The Cost of Education in Rural Bhutan

Phuensumgang Community Primary School – The school of hard knocks

Senior citizens and children alike suffer and sacrifice at the altar of education

CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD? – Taking care of themselves and their education

A six-hour climb from Bhurchu, about 94 km away from Dagana proper, up on a hill, is Phuensumgang community primary school. Except for the Lajab gewog office, RNR centre and BHU, there is no settlement around. The nearest village is a two-hour walk away from the school.

But about 20 tiny, one-storey bamboo huts, located near the school, look like a village to any newcomer. These are the boarding hostels, constructed by parents of the 156 students in the school. In one of the huts, Kinzang Drakpa, 64, is making fern curry for his grandchildren, studying in classes four and two.

A retired soldier from Pemagatshel Shaligamong, Kinzang resettled a decade ago in Sipa village, two hours by foot from the school. In the absence of any school near the village and at his niece’s request, the lanky old man has spent the last few years in Phuensumgang school, cooking and looking after his niece’s children.

Kinzang spends his day collecting firewood and wild vegetables. “The children get breakfast and lunch from the school, so I only need to prepare their dinner,” he said.

Kinzang’s granddaughter, Sangay Lhamo, 10, describes her grandfather as a strict old man. “He doesn’t let us play like other children but makes us do our homework and study,” she said.

Like Kinzang, there are about ten elderly persons looking after their grandchildren. “We have to work in the fields and provide the rations, so we request our parents to stay in school with the children,” said a parent, Lal Bahadur, who has his father looking after his children at school.

Not all students are lucky to have relatives looking after them. Gau Maya, 15, a class five student, cooks and washes for eight people. The eldest of eight staying in a one-room hut, she has to take care of her two younger brothers, four nieces and a nephew. “I come from a poor family and my elders have to work in the field,” she said, adding that her grandparents died a long time ago.

In another hut, next to Gau Maya’s, is Damber Kumari, 12, who stays with her younger brother and sister. Roofed with green plastic, Damber Kumari said that, during heavy downpours, the rain not only leaks in from the roof but also through the open windowless sides of the hut.

Sitting on a bamboo bed in one corner of a smoky room, Damber Kumari said that a lot of children bully her. Under the bed lie trunks, a few clothes, books, plates, mugs, shoes and rations.

Student Sonam Lhamo, 10, used to brave long distances and travel through dense forest and rugged terrain every morning and evening, to and fro school, until one evening when a boulder came rolling down and crushed her right leg. Today she stays with a teacher at the school.

All the students cook, eat, study and sleep in the same room.

There is one water tank near the school kitchen and most students spend their evenings, carrying jerry cans and fetching water. Students do not have mattresses, bed-sheets and blankets. As replacements, they use their ghos and kiras and old torn cartons or straw.

“I prefer staying in school because it’s too risky to walk home,” said a class five student, Amar Singh, adding that the jungles are infested with leeches, snakes and bears. Children, as young as six and seven, stay in this informal facility.

The school was established in 2001. WFP provides the food – breakfast and lunch. There are no playgrounds or dining hall. The school has a principal Palden Dorji and seven teachers.

Lajab gup, Gembo, said that the school had to resort to the informal boarding system because there is no community school in the gewog. “The school had to be located here since it is the centre of the six chiwogs, though there’s no settlement around,” he said. He said that the gewog had put in a request for four community schools in the 10th Plan.

Principal Palden Dorji said that he has submitted a proposal for proper boarding facilities for the school to the Dagana district education office.

But district education officer, Sonam Bumthap, said that providing boarding facilities was not in the pipeline. “WFP provides the food in stipend, but there’s no provision for boarding stipend facility,” he said.

As the sun sets behind the mountains, Kinzang Drakpa lights the kerosene lamp and, true to his granddaughter’s word, he does not let them hang around. He makes them read books. “They have to study,” he said, adding that he spent his old age cooking for them so that they could be someone in their lives.

By: Tashi Dema
Source: Kuenselonline

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