Monday, August 30, 2010

up where we belong...

Dusty red rooftops form patchwork where green paddy fields once lived. Friends of mine have recounted the way the area used to look some time ago. From what I gather, it must have floated on the surface of the earth, the way most of Paro seems to do. When I think of what the area used to be, I imagine the wind blowing making those incredible ripples and waves in oceans of paddy field, melting and morphing ever shade of green that lives in them. These are images I keep in my mind from short trips taken to Paro. These are images I see in my dreams. These are images that echo between the dusty red rooftops as I walk through the Changjiji Housing Complex.

When I hear stories of what Changjiji used to be I can’t ignore this strange sense of loss resonating in my chest. The peace and simplicity that used to live in Changjiji has disappeared. The housing complex has taken over the entire area. Block number 52 sits ten feet away from block number 53. Today, within those ten feet it is common to find youngsters hiding, carrying out any one of many different activities, the least severe of which would be smoking cigarettes.

While there are some obvious measures that could be taken in order to fix the “youth problem” as some may refer to it, there’s a not-so-obvious route being taken in Changjiji these days. Inspiring youth to crave the ability to reason and understand the world they are living in could possibly turn the “youth problem” flat on its back. Youngsters have to be encouraged to reflect on their world in healthy ways and to react to their world through positive means. The “ASPIRE” after school camp for critical thinking, creativity and expression hopes to teach them how they might be able to do that.

"ASPIRE" was born out of a desire to help the youth in the Changjiji Housing Complex through extra-curricular education, diverse exposure and positive use of time. Its approach is systematic, its reach is extensive and it's aims are heartfelt. Essentially, this camp was born out of hope. Perhaps it is best to start at the beginning.

The youth in Changjiji are suffering. They are not necessarily “bad”, they are simply swimming in this new (red roof top) ocean without any navigation system. It's difficult to say how things got so difficult for them in this particular neighborhood in Bhutan. These types of situations are usually the product of so many things; things that are usually left kindling in the heat of many tiny untouchable things. These things, after some time spent kindling, burst into flames and the fire grows. Perhaps I'm being too dramatic. I am not referring to a forest fire just yet...the situation in Changjiji is more like an out of control cooking fire. As for the children, they are in the cooking pot. As for the cooking pot, it' boiling over.
"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.
These are the stories the children of Changjiji have to tell.

"Broken homes" are common in the housing complex. Children can reenact domestic violence scenes as though they themselves were inebriated parents committing physically aggressive or abusive or emotionally abusive acts. There are 12 year old boys who know the names of every drug in Bhutan, where to find it and just how to use it. Those same boys are filled with fear to walk alone at night because they may wind up in the violent arms of an older boy. Those same boys are likely to be convinced that gangs are their safe haven and the only people who can show them "compassion". The number of school drop outs has also increased and the effects of their influence on in school children is alarming. 14 year old girls have friends who have multiple sex partners. It is normal for these children to see fights. It is normal for them to be confused and be left with countless unanswered questions. It is normal for them to feel afraid. Suffering, in all its varied manifestations is normal.

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. This is not supposed to happen but it is happening.

In the face of all this, the children of Changjiji continue to smile. Their ability to keep smiling coupled with the absolute fact that these situations should not exist in Bhutan are the reason for the intiation of "ASPIRE".

At a time when the situation was almost irreversible, school teachers Sonam Palden and Kuenga Tenzin initiated Changjiji's first out of school camp in the summer of 2010. The "Tarayana Summer Camp for Leadership, Arts and Hope" was initiated by the counselors after systematic and careful observation and ground analysis of the youth situation in Changjiji. It was a ten day camp geared toward inspiring leadership, exposing the children to art and providing the community with hope. The camp was designed specifically for forty youth who were a part of the counseling system at Loselling M.S.S. Facilitator were chosen from diverse backgrounds, specialties and walks of life. Much to the camp facilitators' surprises, on the first day of the camp seventy bright youth stood in the common grounds of the school waiting to be registered. And so it began. The children were hungry for the opportunity. The children were ready for the opportunity.

The Tarayana Summer Camp for Leadership, Arts and Hope was a huge success. One could say that the product of the children's week in camp was difficult to swallow. Paintings screamed with dark, dramatic lines and colors. Poems sang of their suffering. A newsletter revealed the issues, setbacks and hardships of the Changjiji Housing Complex. Difficulty swallowing such displays is to be expected, but ignoring such displays is unacceptable.

It was obvious that the initiative had only just begun to see its potential. A (some might have said ambitious and impossible) proposal was drafted for a follow up initiative that would use a similar framework and systematic approach. As they usually do in Bhutan, the stars aligned and the United Nations Volunteer Fund, The Bhutan Olympic Committee and other private sponsors made it possible to carry out the extensive two month after school camp for creativity, critical thinking and expression.

The youth situation (I will now refer to it as a “situation” because I always stay away from the idea of any youth being a "problem") in Bhutan, is far from simple. To find a solution to the issues that are boiling over in Changjiji is no small task. However, it can be said that the youth situation's seeds are in Changjiji. The negative aspects of life in Changjiji are pumping through the veins of Thimphu making Changjiji the epicenter of the problems youth are facing in today's Bhutan. According to counselors at Loselling M.S.S., the number of students abusing cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and other psychotropic substances has inexorably escalated. Frequent gang fights have resulted in injuries to the young children of Changjiji, while drug use is crippling their health, minds and spirits.
We couldn’t just ignore it. We couldn’t just push the issue aside with stern punishment. Youth should not be kicked out of school, nor should they be held in jail so long that it becomes impossible for them to return to school. While these are, perhaps, just punishments for some of the things youth in Bhutan are stumbling their way into, these punishments are in some ways, counter-productive. Attitudes have to be nourished, guided, and even changed in many cases. Quite simply, youngsters need help because they don’t understand what’s happening around them, whether it deals with their own selves, their families, their community , their country or their society.

