By Naomi Canton
Manju Wakhley is thought to be the first Bhutanese woman to study at Oxford University. She read an MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation & Management at St Hilda’s College in 2008 – the same year that the fifth King of Bhutan relinquished his absolute power and the country became a democracy. In this interview, the 27-year-old speaks to Oxford Today about life in the tiny Buddhist kingdom, its unique conservation ethic, the recent elections and her financial struggle as a student.
Oxford Today: The current Dragon King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, went to Oxford. What is the perception of Oxford in Bhutan?
Manju Wakhley: Oxford is considered as a place for kings! The people that have gone there have made it very big back in Bhutan. Very few Bhutanese people have studied at Oxford; it’s a small country. Some are now Members of Parliament, but there have not been many Oxford alumni like me – becoming entrepreneurs or doing something green.
OT: How did you find your time at Oxford?
MW: Oxford was a name I learnt in primary school, so going there was like living a childhood dream. My course was about the interaction and conflict between wildlife, humans and livestock. It was really nice, but then I faced the harsh reality of trying to live in England. I could not afford to go to a ball as it cost £50 to £100 and there were lots of social events I did not have the right clothes for.
I did not even have enough money to pay my department fees. My family had shown on paper we had the money, but we did not. In the end my parents mortgaged the house they had built and that’s how I went. I had hoped to get a job in Oxford, then my tutor told me not to work. I had no idea how expensive the UK would be.
For all that, I enjoyed the academic side tremendously. After two months I was so broke that I went to the Bursar’s Office at St Hilda’s and asked if I could go back, but he refused and helped me apply for some college grants. In June 2009, when my course was finishing, the King of Bhutan called me to say I was getting the first annual King’s Scholarship covering living expenses and tuition fees.
It was £23,000 and cleared my family’s debts. The King personally selects who receives it. I am most grateful to the King. At 23 I think I was also the youngest Bhutanese to gain a postgraduate qualification from Oxford.
OT: What did you do when you left the University?
MW: At first I took a 40-hour a week job at Poundland in Oxford on the minimum wage. The problem was I was overqualified but had no experience. Working in the pound shop I saw a really different side to Oxford – the real Oxford that most students don’t see. It wasn’t postgraduate students but plumbers, electricians and cleaners.
After eight months I moved to London but still could not find a permanent job in my field and instead distributed Save The Tiger flyers outside tube stations. I returned to Bhutan after my visa expired last year with just £15 and two solar light bulbs in my pocket and focused on my two businesses instead.
I had started my business Light of Asia in 2010 when I was at Oxford in 2010. It is an eco-green technology company that sells solar-powered light bulbs, street lamps, mobile chargers, water heaters and other green technology across the world. The idea is to take solar lightbulbs out to remote villages where there is no electricity. We are looking for dealers in different countries.
OT: What was it like growing up and living in Bhutan?
MW: Economically it’s a poor but rapidly improving country. There is TV, Internet, hip hop and discos, yet about 80 per cent of Bhutanese are farmers. Unemployment is increasingly becoming an issue. Every year there are thousands of graduates; we need more venture capitalists. A few western brands are coming in, but we don’t have traffic lights, McDonald’s or KFC yet.
There are people who don’t have a square meal but there is contentment among them because of Buddhism: they don’t perceive life as about material things. We're a country rapidly dealing with rural to urban migration, and a biodiversity hotspot – it's one of 35 places left in the world with more than 70 per cent of its original natural habitat. Our constitution states that 60 per cent of the country must have forest cover. The population has to coexist with the wildlife.
OT: Bhutan was one of the last countries in the world to get TV, back in 1999, along with the internet. What impact has that had?
MW: The Internet has had a very positive impact by connecting Bhutan to the rest of the world. It was quite isolated before. Lots of kids are glued to Korean soap operas but TV has not had a negative impact. Before, it was compulsory to wear national dress in public; now you can wear jeans. More than the wearing gho and kira, Bhutanese culture is the Bhutanese heart and social value system and I can’t see that changing.
OT: What it the state of sexual equality in Bhutan?
MW: Compared to elsewhere in Asia, Bhutanese women are quite empowered but there is room for improvement, in politics especially. We got our first woman minister this year.
OT: What do you think of the second parliamentary elections in Bhutan in July 2013, in which the opposition party, the People's Democratic Party, won?
MW: It was the first time the people had voted for change. Our first democratically-elected government had lots of ministers that had been in that position for more than 10 years. The new cabinet is completely different. A lot of election campaigning was done online this time: the current prime minister used social media and blogging, which is so powerful in a small country where we have mountains, different languages and people used to walking for days to convey messages.
OT: Gross National Happiness is a policy introduced by the Fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in the 1970s. How is that working out for the population?
MW: It’s about judging the success of an economy not on material growth but on the happiness and wellbeing of a person. We are used to this – it is not new. In Bhutan you will find gross national happiness on the one hand and the refugee crisis in Nepal on the other. These two narratives of Bhutan are contradictory – it's time the refugee issue gets attention.
SOURCE: OXFORD TODAY