A helping hand

Here’s an announcement from Jurmi Chhowing. I won’t be in Thimphu, but for those who are … please attend.

My apologies for going off the topic!
I’m requesting personal help. We are trying to help raise whatever cash/kind we can for the Tsunami/Earthquake victims of Japan.

Its called “A HELPING HAND” – (With The Journalist, Bhutan Today, Radio Valley, Kilu Bhutan Music School & Japanese friends & colleagues using their resources besides many others). We are building up to the event (a MUSIC concert by STUDENTS from KILU), and trying to create avenues/raise publicity for people to chip in and show Solidarity at this tragic juncture in Japan.

It will culminate with the Concert on Sunday 2:30PM at the Clock Tower. And you are ABSOLUTELY WELCOMED!

Thanking You, Sincerely, Jurmi Chhowing.



Zoom on zoom

Quick updates on my previous post:

  • I’ve uploaded some photographs in the gallery.
  • Most of the officials who were invited to the art festival never did show up …
  • But, many other visitors turned up, especially on the final evening …
  • And, the prime minister made an unscheduled and unannounced visit to the closing ceremony of the festival. I applaud our PM.

Zoom on garbage

Screaming for help

Are you an important government official? If so, did you receive an invitation to attend Young Zoom on Garbage, the art festival currently on at the Clock Tower Square? And if so, did you make it to the festival?

Chances are that you didn’t.

Young Zoom on Garbage is meant to be an innovative and powerful way of drawing much needed attention to a very serious problem. So the organizers sent out more than 200 invitations for yesterday’s opening function. But only a handful showed up: barely 10% of the invitees were able to attend the inaugural ceremonies.

That’s too bad.

The participants – about 60 children, mostly students, who, incidentally, took part in the project’s many activities during much of the last year – have put on quite a show. They have transformed the Clock Tower Square into an awesome display of Thimphu’s waste, as they caused discarded cardboard boxes, beer bottles, cement bags, newspapers, mobile voucher cards, prayer flags, cigarette boxes, computers, and heaps of plastic bottles, wrappers and bags to effortlessly morph into a video dome, a walk-in pinhole camera, a robot, a towering monster, giant raindrops, a plastic monument, a photo gallery, and an enormous hand clutching our vulnerable world.

At the Clock Tower Square, our garbage looks strangely attractive. But the message is not lost: we produce too much waste.

I congratulate VAST, the organizers of the event, for continuing to champion what their founder, Asha Karma, calls ABC on NGP (Advocacy Behavioral Change on National Garbage Problem).

And I congratulate TCC, for co-organizing the event, giving support and adding to the event’s success.

To register your support, and to make the festival a bigger success, visit the Clock Tower Square, especially if you are one of the 200 important invitees.

Our banner, featuring the “Walk the River” photo exhibition, is an open invitation to you, your family and your friends to zoom on garbage at the VAST art festival. The festival runs through Sunday.


Monkey business

I tried to avoid eye contact. And deliberately scanned the audience, desperately seeking the volunteer who would rescue me. But there was none. And, from the corner of my eye, I could see the emcee walking purposely towards me.

“We have a volunteer,” she announced, smiling yet staring firmly at me.

“Me?” I argued, and quickly looked left then right to my immediate neighbours, hopelessly expecting that she was addressing one of them.

But the emcee was already looming over me. “Yes,” she declared, and led me on to the stage. As I steadied my buckling knees, I scolded myself for getting into this fix.

The sticky situation had begun a week earlier, outside the Musk, when Xochitl Rodriguez, a volunteer with VAST, had asked me for a favour.

“It’ll depend, won’t it?” I had answered, pretending to be smart.

“It’s for the YDF foundation day,” Xochitl had implored, and started to describe the nature of her request. But I had cut her off, claiming that “If it’s for the YDF, I’ll do anything!”

When she eventually got to explain what the favour was, I had regretted that I’d been reckless. A group of young women and men calling themselves Happy Valley Entertainment were to stage a play during the YDF foundation day. The play would feature social messages. And in the tradition of forum theatre, the audience would be required to participate in the play as the plot unfolded.

Forum theatre, a form of drama developed and popularized in South America, requires members of the audience – referred to as “spect-actors” – to extemporaneously join an ongoing play, and change its plot to produce a favourable outcome, normally one that would mobilize the viewers to political and social action.

