Tuesday, July 6, 2010

"there are no children here"

I've spent these last few days in Changjiji. The Tarayana Foundation has kindly sponsored the "Tarayana Summer Camp for Leadership, Art and Hope" in Changjiji. It is Changjiji's first out of school camp and it couldn’t come at a better time. Changjiji is suffering.

During our daily one hour sessions, each group of camp participants shares their stories with me. They are all between the ages of 12 and 19.

"Madame, I don't like my father. He is drunk always...he beats and sleeps. I cannot stay there."

"Madame, I have to fight. We all do. We get to show our fighting styles and show who is boss."

"Madame, kids go to the bridge to date but they have more than one boyfriend. They are having affairs."

"We make gang to protect ourselves. if someone comes we slice them"...when asked if they feel bad because other people are frightened, they respond, "no Madame, they can join and also be protected"...when I ask what they are protecting themselves from, the response is "it's just like that."

"My friend's grab my arm and twist. It's just like that, Madame"...this said with penetrating and somehow gentle intensity in her eyes.

"Yes madame! I went roaming up up up and thats where I had first N10 [a drug]. My head was like this after [moving his small fingers in circles with an innocent smile]."

"Drugs make everything fine. When parents beat or friends beat or parents divorce...its just like that."

"If older boy says, I have to do, madame."

"Too scared to walk at night alone, Madame. They will rag [steal] on me. If I don't give they'll beat and maybe stab."

"Madame, you cannot call the police. They will not come and when they come it's late. They are afraid of the bosses."

"Madame! Last year I left home for six months tour of Bhutan, didn't inform my parents. Went for tour of all Bhutan!" When asked if he saw everything he needed to see, his response was..."no Madame, I like to see other places. Much nicer than here and parents will only scold and beat for one day. I was gone six months."

A 13 year old boy looks at me and says "Madame, I'll tell you one story. A man didn’t give me 5 rupees for the bus to go to the emergency room. I got my friends and took 500 from him. I just reached like this into his box and took. This is for revenge. I have to show I'm boss.” When I explained that a simple act of unkindness or perhaps greed, or maybe flat out poverty led him to respond in a way that was at least 100 times worse than what this man did, the boy explains, "If I need he should give."

This is compassion gone wrong. This is defense systems smashing crashing themselves into offense systems. This is unrest in the peaceful kingdom. This is suffering in the land of happiness. This is a generational gap taking its casualties. This is fear unbridled. This is confusion exploding and imploding. This is misguidance and misunderstanding. All of this is very sad.

I often ask myself, how did this happen? Is all this in us as humans? Is there no way to stop it because it is in fact our nature? Is it a fact of nature or is it the absence of proper nurturing? (Oh that age old debate between nature and nurture!)

These young humans are in no way weak. They are, indeed, very strong. Stronger than I can ever remember being when I was a girl. I could probably safely say they are also stronger than I can imagine being now as an older lady. 12 year old boys who know the names of every drug in Bhutan and just how to use it, those same boys filled with fear to walk alone at night because they may wind up in the violent arms of an older boy. 13 year old girls whose friends have multiple sex partners. It is normal for them to see fights. It is normal for them to feel afraid. And still, they smile.

I know a few neighborhoods back home that have hints and pieces of such problems. and of course, there are certain large cities in the U.S. a lady like myself would not even dare driving through, much less walk. However, in Bhutan?

How did this happen in Bhutan?

Parents are not debilitated with fear, parents are not being stabbed by gang members, parents do not even like to admit their children are going through these things, much less taking part in such things. So this only makes me ask again, in a country where its youth are the priority how did this happen in Bhutan?

Amidst an infinite and very complex web of causes and effects I manage to pull something from the sticky strings. That is, the idea of little humans growing up to be products of their environment.

Now, when I observe and question whether these little humans are a product of their environment I cannot ignore the voice in my head telling me this is one of the reasons for the problem. It is never completely a child's fault when they wind up behaving badly. There are so many factors that contribute to the LOSS OF VALUES that has led them to behave badly. This only leads me to ask how BHUTAN is home to such an environment. It's important to keep in mind that when I use the word 'environment' I am referring to an untouchable thing. I am referring to the workings of a machine that is, obviously, beyond control. I am referring to images and ideas about a world that is only seen on a screen. I am referring to mothers and fathers who are products of their own environments and are perpetuating this new environment. I am referring to the real and honest concern and attention that is missing in the broader realm of what these children are exposed to.

In a land where prayer flags flap in the wind everywhere, where mountains foster peace on their peaks…in a land where spiritual connections are living, breathing, walking beings...where the King plays soccer barefoot with boys from rural villages…how did this happen in a land like this? Has this happened because this new environment (the outside one) came too fast? Has this happened because the two environments that merged together didn't actually merge...they CRASHED. Though this country's development model in its great wisdom is designed to avoid the mistakes other developing and developed countries have made, something isn't working. Perhaps, it’s better to say something malfunctioned. Perhaps I am too close to the matter. Perhaps, the tremendous love I have for this country has made me worry too much. Be it as it may, these problems that might seem normal in other places, are especially heartbreaking to find here. Of course, I've always been a bit too sensitive and perhaps I'm speaking too soon.
Perhaps. But then again, Bhutan is small. There are stabbings nearly every week. Children are ‘roaming’ and hiding in friends' houses instead of going home. 12 year old girls speak of their promiscuous friends. At least half a city is abusing or has abused substances by the age of 15 (please do forgive me if this is inaccurate, but the children and I made an educated guess). Alcoholism is present in adults and youth.

