recently, I've been a busy bee! i do apologize for having neglected to share recent developments of my adventure with you all.
i wanted to share an article i wrote about the Happy Valley Youth Co-operative for Drukpa magazine with you all. this month's theme for the magazine was art and entertainment. the issue aimed at showing the progression of art in Bhutan during the last few decades, from very traditional forms to more modern ones. (the modern end of it explains why entertainment was an appropriate area to include. the film industry in Bhutan is booming!)
i happily volunteered to write about Happy Valley as Freg and I have been working closely with them in the last month or so. the group is more inspired and engaged than any group i've worked with in Bhutan and most groups i've worked with back home. they are moving beautifully and admirably forward on the right track...and considering Bhutan's current situation, co-operatives like this are essential. please do enjoy.
Where happiness is shared
A soft drizzle falls at the Centennial Farmer’s Market. Spaces that are normally packed with people have emptied. A few people wander through the ghostly and empty air. The market is surprisingly silent. Suddenly, the sound of feet moving quickly, voices singing loudly and children begins to bounce through the vacant spaces. The Happy Valley Youth Co-operative is preparing a performance for the SAARC Summit.
Young children watched with excitement and curiosity through the windows as the members discussed the traditional and contemporary steps they were incorporating into the performance. The children listened to the story they were building which spoke of the environment and man’s interaction with and impact upon it. Elder passersby stood at the windows, watching and listening. Some of them curious, some of them smiling, and others seemed to try to discern the unfamiliar combination of modern and traditional dance the Happy Valley members were choreographing. After some time the children began to join in the dancing. In that moment, the impact Happy Valley could have on the promotion and development of a generation, culture and society is evident.
Happy Valley as an idea was conceived when Sangay Rinchin, Sonam Rinzin and Tshering Dorji, who had all done junior high and high school together, met and agreed upon the concept of setting up a youth organization based on a system of fairness and equity. “Our main intention was and continues to be to help others. We wanted to initiate a business with a different purpose,” said Sonam Rinzin. Happy Valley uses a non-profit co-operative approach to tackle social issues by engaging youth and calling upon them to initiate their own participation in society and specifically, social advocacy campaigns.
“Our Kings have been so kind to the people and everything has been provided for us. We wanted to teach young people that they must do things for themselves now and only take help from the government when it is really needed. We wanted to help young people accomplish things that they could call their own,” said Tshering Dorji.
Happy Valley employs youth in a positive environment that is geared toward participation in the positive development of Bhutan. Presently, the majority of Happy Valley’s social advocacy work is delivered through open-air street theater. Its café serves as another employment option for youth.
It was Sangay Rinchin who suggested a co-operative as the best model to achieve this. In developing the framework for the co-operative, the group of young men followed the guiding principles of the International Co-operative Alliance.
The first principle is Voluntary and Open Membership which specifies that Co-operatives are voluntary organizations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial or religious discrimination.
The second principle concerns Democratic Member Control. Co-operatives are democratic organizations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions. In primary co-operatives members have equal voting rights (one member, one vote) and co-operatives at other levels are also organized in a democratic manner.
The third principle establishes Economic Participation from Members. Members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of their cooperative. Part of that capital is usually the common property of the cooperative. Members usually receive limited compensation, if any, on capital subscribed as a condition of membership. Members allocate surpluses for any or all of the following purposes: developing their co-operative, possibly by setting up reserves, part of which at least would be indivisible; benefiting members in proportion to their transactions with the co operative; and supporting other activities approved by the membership.
The fourth principle ensures Autonomy and Independence. Co-operatives are autonomous, self-help organizations controlled by their members. If they enter into agreements with other organizations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources, they do so on terms that ensure democratic control by their members and maintain their co-operative autonomy.
The fifth principle dedicates the co-operative to providing its members with Education, Training and Information. Co-operatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers, and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their co-operatives. They inform the general public – particularly young people and opinion leaders – about the nature and benefits of co-operation.
Co-operation among Co-operatives is the sixth guiding principle. Co-operatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the co-operative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.
The final principle promises Concern for Communities. Co-operatives work toward methods of sustainable development of their communities through policies proposed and approved by their members.