Xochitl wanted me to be a “spect-actor”! And I wanted otherwise. Not to worry, she had assured me, suddenly confident that the audience would produce many volunteers, and that I wouldn’t, after all, be needed. I felt sure that my services wouldn’t be needed too, convinced that a packed audience would produce at least one volunteer.

But a week later, in Nazhoen Pelri, on the night of the performance, no one volunteered. So Xochitl hauled me on to the stage, my heart pounding, and my mind in overdrive frantically seeking a new storyline for “Jabajasti Korean Monkey”, a play about material greed and misplaced values and priorities.

The revised rendition still had Jabajasti as a misguided young man. But after a brush with the police, he receives YDF’s help, turns over a new leaf, and becomes a role model for his family and friends.

The beginning of my impromptu performance was clumsy. But, after a while, a new story emerged, effortlessly and naturally. And I realized that I was not making anything up – I actually believed in the new storyline. I believed that our youth were brimming with potential, but were inflicted by a growing malaise, one caused by a lack of meaning and purpose in their lives. I believed that they were crying for help. And I believed that the YDF was responding.

From leadership to counseling, education to sponsorships, sports to music, training to employment, and rehabilitation to employment, the YDF provides a complete range of activities for youth throughout the country.

But what the YDF does is not enough. And what they do will never be enough as long as we, adults, choose to be spectators – seeing the unemployment, the drug abuse, the suicides, the prostitution, the burglary, the gang fights, and the desperation, but deliberately not acting on what we see.

And that night, as we celebrated YDF’s eleventh anniversary, I realized that like the powerful forum theatre, the YDF also needed “spect-actors” – leaders who would stand up and join the YDF in its mission of providing “a better today, a brighter tomorrow for the youth of Bhutan.”

Photo credit: Xochitl Rodriguez

Registering CSOs

Commenting on my last post, several readers reiterated that the Tarayana Foundation is doing some wonderful work. I agree.

But did you know that Tarayana Foundation, established seven years ago, is not a registered CSO? Similarly, the Youth Development Fund, established 11 years ago, and RSPN, established 24 years ago, are not registered CSOs.

We know that Tarayana, YDF and RSPN are doing a good job alleviating rural poverty, developing our youth and protecting our natural heritage respectively. They’ve proven it. We also know that many other NGOs have made significant contributions to the development of our country and people.

So I was surprised to read that the CSO Authority has awarded the CSO status to only four organizations: RENEW, Loden Foundation, Centre for Media and Democracy and Bhutanese Association of Women Entrepreneurs (BAOWE).

RENEW is doing a lot of good work empowering our women. So it’s good to see that they’ve been recognized as a registered CSO. And though the Loden Foundation is relatively new, they’ve been quite active.

The Centre for Media and Democracy, established two years ago, sounds promising. And they’ve already conducted several seminars and workshops. Still, I’m not sure how they would qualify for official registration if the likes of Tarayana, YDF and RSPN are left out.

And then there’s BAOWE. They’re also a registered CSO. But who is BAOWE? When were they established? And what have they done to merit recognition ahead of Tarayana, YDF and RSPN.

Fighting poverty

Very low income housing

A popular attraction at the recent Tarayana Fair was the Lhop house. The house, which barely measures 8 feet by 9 feet, had belonged to Ap Pen Tshering, and in it, he and his wife, Aum Gagay Lham, had raised their four children.

75 year-old Pen Tshering’s house had been dismantled and transported to Thimphu, where it was carefully reassembled to showcase the lifestyle of the Lhops, Bhutan’s first inhabitants. And Pen Tshering had been more than happy to abandon his house. After all, he had no need for it.

Ap Pen Tshering, you see, had built a bigger, better and stronger house – one that has four rooms, a separate kitchen and a CGI roof. He’d built his new house with help from Tarayana Foundation.

But his is not the only house that Tarayana has built in Lotukuchu, easily the poorest and the most neglected part of our country. In fact, Tarayana has helped almost every household in the three villages that make up Lotukuchu build better homes. At last count, 73 families have already moved into new dwellings. And houses for the remaining 10-odd families are already being constructed.