"ASPIRE" was aimed at reaching out to the youth of Changjiji to stop this multi-faceted problem from its source, directly at its core. It can be said that substance abuse, gang fights and rebellious behavior are forms of crying out, acts of sheer boredom or acts of frustration and anger. The youth of Bhutan are craving individuality and a means by which to express themselves and this camp was designed specifically to cater to their hunger. Ten facilitators and mentors serve as the gears of this huge machine. They have all volunteered their participation driven by a sincere belief in the absolute necessity of this new initiative.

“I could have the worst day ever. I could be feeling so low, but at the end of the day, after I’ve spent that time there I remember why I’m alive,” says Tenzin Namgyel, an ‘all-around’ volunteer who is contributing his experience and time to an initiative of this nature for the first time in his life.

All of the facilitators and volunteers contributing to ASPIRE hail from different walks of life. They all have different talents. They are all what one might describe as "different". From musicians to rugby coaches, visual artists to life skills experts, athletic coaches to writers and all the way through to street and theater performers-this is the fabric of the courses the children are offered during the course of ASPIRE.

“The camp that is being conducted at Changjiji is the sort of camp that should be conducted in every school in Bhutan. This camp is building a foundation and it’s the right way to go about things. Instead of telling them to do this or that, it’s helping to show them how they can decide what to do and how to do it best and as individuals,” Tshering Wangdi reflects as he remembers the first week of the camp he observed in mid-August.

The camp was meant to supplement the education youth receive during school hours with alternative education that could teach them how to use their time positively and constructively. The camp starts everyday with classes in five different sports activities made possible by the Bhutan Olympic committee. The children are split into groups and participate in basketball, football, rugby, athletics or taikwando. ASPIRE’s core curriculum offers classes in visual art, creative writing, forum theater, music, life skills and Driglam Namzha. To supplement their weekly lessons, campers are also taken on cultural field trips during the weekends. These field trips are intended to utilize their free time and remind them of the culture they must keep intact as they move their country forward.

Substance abuse is a major issue in the youth of Bhutan and is a major tangible target issue this camp would like to resolve. Substances are used as substitutes for boredom, quick fixes for emotional turmoil and as forms of stimulation. There isn't anything wrong with feeling bored. Every human does! There isn't anything wrong with being confused or feeling sad or angry. Every human does! There isn't anything wrong with craving some sort of stimulation either. Every human does! These things become a problem when they are evident in youth as young as 12 years old-youth who don't have the capacity or the facilities to process those feelings and react to them positively.

“It’s the ‘boredom in the kingdom syndrome, that no one does anything about”, says Jurmi Chhowing, creative writing facilitator.

ASPIRE is hoping to nurture that capacity and provide them with those facilities. Without these two essential things, youth will likely have a difficult time leading the future of their country. Youth must be given a guided opportunity to create the evolution of their culture. To create the evolution of the times they have been given.

There's not a doubt about it. The times they are facing are beyond our (I'm talking about us old folks) comprehension. Older generations can challenge the youth of Bhutan to rise and participate in moving their culture, traditions and progress respectfully forward. However, without guiding them relevantly, the youth will likely boil over in that cooking pot.

Art, in its innumerable forms, is a language that all humans can use to communicate. It moves across and defies racial, social, educational, and economic barriers and enhances cultural appreciation and awareness. If Bhutan’s culture and tradition is to continue to survive and flourish its youth must understand and accept their roles as guardians of the country’s future. They must discover the power art has in fulfilling that role. In order to effectively serve as those guardians, youth must have an understanding of how they might advance and contribute to the country’s future. In order to effectively contribute to their future and realize the lives they wish to carry out, youth must be able to effectively communicate and express themselves. They must be able to think critically. Youth must be aware of and embrace every communicative and expressive tool that is available to them as they carry Bhutan’s future forward. They must take advantage of their expressive tools and utilize them to affect positive changes in their lives.

Youth must be encouraged to think critically and creatively in order to find effective solutions for such complex problems. Without an ability to analyze and dissect themselves and their environment, the youth of Bhutan will continue to face hardship and suffering as they search for meaning in their lives.
Older generations can challenge the youth of Bhutan to rise and participate in society. Older generations can call upon the youth of Bhutan to move their culture and traditions respectfully forward. However, without guiding them relevantly, the youth will likely boil over in that cooking pot.

The children of Changjiji continue to smile. Those very smiles should never be ignored. Those very smiles are hope personified.

Those very smiles are a living breathing testament to the power the youth of Bhutan have and the potential they carry within them to ASPIRE to be anything and everything they may ever wish to be.

(this blog will be published in DRUKPA magazine, Bhutan's first ever monthly news magazine. if you are in Bhutan i certainly hope you will subscribe. if you are not in Bhutan i recommend you visit DRUKPA's website: )

as always...there is more to come...

i send my warmest greetings from the Kingdom of Bhutan...