The three young men were revolutionary in their thinking as this youth run, co-operative based system is the first of its kind in Bhutan. The framework for the co-operative was adjusted in such a way that made it uniquely applicable for Bhutan specifically and the trio began to recruit members. The three young men had ties to the New Theater Company in Thimphu and when they decided to resign from the company, five other members opted to resign as well and join the co-operative’s effort. As they considered who they wanted to recruit, the founding members held true to their dedication toward providing youth with a platform and tools to contribute to and participate in Bhutanese society positively. They visited drayangs and observed the environment and the talent the performers had. They offered them membership in the co-operative to provide them with an alternative performance opportunity that carried great dignity with it on both a social level as well as a personal level. Other targeted recruits came from backgrounds of alcoholism, drug addiction, video game addiction, materialism, emotional instability and gang related activities. The co-operative began to take form and gained momentum as every new, eager and hopeful member joined forces with the initial trio.
At its height of membership, Happy Valley consisted of 35 members, however since its inception eight months ago membership has decreased to a core group of 17 members. Each member brings to the table a unique talent. The members’ range of talents is dynamic: there are singers, dancers, actors, cooks, painters, sound technicians, videographers and photographers in the co-operative. Tshering Dorji , Sonam Rinzin, Tandin Sonam, Sonam Rinzin, Kuenzang Thinley, Elvis Namgay, Bonic Tsokey Dorji, Karma Choden, Tshering Palden, Karma Wangmo, Dechen Dema, Chokey Dema, Dechen Wangmo, Kuenzang Lham, Lungthen, Yeshey Wangdi, and Krishna now form the Happy Valley Youth Co-operative. The members of Happy Valley have experienced both the excitement of performance and the difficulties of life as performers, but they have stayed true throughout to the co-operative’s profit share principle. The co-operative members have only been able to pay themselves in three of these eight months, and even then only with assistance from the Ministry of Labour.
Along with these hardships Happy Valley’s members also faced great adversity in finding a proper space for ‘Happy Valley Food and Drinks” and a place to rehearse for performances. Presently, renovation of ‘Happy Valley Food and Drinks’ is under way on the top level of the Centennial Farmer’s Market. Lyonpo Pema Jamthso, the Minister of Agriculture, supported the group in getting this space at the centenary Farmer’s Market, and also provided accessories for the kitchen. Lyonpo Jamthso has also connected them to funding sources. The group thanks Lyonpo Jamthso humbly and acknowledges that without his support, the success they have had to date would not have been possible. Lyonpo Jamthso’s support was also supplemented by the Youth Development Fund who provided them with the few assets that the group currently has, such as sound and kitchen equipment.
While the café is beginning to come together and performances have been successful to date, the group still lacks a proper space to rehearse their advocacy-based performances. Usually, the group develops their performances and rehearses them in open air outside of the space they have reserved for the café. The space has its benefits. Firstly, it gives them a place to meet. Secondly, it allows the performances to serve as a learning tool for the public, giving observers an opportunity to be an active part of a learning process.
“With the advocacy work we do it’s a good place to be. So many people especially the underprivileged people visit the market often. It is a useful and important place for such a campaign,” says Tshering Dorji.
While this is a positive sight for the surrounding youth to see it has proven to cause some difficulty and misunderstanding. Tshering Dorji goes on to explain, “the exercises we do to dance are strange to the Bhutanese so we do need a space where we can think and work in private. The creative process that is required for a performance co-operative will always be strange because it has never been used, especially not in public in Bhutan.”
The creative process Tshering refers to is one that is fueled by the group’s desire to mix traditional Bhutanese dance and performance with contemporary dance and performance in order to create a new form of theater ad performance art that is contemporary but retains the essence of Bhutanese tradition and values. While many young Bhutanese enjoy the pleasures of the hip hop culture they see on television, few actually strive to learn the technique that forms the foundation of contemporary and modern movement. The group does not aim to adopt westernized dances, instead they hope to learn contemporary movements that might be blended into traditional Bhutanese dance with grace and respect. In this way, they feel these dances can help supplement the social issues that form the basis for their scripts in a manner that connects with all generations in Bhutan while moving the culture forward without abandoning traditional values.
This insightful and thoughtful approach to their craft has been commended by Fregmonto Stokes, an Australian university student who is a visiting intern with YDF and has worked extensively with Happy Valley. “Happy Valley is equally as talented and considerably more inspired in its aims than any equivalent group I have been involved with in seven years of theatre work in Australia. They have resurrected my faith in socially committed theatre and I can’t wait to return to Bhutan to collaborate with them further,” said Stokes.
