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Friends of Bhutan

Main story: In far-flung schools, agriculture research centres, bridge construction sites, and crowded hospitals are a few foreign volunteers working selflessly and tirelessly in silence.

They have volunteered to travel outside of their comfort zones and their country of Japan; leaving their families, secure and good paying jobs, and all modern amenities to come see and live with Bhutanese, which for many is a life-long dream.

Like every year, 10 more volunteers joined this year in July making the Japanese the highest number of volunteers. They joined 22 Japanese overseas cooperation volunteers (JOCV) and nine senior volunteers already stationed in various parts of the country.

The new volunteers included two senior volunteers and eight JOCVs.

Tomoko with her students at Draktsho
Tomoko with her students at Draktsho

Tomoko Sakamaki was one of the two senior volunteers to join this year. She is an expert in souvenir designing and tailoring, and is working at the Draktsho Vocational Training Centre for special children and youth. Established in 2001, Draktsho is a non-profit making organisation training differently-abled children and youth.

The first Bhutanese she saw was His Majesty The Fourth King in February 1989 during the funeral of Emperor Hirohito.

“That was the first time I came to learn about Bhutan, and since then I wanted to visit the country because the King was so handsome and dressed so simple yet charming,” she said.

This is her second visit to the country. She taught a similar trade as an Art teacher for a year in Drugyel LSS six years ago.

“I got selected at my third attempt, so the opportunity is scarce,” says Tomoko Sakamaki, preferring the interview in Nepali and bowing frequently as she completes every response to a question. “I like working here (Draktsho) and even though children here are (differently-abled) the elders take care of young ones and the teachers are friendly.”

Tomoko is part of a league of young men, women, and elderly who have lived under a lot of deprivations yet left lasting impacts on Bhutanese lives.

It was in 1988 that a young volunteer first came to Bhutan after the two governments signed a memorandum of understanding to send volunteers from Japan to Bhutan in 1987.

By then, Dasho Keiji Nishioka, one of the most prominent Japanese volunteers, was already in the country.

Dasho Keiji Nishioka worked on agriculture development in the country for 28 years and helped modernise the sector. Bhutanese today cherish his untiring and selfless contribution enjoying the fruits of his love and sacrifice.

Dasho Keiji Nishioka showed in practice the highest form of volunteerism.

Even recently some highly talked about activities are Project Tshegho and a garage sale. Last year, Japanese volunteers launched a knitting campaign for young babies at the national referral hospital. The campaign became a huge success, resulting in more than a thousand woollen baby caps. The caps were distributed freely among new-born babies as part of an effort to reduce deaths of premature newborns caused by preventable causes, and to raise awareness on the issue.

In the garage sale, the volunteers collected about Nu 35,000 to buy hand-wash detergent for the national referral hospital.

Japan’s assistance is provided mainly in the fields of agriculture, forestry, manufacturing, machinery maintenance and operation, civil engineering, architecture, health and welfare, education, IT services, and sports.

The garage sale of JDWNRH
The garage sale of JDWNRH

The volunteers run the risk of losing the opportunity to keep abreast of skills development in their professional fields and technology.

The JICA chief representative Koji Yamada says so many agencies and countries are competing over a limited stock of young professionals available. He said it makes it increasingly difficult to get volunteers in the required fields.

JICA is working on aligning its volunteer programme to make it more appealing.

Seki with students of Trashiyangtse LSS
Seki with students of Trashiyangtse LSS

The agency is consulting with the Japanese private sector and exploring skills and areas that the two can collaborate on, eventually allowing for volunteers to be employed in the countries where they have completed their contract terms.

“We’ll also be considering professional research students as volunteers,” Koji Yamada said.

Volunteers said one of their wishes after completing their contract with JICA and their stay in the country, was to return again someday.

A former JOCV volunteer, Kensaku Seki returns to Bhutan every year.

He worked in one of the furthest dzongkhags in the country between 2007 and 2010. He worked as a physical education teacher in Trashiyangtse LSS. He landed up breaking his leg during his posting at the school, which ultimately led him to change his career. He became a photographer.

Most of his former students are his friends on Facebook today. He comes to Bhutan at least three times a year to take more pictures and connect with his students.

“It gives me happiness to see them do well and recognise me.”

The good-natured local folks, their occasional crude jokes and humble nature allow him to easily connect.

“Should there be an olympics in communication or in talking, Bhutanese would win the gold medal,” Seki says, mixing Japanese and Dzongkha words. “In Bhutan one doesn’t ever feel lonely. Embay la.” A big smile follows.

Coming to Bhutan in 1997 from Japan, he experienced frequent power cuts and cooking gas shortages for the first time. Life was difficult for the volunteers who were used to the stability of basic services of a developed and industrial nation. But the friendly Bhutanese and their hospitality were more than sufficient compensation, many said.

Tetsuji Goto is a senior advisor to JICA’s infrastructure and peace building department today. He worked for the erstwhile Public Works Department as an urban planner between 1997 and 1999.

He recalls Bhutan covered with lush green fields and his journeys to Gasa and Trongsa along long narrow dusty roads winding up and down steep cliffs and thick forests, without any settlements for long distances let alone shops. Moving around was difficult then.

Trongsa town had only a few shops then, he says. Even Thimphu didn’t have many buildings and cars. “It was beautiful.”

Goto san at JICA headquarters in Tokyo
Goto san at JICA headquarters in Tokyo

Goto san and his volunteer friends used bukhari to keep themselves warm. Carving out a tub out of a barrel, they soaked in hot water to make up for the lack of bathtubs or hot springs in Thimphu, mostly in winter.

There was no tension at work. Everyone took it rather easily. Most of the country’s urban planning including Khuruthang, Trongsa, and Paro were still sketches on paper. There was no television and internet. Kuensel and BBS were the only sources of information.

Once, a team of planners were on an official tour to Gasa. They were supposed to start in the morning but the team could gather only by afternoon. So they set off in the afternoon to Punakha. Next day they learnt that their horses had not arrived from Gasa. So they sent a ‘wireless’ message and waited for another three days.

“It was like we were on a holiday, trekking and not on official tour,” Goto san says gazing at the black and white picture of him and the team with the Gasa dzongdag. They are all in gho and adorning rather long kabneys. He could be mistaken for a Bhutanese.

“Phaksha paa, ema datshi and lots of good food,” he mumbles, still examining the picture in an old Japanese magazine.

“Any memorable moments? Yes of course.” Goto san and his friends stood in the freezing cold in the Jampa Lhakhang courtyard in Bumthang watching the sacred naked night dance. “We waited and waited, but there were no female naked dancers. They never came,” he says, immediately turning away with a blush and suppressing a laugh.

One of the most important lessons of his life from Bhutan was balancing between family and work. “I became more balanced after I returned from Bhutan, not just driven by ambition and absolutely focused on work,” he says.

Tshering Palden | Tokyo/Thimphu

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