Something has malfunctioned.

I could not say what it is that has malfunctioned. I even hesitate to write these things about Bhutan because I am not from this beautiful place and no given number of hours spent with youth could ever allow me to fully understand the scope of this situation. However, I have to share what I have seen and what the youth I have worked with have shared with me. I've always been one for honesty. The children deserve honesty. They deserve honesty because if that's absent, things will never be better for them.

Now, it must be made clear that Bhutan's most precarious youth situation lives in Changjiji. It is for that reason that this summer camp was organized there. Sonam Pelden is a counselor at Loselling Middle Secondary School and was instrumental in designing this camp. In her mighty wisdom and because of her admirable concern and dedication, she decided that something had to be done for these youngsters during their summer break. The situation is such that it is, in fact, possible that occupying their idle time like this, could avoid one more fight in Changjiji…could avoid one more stabbing in Changjiji...could avoid one more youngster starting a drug habit. Originally, the participants in the summer camp included 40 students who were nominated by the two school counselors from Loselling Middle Secondary School. These forty children were selected because they were more 'at risk' than the rest of the students. They are believed to be the MOST 'at risk' in-school youngsters in Changjiji. Unfortunately, most of these youngsters didn't turn up. 67 other youngsters, however, did turn up!! Of course, this has made the camp a bit more challenging for the volunteers who are guiding the workshops, but we probably all agree, we couldn't be more excited!

A young girl asked me today, "Madame, why do you like Bhutan?" I thought for a moment and replied "Bhutan gives me hope."

She smiled and continued questioning me curiously, "But why Madame? You are from America. That's the best place!" I answered, "Oh my dear, America has many many problems...we've just practiced hiding them for a long time. In Bhutan, there are no secrets. If I keep my eyes open I see so many things here. My country will never fix things because we are not always honest. People would rather close their eyes. In Bhutan, everything is very honest [whether purposely or accidently]...so there's hope to fix it because it cannot be hidden."

She smiled and I only hope she understood. At the very least, I know she was proud to be part of hope.

Thinking back to the things these youngsters have said to me in the last few days, I can only imagine what the selected students might have to say. My heart tightens when I think of what they might have said. My heart tightens when I wonder what they might be doing instead of attending the summer camp.

It’s unfortunate that they aren't part of the beautiful things that have been happened in the last four days. To effectively and thoroughly understand the stories we're trying to tell in our 'forum-theater' based performances the little humans and I have been systematically breaking down issues of substance abuse, violence, "affairs", crime, and sanitation. All of these issues are boiling over in Changjiji.

Our analysis method is simple. We start with one sentence that identifies the problem. 1) "Substance abuse is an increasing problem among youth in Changjiji." 2) "Changjiji is no longer safe due to an increase in violent incidents." 3) "Youth in Changjiji are increasingly having intimate affairs with multiple partners." 4) "Crime and fear are growing together making Changjiji a dangerous place to live." 5) "Poor sanitation is leading to low health standards and living standards in Changjiji."

After identifying the problem in one sentence, we identify the causes and effects of the problem together. I ask the youngsters questions and they also ask me questions. At this point, the chalkboard goes white with scribbled thoughts. Arrows shoot from one side of the board to the other showing us how EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED and problems NEVER simply exist. They are always a product of many tiny details compounded together.

After breaking down the drug problem, one youngster pointed at the right side of the board and moved his hand to the left. He said "Madame, if the government stopped drugs in Phuentsholing [Bhutan's biggest border city and the port through which nearly all goods enter Bhutan] they would never reach Thimphu. There would be no drugs?"

I smile. This camp is indeed a “Camp for Leadership, Art and Hope.”

The youngsters are full of wisdom and insight. They know what is happening they just don't always understand it. They FEEL the effects of what could (most) simply be described as "tick tock KABOOM" they just don't always understand how to make those effects postivie…because they're only children.

The last two days of the workshop ended with 72 children singing "Blowing in the Wind" (a song by the American musician Bob Dylan) in unison. The group, made up of gang members, drug users, victims of domestic violence and more fortunate and innocent youth, sang louder as the chorus came. "The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind...the answer is blowing in the wind."

I explained before we started learning "Blowin' in the Wind" that Bob Dylan changed the world of music. He sang songs of beauty to respond to an ugly war-one of the most violent and unnecessary war's the U.S. has ever been a part of. Rather than responding with anger and violence he sang beauty and the world heard him. I explained that when Dylan was interviewed about his music, reporters would ask, "Are you writing protest songs? Are you writing songs about the war?" and Dylan's response was always, "Na man...I just write about what I see."

I explained that Dylan simply told the truth. As his eyes saw it he sang it. He simply sang reality. The youngsters looked at me and nodded that hard and certain nod they rarely use.

As I looked at their faces it rang in my ears...the title of a book by Alex Kotlowitz I read long ago:
"There Are No Children Here."

But there are children here. They are children.


as always...there is more to come.

i send greetings from the ever-lovely Kingdom of Bhutan.

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