As I look back on the almost one year I have spent in Samtengang I can’t help but wonder what it was that made this place such a struggle for us. We were surely among the best prepared for this second stint in Bhutan with a wealth of previous experience, a real understanding of what it takes to succeed in a small Bhutanese community and hands on knowledge of how to bring life to the curriculum. So what went wrong?
Immediately, the school administration and the isolation of this community, come to mind. From the start we found the challenges of the location much more demanding than we expected and like many other BCFers I found the severity and incidence of corporal punishment in my school to be alarming. The lack of professionalism and management style, were also confronting but not unexpected. Certainly Ian’s terrible accident that was incorrectly diagnosed as a severely sprained ankle and therefore inappropriately treated for 2 months did not help either. 6 months later his recovery continues to be “under process” as a local expression would have it.
Just one day after most of the students have departed, it is glaringly obvious to me that it was my students who kept me grounded and provided me with the motivation to hang on here. My loyalty to BCF also ensured that I never really contemplated breaking my contract though I was sorely tempted. It has been the students and their love of learning, their quirky characters, their open and honest communication and their heartfelt comments that make me feel so bereft now that they are gone and I am here alone in the staffroom typing, while no-one else is anywhere to be seen, despite the strict instruction that no-one was to leave before lunch issued not 30 minutes ago!
At the moment only class X students, who are about to commence their board exams, remain on campus and I have never taught them and have had little contact with them this year, Though one or 2 pop up to check on some grammar issue or as they like to say ”clarify some doubt” as I sit here in the upper staffroom. I have always made the students I teach, the focus of my professional career and here more than ever it has been necessary to look at school through their eyes and not fall into the trap of sympathizing with colleagues or taking their evaluation of situations as the absolute truth. I have been in tears more times than I care to recall and the most upsetting event for me was when students asked me why I was so upset about having seen them being kicked publically in assembly. It occurred to me then, for the first time, that this is so normal to them that they do not even understand that it is not right. I note with a heavy heart that this is the exact reason why BCF colleague Kevin felt obliged to resign and depart early from his placement in Bidung.
When I considered our new placement back in January, long before we wound our way up that now familiar unsealed farm road, I thought that there were similarities between Samtengang and Rangjung. Both are about 45 minutes from their respective district capitals, both are classified “semi-urban” and both consist mainly of farming communities who support themselves on the crops that they grow and are largely self sufficient. We were soon to discover that the erratic supply of water and occasional lack of electricity were also similarities.
Now I marvel at how 2 such totally different places could be given the same descriptor.
Rangjung is an easy drive from Trashigang on a ‘black topped’ road. Samtengang follows the lateral road to the Chuzumsa turnoff where it turns into a rough and bumpy ride up in the dry winter months and a slippery and treacherous track in the monsoon.
The row of neat, little, traditional general stores in Rangjung selling largely the same dry goods, an odd assortment of clothes, stationery, household appliances and religious items as well as week old vegetables trucked in from India, has no equivalent here in Samtengang. In Rangung these stores lined both sides of the short, main street with a small chorten on a traffic island in the centre of town. There is a road in Samtengang but it is not the centre of any business community. Instead dirt tracks and shortcuts lead up to or down to small enterprises. There are a few scattered shops selling basic supplies, stationery and snacks but no vegetables, rice or any other fresh food is available. These shops are in little clusters and often in the front room of a home or a makeshift hut hastily constructed and as we saw on our first few days, equally hastily deconstructed and relocated when the local authorities deem it necessary. These establishments cater mostly to primary school students’ before school and post school shopping requirements, though the odd local does buy beer or sugar too. I can honestly say that we have been grateful for the supply of both over the last few months. The implication of this is that travelling back and forth, on the previously mentioned road is a necessity and for us a tendency to stock up big and hoard basic consumables has evolved. The paved footpaths of Rangjung are an oddity for any Bhutanese village and we never expected them replicated here and they certainly aren’t.
The sense of community created by the ever-visible lhakhang and the host of religious rituals, festivities and celebrations, it inspired in Rangjung were certainly a highlight of our time there. There are temples and monasteries dotted all over the hillsides surrounding Samtengang and we did stumble onto one, on one of the last hikes we did before Ian’s accident but there have been few religious rituals performed here, except our school purification rituals earlier in the year. I am sure each local community is engaged in the activities based in their local temple but we have never participated or been drawn by the crowds to attend as we were in Rangjung. Our days have not been punctuated by the sounds of the longhorns though the rhythmic tinkling of the bell that rings as the primary school prayer wheel is fervently turned, has been a welcome auditory constant.
Don’t even get me started on the Internet connectivity. What we once referred to as the Intermittent-net in Rangjung, would be a joy here. Finally, our slow and often erratic Internet gave way to a broadband connection, which was far from state of the art or fast but vaguely reliable, out east. Here, 3 or 4 hours from the capital, my phone sometimes connects in the morning, from my desk on the second floor but rarely at home and attempting to use the hotspot to connect any other device will only result in the ever dreaded popup “Could not activate cellular data network – You are not subscribed to a cellular data service.” Ian’s is marginally better but that’s not saying much. We have become accustomed to accessing what little we can, when we can or availing when we reach Bajo town on one of our fortnightly shopping runs.
The school situations in which we have found ourselves could really not have been more disparate. Ian’s convivial and ever-understanding principal has been more than helpful at both a personal level and a professional one. My school on the other hand has issued commands, complaints and criticisms to almost all staff in never ending meetings that are called on an ad hoc basis. Decisions made are regularly overturned soon after and policies passed and documented after long discussions seem to be implemented only if there is a fear of being caught for not doing so by higher authorities. The usual issues of rarely knowing what is planned or programmed that come with high context cultures have maddeningly plagued us both and I am sure that they are simply unavoidable in the Bhutanese system. Flexibility is the euphemism for ‘do as instructed without questioning’ and it sometimes seems that requests for information are viewed as conspiratorial.
I am well aware that my own need to address issues that I perceive as unjust, inappropriate and simply unlawful and to do so directly, bluntly and immediately, has not endeared me to my administration and whilst I do see this as a serious shortcoming, I also feel deeply that in this society where underlings rarely if ever express their dissatisfaction and inefficiency is accepted, change will be impossible unless someone speaks out. In both schools where I have worked I have had the experience of silently berating myself for this behaviour as I walked home, only to be approached by a staff member who was present, who then confided in me that they were glad I spoke up at the meeting, as they do not feel that they can without ramifications.
So…… why do we want to stay and work in Thimphu next year you may well ask! Well the bottom line is I am a teacher. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else and the rich and rewarding experience of sharing the teaching and learning process with these students daily, is magical. I am indebted to them for the sheer joy they have brought me and the way they have motivated me to be a better person, to do my job better and become better at what I do. Also without a doubt, I am addicted to Bhutan, the people, the incredible culture and the sense of playful innocence and competent, resourceful, independence each of these very diverse students brings to the classroom. Quite simply we couldn’t just walk away without giving this one more shot.