And it’s not just housing. Tarayana has helped the Lhops – in Lotukuchu and elsewhere – acquire the resources and skills needed to increase farm productivity and improve income generation. That’s why today’s Lhops are no longer living in abject poverty, completely cut off from the rest of the country. Today’s Lhops boast decent housing, piped water, proper sanitation, an oil expeller, a maize grinder, a cornflake making machine, a power tiller, a traditional paper factory, and a cooperative shop.

And it’s not just in Lotukuchu. Since its establishment, seven years ago, Tarayana has worked tirelessly to improve the lives of our poorest people – simple subsistence farmers who live in some of the remotest corners of Bhutan. Before Tarayana, very few officials had visited them. And no one cared about them. They had been forgotten.

Not any longer. Today, Tarayana is intimately involved in 36 villages across 5 dzongkhags reducing poverty levels, improving the quality of lives, and giving hope to entire communities.

How do they do it? Raw determination. And the support of donors, volunteers and well-wishers. But also by making every ngultrum count.

It’s taken a lot of hard work and dedication to transform the lives of our Lhops. But Tarayana’s war against poverty in Lotukuchu cost them only US$ 100,000. That’s about the price of a new Toyota Prado. And that’s nothing short of miraculous.

Imagine what we could have done with US$ 9.2 million!

Happy birthday YDF

Cause to dance

Cause to dance

About ten years ago, His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo commanded the establishment of a sustainable funding mechanism for the development of our youth. So Her Majesty the Queen Mother, Ashi Tshering Pem Wangchuck, started the Youth Development Fund to realize the vision of our beloved monarch. During the last decade, Her Majesty has worked tirelessly to build this important institution, which has already benefited countless thousands of our youth.

So on 16 June, when friends and supporters of YDF gathered at the Taj to celebrate its 10th anniversary, I respectfully offer tashi delek to Her Majesty and the staff of YDF for serving our youth with complete dedication and for giving them hope…a worthy cause, indeed.

Sustaining happiness

I’m in Phuentsholing, on my way back from a special trip to my constituency. I went there to receive Her Majesty the Queen Mother, Ashi Sangay Choden Wangchuck, who visited Sombaykha and Gakiling in my constituency, and then to accompany the royal entourage to Dumtoe and Dorokha in Samtse.

Her Majesty trekked for eight straight days, from the freezing Tergo-la in Haa to the hot and humid Yaba-la in Samtse. She undertook this arduous journey – trudging in the cold winds and snow, in the rain among leeches, and in the sun in sweltering heat – to meet the people living in the remotest parts of Haa and Samtse. And Her Majesty met them in their villages and in their homes to tell them about reproductive health, to advocate family planning, and to warn them of the dangers of HIV/AIDS, drugs and excessive alcohol.

Pictured is Her Majesty in Rangtse enjoying a happy moment with the people of Gakiling. There, I was suddenly struck by the realization that Her Majesty’s journey to my constituency, and those through the length and breath of our country, was not just about reproductive health or HIV/AIDS; it was ultimately a campaign to ensure that the happiness of our people is sustainable.

I return to Thimphu today.

Nazhoen Pelri, Phuntsholing

Yesterday I had the good fortune of attending the opening ceremony of Nazhoen Pelri, YDF’s youth hostel in Phuntsholing. The hostel was inaugurated by the YDF President, Her Majesty Ashi Tshering Pem Wangchuck. I am pleased the post Her Majesty’s address to YDF supporters, the Phuntsholing community and the youth of Bhutan.

Almost four years have passed since the Youth Development Fund initiated our plan of making a hostel in Phuntsholing, a hostel which will be useful for providing the youth with low cost housing. Today, our plans have finally become a reality and we now have Nazhoen Pelri Youth hostel. When I look around, my heart is filled with pride and happiness as I see a place of hope and a place of great potential.

For this we have to thank the Jaypee Group and in particular their Joint Managing Director, Mr Pankaj Gaur. They have not only funded the building of the hostel but have generously offered us 20 scholarships, 10 every year at the under graduate level in some of the best IT colleges in India, and 10 at the certificate technical level, for 10 years starting from 2005. We truly value the genuine friendship between the YDF and the Jaypee Group and look forward to many years of friendship and cooperation. Through their endless generosity and support, the Jaypee Group has helped shaped many aspects of Bhutan thus re-enforcing the friendship between India and Bhutan, and for this reason alone, they will always be a friend not only to the YDF but to Bhutan as well.

