The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Friday, September 10, 2010

Where tradition discounts education

Empty schools in two villages speak of separate priorities

Old Habits Die Hard: A family on route to its summer residence

Merak-Sakteng 23 May, 2010 - It’s different in the highlands of remote Sakteng in northern Trashigang. Walking to the dungkhag, visitors encounter droves of cattle herded by young school-aged children.

Rarely are these children in the company of their parents while herding cattle, which is just one of their responsibilities. They even carry material for developmental projects in the gewog from the nearest road in Phongmey, which is a day’s journey by foot. Their latest task was to carry material for the erection of a mobile tower and its barbed wire for fencing.

With so many children out and about, the community schools in the gewog are in want of students.

Community schools in Thrakthri and Joenkhar villages have only five and nine students each in class PP. “We’ve gone into the villages and talked the parents into sending their children, mostly the over-aged ones to school,” said principal Yeshi Dorji of Joenkhar community primary school.

The community school did not have any enrolment in 2007 and currently does not have a class two section. Teachers are worried about next year. “We’ve carried out a survey and found out there are none for enrollment next year,” he said, adding that the children that are in the villages are just two or three years old.

Other teachers in Sakteng said that many parents were withdrawing their children from school. According to the teachers, some parents were not allowing their children to continue studies after they complete primary education.

The elders of the villages, however, think differently. Parents do not send all their children to school and, even if they do, they usually withdraw them after they reach a certain age. Only the young ones are sent, while the older ones stay at home to assist them.

“If we send all our children to school, who’ll take our place and carry forth the traditions and culture we’ve long cherished and lived by?” questioned Sonam Tshomo from Tholong, Sakteng.

Sonam Tshomo is in her early fifties and has seven children, of whom only two attend school in Joenkhar. Her 13-year old daughter follows her with a herd of oxen and horses to collect ration and other essential commodities from Phongmey, a tradition that has been followed for a long time.

Meymey Karchung, 53, from Merak, lives with two of his sons in Thrakthri. Both dropped out of school after Class VII. The elder is only 18 years old and is married with a daughter.

“It’s difficult to handle more than 40 cattle, so I had to keep my sons out of school to help me,” said Karchung. “Moreover, we can earn if we rear the cattle, whereas sending them to school incurs expenses and I can’t afford that because I have nine children.”

Though the number of children in a family has relatively declined, most brokpa families still have more than six children, according to village representatives.

Another villager had a different opinion. “Our government said tourism would greatly benefit the Sakteng brokpas. Now, if all our children go to school and are employed elsewhere, then there would be none left to continue our culture,” said Norbu, another brokpa. “Tell me then, why would tourists want to come to our villages?”

Moreover, Norbu said that there is an increasing need of manpower, because each year the livestock increases. “There are at least five new calves born each year, so the need increases,” he said, adding that a brokpa’s son is the best brokpa.

Tashi Phuntsho, a teenager, had to give up school, as he was the eldest in the family, and remain home to shoulder bigger responsibilities. His two younger siblings go to school.

Sangay Tshering, 15, from Thrakthri village, likes attending school. But attending to his family’s need comes first. Sangay’s village is about a six-hour walk away from Phongmey. The villagers depend on livestock and crops. He frequently walks to Phongmey to get rice and other essentials.

But Sangay is not bothered by not being able to attend school. He said that he will soon marry and have a family. When his children grow up, he would want his children to listen and obey him like he obeyed his parents. “I know my parents want me to become like them,” he said. “I’m happy as a brokpa.”

By Tshering Palden
Feature: Kuensel

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