The daughter of Tsangkhar

Despite the pandemic prolonging the closure of schools, a child in remote Bhutan sees hope in education.

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10 July 2020

Tsangkhar, Trashigang: Education is her only saviour. Or so it was until the coronavirus pandemic scare led to the closure of schools across the country more than two months ago.

Dechen Wangmo, 11, was abandoned soon after she was born. Her mother lives in another village nearby with her family. They are not in touch. Her father is away in another district down south but are rarely in touch. She lives with her grandmother, 70, in a relative’s house in Tsangkhar village, a scattered hamlet, located about two hour’s drive from Trashigang proper. The two occupy a room, the ground floor, which is divided into a kitchen and bedroom. She is used to her relative asking them to vacate their home. She is used to surviving on little.

What she is not used to is not attending school. For months.

For a child that only has her grandmother to call her own and who grew up in a relative’s house with little care from her parents, electronic items like television and smartphones are a luxury.

The coronavirus pandemic turned these items into a necessity, one that the grade five student or her grandmother could ill afford. 

Since the closure of schools, lessons are taught through the national broadcaster, Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) and Google classroom.

Dechen has access to none.

But that is not stopping her from learning. She has a classmate, her neighbour, Pema Tshomo whose family owns a TV and a smartphone to access Google classroom. For more than two months, the two have been studying together.

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Dechen with her friends watch their lessons on TV at a neighbor's house

“I miss my school, my teachers and my friends,” says Dechen. “I understand the lessons better in school when our teachers explain; I don’t understand much when I watch it on TV. At school, the teacher explains until we understand the lessons but on television, the lessons go very fast and we can’t catch up.”

From grade four onwards, students are taught through Google classroom. Dechen accesses it through her friend’s phone as two accounts can be accessed through one device. “I wait for her to complete her homework first. Then I work on mine,” says Dechen.

There are about 17,000 students like Dechen across the country without access to TV or internet. In another village in Trashigang, Tongling is a family with three school going children. The father is visually impaired, the mother is dependent on alcohol and the children have no access to TV or a smartphone. Their elder sister is a babysitter somewhere in the city. Trashigang in eastern Bhutan is one of the largest districts in the country, and home to 3,147 students like Dechen.

To reach these unreached children and ensure continuity of their education, UNICEF is supporting the education ministry print the lessons broadcast on television into self-instructional materials and distribute it nationwide. 

“The book is better than TV. I can get help from a neighbour, Ashim (sister) Tshering Dema if I don’t understand.” Tshering Dema is a class XI student in another school.

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UNICEF/Bhutan/ Lhendup/2020

Dechen’s day starts early. “I wake up at 7, 6 or 4am sometimes. I wash my face, make offerings, cook breakfast, eat, wash the dishes, clean the house and then go for my lessons to Pema’s house at 9am.”

Lessons start at 9am on BBS. But Pema’s TV stopped working recently following a heavy thunderstorm. The two friends now visit their classmate, another neighbour’s house to watch the lessons. Dechen does not know that her school is also trying to help her get a smartphone.

“Apa (father) said he will send me a smartphone soon,” says Dechen. “I don’t know how he would send it, but he said it is a big phone.”  

“I told him, ‘Apa, my teachers say I would need a phone. It is difficult for me to learn without a phone and my Apa said okay, he will buy and send me a phone along with a sim card.”

Dechen doesn’t know when her phone would arrive. Her father doesn’t not work  and his brother, her uncle sends home some money for their expenses.

 “My father will not come back and I will not go to my mother.”

What she wants to do is go back to school. “I don’t like staying home. At school, we play and study. At home, we cannot go anywhere.”

Dechen wants to become a teacher someday. She wants her grandmother to stay home and not work in somebody’s fields.

For now, education is her only saviour. Her only hope.

* Dechen's story was featured in the recent report, Lives Upended, that UNICEF ROSA launched on June 23. The report can be accessed here

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