The Youth Development Fund, with the assistance of the Jaypee Group of India has offered this valuable gift to the youth of Bhutan. In turn, I would like to make a personal request to the Phuntsholing community: Let us join hands in making this center a worthwhile and meaningful place for the youth. This can only be achieved if the facility is well utilized and is a safe haven free from drugs, alcohol and violence. An Advisory Committee comprising of community leaders will steer the management of this center. Hence, I would like to encourage the community to make this establishment a fine example of a well run center that promotes community unity and social development.

As Bhutan’s leading youth organization, the Youth Development Fund is “committed to ensure that all youth have equal access to education, meaningful employment and opportunities to develop their potential. Our programs build leadership skills, encourage teamwork and promote the value of service among youth. Through advocacy work and strategic partnerships, we work to encourage youth participation, raise awareness of youth issues and promote youth oriented policy.” In pursuance of this mission, we are building youth facilities because we believe in the importance of developing competencies other than academic and vocational training such as personal and social skills. We hope that the youth hostel in Phuntsholing will be a role model in using the center for self development and undertaking outreach work in social services.

Today, it not only gives me much pleasure to be attending the consecration of our youth hostel but it also makes me very happy to have the chance to meet you, the youth in Phuentsholing. I would like to take this opportunity to talk to you about youth related problems. I am particularly concerned about the increasing abuse of drugs and alcohol by our youth and young adults. As we all know, Phuntsholing is a gateway for narcotics into Bhutan. Therefore, you have a great responsibility to bear. There are many institutions and programmes to address the problem. Nonetheless, it is you who can play a vital role in helping others or yourself by being responsible and preventing the trafficking of narcotics, youth crime, gang violence, vandalism, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse and even HIV/AIDS. The challenges ahead may seem daunting but you have to strive forward and push yourself to overcome them to achieve your dreams. You must never forget that you are precious not only for the country but also for your family and community and together we have to help protect our beloved kingdom.

I wish the community of youth and the people of Phuntsholing all the best in their effort to lead the country in establishing a model community center.

Tashi Delek!

Portrait of Her Majesty from the YDF website

Women warriors

Fourteen villages in my constituency, most of them in Gakiling gewog, do not have electricity. Every night, women in these villages turn their rangthang, a traditional stone mill, grinding buckwheat, maize and millet for several hours in virtual darkness. Working the rangthang is hard work in the best of conditions. But in the dark, by a hearth that offers more smoke than light, grinding food is a lonely and backbreaking exercise. Yet is must be done, for they must feed their families the next day.

So yesterday, when 35 women from similar villages across Bhutan announced that, in three months, they had fitted 504 families in 48 villages from 13 dzongkhags with solar lanterns I was overcome with joy.

These women are not ordinary people. They come from some of the remotest and poorest parts of our country. And almost all of them have never been to school. That’s why they now call themselves “barefoot solar engineers.”

And these women use solar power to fight the darkness that breeds poverty in distant villages. So they are already being called the “solar warriors of Bhutan”.

Yesterday, these women showed off their skills. They showed us how to install, maintain and repair solar lanterns. And they taught us that, with solar lanterns, they won’t have to work in the dark; that their children will be able to study at night; and that they will be better equipped to protect their crops from wild animals. They also taught us that they will no longer have to strain their eyes, or breathe in smoke, or travel long distances to buy kerosene, batteries and candles.

These “warriors” showed off their expertise with obvious pride and joy.

But one warrior, Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, easily showed even more pride and even more joy. After all, it was Her Majesty’s Tarayana Foundation that permanently transformed the lives of these women from simple villagers to community leaders. During the last two years, Tarayana, along with Barefoot College, a leading Indian NGO, had carefully selected, supported and trained these women to become confident and competent engineers.

Some of these women will be employed by Tarayana to train even more barefoot solar engineers. Some will soon leave for Ladakh in India to train solar engineers there. But all of them will help illuminate dark villages. And fight poverty.

What I saw yesterday is not just about women empowerment as some observers noted. Or about reducing poverty, as proclaimed by others. It’s much, much more. It’s about putting GNH into action.

And it’s about the distinct possibility that women in my constituency will, in the near future, be able to work their stone mills in the comfort of the light from a solar lantern.