I will never be able to know fully how many gracious Ukranians were involved in welcoming and hosting this rare specimen of a Bhutanese citizen in their beautiful land of sunflowers washed by the blue waters of the Black Sea. A busy senior banker waits at the airport and opens his heart and home to me, a path-breaking company CEO hosts me in her lovely home next to the Presidential Palace, and the genius of a multi-establishment founder books a 5-Star hotel-room for a humble-me and drives me to events and drops me back every day till he sees me off at the airport. Zaporizhzhia’s Joint Action Platform has two packed days for me extensively covered by tv5 and other media channels.
I just allow myself to flow with the events that mark my hectic schedule of talks, meetings, interviews and engagements with students, youth, educators, policy-makers, civil society, city administrators, business and industry, visits to institutions and historical and cultural landmarks, including a ballet in the capital city’s iconic opera house. I am amazed to discover how much home-work my translators would have done to find out what kind of specie this person was, his thoughts as reflected his writings and speeches as they find in YouTube and allied sources to ease the difficult task of interpreting the talks instantaneously.
It was a touching moment to see school-children in the southern city of Zaporizhzhia, one hour from Kiev by air, carrying little flags of Bhutan in their hands and waving as I entered the hall. Many Ukranians know something about Bhutan, Gross National Happiness in particular. In fact, there are individuals and institutions here who are passionately devoted to advancing happiness. I found that senior students in some schools had projects on development models that included GNH.
Whether it is educators, administrators, policy-makers, members of parliament or citizens in general, one vital issue of interest is education. The earlier system and style continue in most public institutions but some 200 schools are breaking new ground with alternative learning approaches. Grand Lyceum, the first private school to be built during the Soviet era, and DEC Schools are paving the way for powerful learning experiences for children.
I had the joy of attending the inaugural meeting of the Club of Happy Teachers that brought together over 200 educators and administrators in a special school for children with special needs. Teachers, everywhere, face similar challenges. But they forge on.
When they hear that there is a bigger story within their personal stories, their faces light up with new-found confidence and purpose. And, why not? Teachers do the most difficult yet the most important job in the world – prepare the next generation of leaders and citizens for their country.
I share with them what I have always believed to be true: Every day as you come to school and teach a child a new sound or a sign or a symbol, the world no longer remains the same, and life immediately changes. Teaching engages every dimension of the teacher’s life – physical, social, mental, emotional, psychological, ethical. But somebody has to do this difficult job to make a difference. It takes brave men and women like you to measure up to this most challenging yet the most beautiful profession in the world.
Now, the mood becomes more reflective and emotions well up. Somebody says, “We never looked at our work this way! It makes such beautiful sense! Thank you so much!”
A deep sense of joy and warmth of heart greets you everywhere. This guest from Bhutan may the first one to be admitted to the warrior clan of the Cossacks during a special presentation of the spirit of the brave in Zaporizhzhia’s national park. Wherever I go, they introduce me as a former minister and extend generous courtesies that often overwhelm me.
A memorable highlight of my visit to Ukraine remains a surprise invitation to participate in the Young Scientists’ Conference organised by the Club of Rome in tandem with the Kiev International Economic Forum, as a ‘secret speaker’ as the programme leaflet mentioned. As I sat in the packed hall in UNIT City, I felt a lump in my throat when the President of the Club of Rome, Professor Ernst Ulrich von Weizsacker, singled Bhutan out, with China, as a success story for sustainable development in its own unique way.
Professor Weizsacker’s best-selling book, co-authored with Anders Wijkman, “Come On!: Capitalism, Short-termism, Population and the Destruction of the Planet” – A Report to the Club of Rome, instances, among other weighty issues, Bhutan’s “strategy of radical environmental protection agenda while proclaiming its people’s happiness as more important than economic growth”, with China “choosing a strategy of rapid industrialization and economic growth, and lately, of ’greening’ its economy”.
With this high acclaim for my country, my session on GNH in the afternoon became so much easier, if a bit more challenging, especially given the fact that the originator of GDP, Simon Kuznets, was Ukranian! It was truly heartening to note that speaker after speaker, including Professor Garry Jacobs, via video call, and Professor Erik S Reinert, highlighted the ailments of our age and the need for more sustainable development pathways.
Young scientists constituted the major population of the 1000 or so participants in this giant innovation empire that is poised to become Europe’s largest state-of-the-art IT hub. Some 8oo students enrolled from 3000 applicants are taking a three-year undergraduate programme on a self-learning platform, without teachers, with the whole universe as their curriculum and technology their guide.
Ukraine’s history seems as old as time. Kiev itself was established in the fifth century AD by three brothers and their sister whose portraits look upon the vast spread of this beautiful capital-city where tradition and modernity blend and its eyes are focussed on the promise of a bright future. Ukraine is the top exporter of sunflower oil, second in honey and third in wheat export in Europe. The country owns 25% of the world’s total black soil and has the potential to feed half the world.
A glance at the impregnable solidity of structures that mark the Kiev landscape presents the image of a city built to last a thousand years. As the seat of the national government, centre of trade and commerce, home of history and culture, laboratory of science and technology, an incubation-hub for ideas and innovation, Kiev has lived through time and learnt to forge ahead. The artistic genius and scientific spirit of this city are palpable in the myriad expressions of talent that honour the past and look to the future.
Poet-prophet Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s father of the nation, long gone, keeps vigil over the land that he loved and cared for. Author Gogol looks on too, so does the king of pop-art, Andy Warhol, so does the creator of Rocky and Rambo, Sylvester Stallone, so does the founder of the NBA, Maurice Rodoloff, in this city of scientists, stars of sport and screen, inventors and innovators, builders of sky-scrapers and dwellers of humbler homes.
Ukranian citizens have outshone others in many unique ways. The founder of edufuture.org, Dr Vladimir Spivakovsky, for instance, has entered into the Guinness Book of World Records twice as the proud possessor of the world’s largest rubber stamp-seal, weighing 102. 6 kilograms, and the biggest personal collection of pyramids, numbering over 1292 items.
One of the finest legacies of the Soviet era has been an excellent higher and technical education system but many of the graduates of these institutions have moved on in search of greener pastures and there is not much replacement of the earlier cadre of high calibre talent to continue the spirit of excellence. And, this remains an issue of critical concern for an otherwise hopeful and forward-looking country richly endowed with natural resources and talented people. Brain-drain is a reality as millions of citizens have gone abroad and more may be preparing to leave.
It is nearly three decades since independence and much has been done in the building of the nation and the recovery of its ancient history and national memory. There is optimism and pride in the air, often tinged with a sense of uneasy calm and anxiety. Old wounds have not fully healed and a protracted war rumbles on in the East.
Presidential elections are on and there is a general wish for a breath of fresh air even though many are not even sure what any change would mean to them. “How can we be like Bhutan”, I am asked often. “We have no illusion about the challenges that a holistic, all-embracing development pathway presents. But we believe that every nation has to have its own North Star even as every man, woman and child has to have a dream to guide them in the direction they desire to go.”
I venture a response. It works. There are nods as an air of meditative silence descends on the hall. They look this way and that and ask: “Do we have one?”
They ought to!
Thakur S Powdyel