Despite the obstacles Happy Valley has faced and the scarcity of profits to be shared amongst them, the system of profit share they use has fostered a strong egalitarian bond in the group, where every member is held accountable for what they have spent, and every member is equally vigilant in regulating the group’s finances. It is an ideal system to prevent corruption, and encourages a sense of self-motivation and purpose amongst a group of young people from often underprivileged backgrounds. The intention was always that Happy Valley be an organization where members were not just working for someone else, but had an equal voice and equal responsibilities in the co-operative. This they feel strengthens their dedication to democracy, while giving them a unique edge in business practices since many businesses in Bhutan are hierarchical and family run.
Presently, Happy Valley offers performances to the public, free of charge, every last Sunday of each month in the Centennial Farmer’s Market. In past performances they have targeted such social issues as environment, waste management and unemployment. Their goal is to develop and create thematic performances that target specific issues Bhutan’s youth are facing as well as the issues the country is facing as a whole.
In 2009, the group in collaboration with local talents Namkha lhamo, Lhamo Drukpa, Tshering Phuntsho, Kunga Tenzin Dorji, and Susma participated in a performance organized by the “Global Choir” that featured 198 countries singing John Lennon’s “All You Need is Love” in unison to raise awareness and financial support for people afflicted with HIV/AIDS in Africa. “It was such a noble cause we were singing for, and our main purpose is to help others. We were thankful to be able to be a part of it,” said Dechen Dema.
Along with this performance Happy Valley performed for the distinguished delegates of the SAARC summit during a closing banquet that was hosted by His Excellency Lyonchhen Jigmi Y. Thinley. It was during this performance that the Prime Minister took notice of the group and asked them to prepare a performance for the 2010 Annual Journalism Awards. In that performance they called upon journalists and the public to take on the challenge of promoting, supporting and providing responsible media to a developing Bhutan. At the close of that performance Happy Valley members were well received by the audience. The members wished to “thank the Prime Minister for taking us seriously- his passionate support has boosted the group’s internal energy.” That support, they feel, is difficult to come by in the sometimes hesitant and careful Bhutanese climate.
Happy Valley still has a long road to travel. Enough money to sustain them is hard to come by, support from outside sources can be difficult to gain and momentum is difficult to maintain in the face of challenges. They continue to move forward, gaining support and interest from the community and government officials. Happy Valley continues to work toward one day expanding its system of co-operatives. In its initial stages the group envisioned a large scale system of co-operative businesses. They would like to diversify into many areas, developing co-operatives of farmers, designers, shop-owners, construction workers, car washers, caterers, bakers, and plumbers, to name just a few. The group also hopes to initiate a second NGO called “Happy Youth” that will aim to promote Bhutan’s artistic tradition through the arts. Along with this, Happy Valley plans to begin developing a student theater that will reach out to young people and provide them with workshops on performance. The youngsters who observe them on a regular basis in the Centennial Farmer’s Market are the first group they would like to engage. A proposal has been cast for “Happy Youth” and plans are in the making for the student theater program, however, the co-operative waits until Happy Valley is functioning at a level that will allow them to take on new ventures.
Though the road can be rocky Happy Valley’s members carry on positively. One member, Elvis Namgay shares “Before I joined, I took drugs and got in gang fights. My old friends used to respect me, but as a bhai (an Indian term equivalent to a mafia don). Now people respect me, but as an equal. Despite the difficulties we face, Happy Valley has given me hope, and changed me as a person.” While attitudes like Elvis’ solidify the bond the group has, the members agree that a single morning will always help left them up in the face of the challenges they will certainly be presented with in the future.
In their darkest hour, Happy Valley was granted an audience with His Majesty the King.
“Among all the Kings in the world, I think our king must have the most difficult time. His Majesty’s character lends itself to having concern for His people individually and personally. We wanted to tell His Majesty that the youth in His country were changing. We wanted to tell Him that we could make His duty a little bit lighter…that we were ready to do that for Him and our country,” says Tshering Dorji.
The discussion lasted three hours and when asked by the King what assistance His Majesty could give them, the Happy Valley members replied that they did not want assistance, but only His blessings. Instead of asking for His assistance, Happy Valley wanted to act as a living testament to the youth’s ability to demonstrate their value to Bhutan and their potential to assist His Majesty and the Royal Government of Bhutan in carrying the burden of future development.
The members of Happy Valley have heard His Majesty’s call to the youth and are ready to answer. Happy Valley informed His Majesty that they would take the gift of democracy His Majesty had given them and use it to their full potential.
By the end of the meeting both Happy Valley members and His Majesty the King had tears in their eyes.
His Majesty informed the co-operative that their meeting had made that morning one of the happiest mornings of his life.