butter lamps at Kanglung Zangthogpelri. I have prayed that everyone 
finds the light out of any darkness - just as I have done.
I am currently an adjunct professor for media studies in Sherubtse College (Kanglung in Eastern Bhutan) and a member of the Board of Chithuen Phenday Association.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Sherubtse Gamiga

Two weeks have passed since I landed on the Peak of Learning (Sherubtse College). Yes. Literally, Kanglung, the town where Sherubtse College is located, is on a peak overlooking much of the Tashigang district. The panorama extends for hundreds of kilometers - from Arunachal Pradesh to the North to Monggar district in the South.

I am here on a two-month assignment as an adjunct professor for media studies. And I will stay on if things go well. I am glad to be here - for several reasons.  First, to be a teacher was always in my bucket list. The other things were flying a plane, being a monk and to meet Nelson Mandela. Second, I had a fulfilling career spanning over 20 years. It would be selfish of me not to share the experiences from the field and all the stories I have gathered along the way. And where else but at the place that churns out the maximum number of future leaders - Sherubtse. And lastly, to take a break from my career that has been moving at break-neck speed. I just need to slow down for a while.

The first day in front of the class was memorable. Sanggay Tshechu, head of the media department, to whom I have to report, accompanied me and introduced me to the first year students with what was perhaps the shortest introduction I have ever had in my life. “This is Dorji Wangchuk. And you all know who he is.” And she left with a smile turning over the class to me.

I thanked her, scanned the class, took a deep breath and I began, “Since you all know me, I am not sure if you know each other. So when I count three, you will have to introduce yourself to the person next to you. You will shake hand and say who you are and where you come from. Okay? One, two, three, go!”

There were lots of handshaking and giggling and, of course, smiles and laughter. When they were done, I resumed my lecture. “It is quite possible that although you guys have been together for a month now, you didn't formally introduce to each other. It happens. We always forget the basics in life.” There was some nodding in affirmation. I continued. “And since we are entering the world of mass communication, perfecting the art of communicating is what you will be doing from here on. So let’s get some fundamentals straight. What you have just done is the first thing you should as a journalist.”

The students seem to have got the message. They all stared at me as if waiting for the prophet to speak. I went on to define what journalism was all about, the types of journalism and the prospects after they leave the university. No sooner that I had started to talk the lesson time was over. Lecture periods last just 45 minutes in Sherubtse.

Since that day besides teaching two classes, I have spent much of my time planning the lessons, preparing the slides, rearranging the curriculum (media program is new here), putting together Bhutanese content and case studies and making reference notes for future lecturers who may like to take a look if they wish. I also spent time discussing about strengthening the media program with my colleagues and calling up my friends and networks in the industry in Thimphu for support and guest lectures. Many have responded. I am glad I will be setting a trend.

I did, of course, over the weekend visit my relatives in Pam - driving down the winding roads of Rongthong where I was even encouraged by a DANTAK road sign, Go man go. But go slow. I do drive fast. I also spent the first Thrue (Blessed Rainy Day) in my native Tongling after, ahem, 40 years! So it was rather an emotional home coming. Words spread in the village that I had finally come. So they all poured in from all directions with simple gifts comprising of eggs, rice, cucumber, zaw, etc. It was a moving experience. Obviously while I maintained contacts with my cousins, I was seeing the others for the first time. They told me that they have always been proud of me and had high regards. They kept track of my career and saw me often on TV and sometimes with the Royal Entourage.  I felt guilty of not having visited them earlier. Still, it was better late than never. We decided that I would fund and raise funds for something they always wanted - a good festival ground with a pavilion for guests in front of the community temple.                 

Back to Sherubtse, while many students complain about how dead Kanglung is, I actually quite like this place. May be it has got to do with the quieter atmosphere I have been yearning for. Maybe it has got to be my age. I feel the urge to give something back to the society. Or maybe it is simply the inexhaustible energy of these young souls that drives this place.

Yes, the students here besides studying also produce more decibels than perhaps the whole of Tashigang put together. There is noise coming out from every part of the campus as soon as the day breaks.  And if it were not for the rule that dictates them to maintain the silence after certain hours in the night, they would happily shout - day in and day out. Even a regular soccer match between two hostels begins with a procession of players with fans (read as hostel mates) beating drums and cymbals. They appoint chief guests and match commissioners among themselves. Maybe it is this joie de vivre that keeps Sherubtse alive.

I had heard many stories of how difficult students were. I was mentally prepared for that. However, until now, few have missed my lessons and when they did, they called. The students here like diversity. So they take field trips, research, assignments and practical very seriously. They also attend extra classes I organise to fill in some gaps in their learning.

Perhaps it is because I bring personal stories and practical experiences to the class or maybe it is because of who I am - both as a person and the positions I have held thus far. Whatever the reason I am treated well - both by the students and the people working here in Sherubtse.

Life is where the heart is. For now, I have found a new life, new friends, young and dynamic colleagues and, of course, two groups of youth who have dreams, optimism and aspirations to make our country a better place. My hope, duty and responsibility will be to guide them towards their goals, ambitions and successes.

[1] Also a title of film by my friend and former BBS colleague Tshering Wangyel, “Sherubtse Gamiga” roughly translates as “As happy as I can get in Sherubtse”