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Winter camp for highland schoolchildren

JICA Bhutan Office hosted the Winter Camp for Highland Children from Lunana Primary School from January 10 -16 January at the Technical Training Institute, Punakha. With the successful completion of the whole program without any injury or trouble incurred to the 32 participating children, I would like to thank all the stakeholders who voluntarily shared their available resources for the program’s implementation. 

It was indeed a platform of collaboration. Gasa dzongkhag administration provided the school bus of Bjishong Central School. The Technical Training Institute agreed to let us use the campus as campsite and Punakha dzongkhag administration supported us by offering the Driglam Namzha lessons to the students. Fablab Bhutan, CDCL, Department of Roads and NCHM sent the instructors or received the children’s visit. 

Few members of the JICA fraternity, JICA volunteers, their counterpart Bhutanese teachers and nutritionist, and even the staff of my office, brought their ideas, skills, knowledge and resources and shared them with us. They initiated lessons such as health and physical education, arts and crafts, music, penmanship, martial arts, etc. Whenever they were idle, they helped the other instructors and facilitated their smooth delivery.

With this sharing and mutual support, I believe that we could present a good case of collaboration, one of the three overarching principles of the 12th Five Year Plan, for the support to the highlanders, which is also one of the flagship programs defined in the 12FYP. 

We understand that the support to the highlanders has been one of the priority areas of Bhutan even in the 11th FYP period. Personally I was inquired a few times about the possibility of JICA’s contributions to this agenda. Considering the population of the target area, however, I thought that it would be difficult to justify the implementation of a stand-alone project that incurs huge capital investment. 

I was also inquired about the possibility of sending a Japanese volunteer to a school in the highland. But I heard that the expats holding a work-permit in Bhutan were not allowed to enter the restricted area. Actually, an application of one JOCV to visit Laya for a workshop during the 2017 Highland Festival was rejected even though she was requested to accompany her supervisor and counterparts of the duty station.

I couldn’t find a good solution for almost two years. And then one day in the summer of 2018, one question suddenly occurred: “What do the schoolchildren do during the long winter breaks?” Compared to the schools in the lower land, highland schools remain closed much longer for winter breaks due to snowfall and severely low temperature. They are closed from mid November to late March. Highland children may be in a serious disadvantage in obtaining academic knowledge and skills, physical fitness and aesthetic sensitivity and creativity.

Soon we came to know that they would temporarily migrate to the low-altitude areas like Punakha, Thimphu or Paro. In the meantime, schools in the lower land are closed in December and January, and the educational resources, teachers and facilities, are left idle for two months. We also checked if there is any existing program in the Ministry of Education or other local development partners that aims at providing complementary academic sessions for highland schoolchildren. There was no such program.

Lunana Primary School in Gasa was soon short-listed, just because there were 36 children altogether from Class PP to VI and small enough for us to start with on a trial basis in this winter. On top of that, it may be the school located in the remotest place in Bhutan.

Once we got the information about the students’ profile, we called the whole JICA fraternity for classes to teach and also contacted few local development partners asking them for buy-in. I also personally volunteered to be a math teacher in the first session of the day for the whole week. 

Even though it was a one-week program, in my math class, the students’ performance in terms of the speed of calculation dramatically improved. I let them work on a 100-grid calculation (1-digit addition). Although most of them spent more than 10 minutes to complete the worksheet at the first trial, the best two students recorded less than 3 minutes on the final day and the last one a few seconds over 10 minutes. 

The students were accompanied by the acting principal Gem Dorji throughout the week, and he might have been another beneficiary to learn such unprecedented ways of class delivery, not only in mathematics but also in all other subjects.

We also benefited a lot from the Camp. For most of us, this was the first encounter with the highland schoolchildren, and through interactions with them, we have learned the ground realities in the lives of highlanders. HPE and art teachers faced a challenge in class delivery in a totally different, mostly adverse, conditions. Few Japanese volunteers who participated in the Camp told me that they would not forget the seven days with the schoolchildren. Japanese volunteers and staff come and go every year. But they will remain a strong supporter to this program and speak about their hands-on experience to others back in Japan. 

We learnt lessons from our first trial, too. If JICA hosts another camp next winter, those lessons should be reflected at the planning and implementation stages. Maybe the toughest challenge of all for us in the first winter camp was that it was difficult for JICA alone, with its country representative office in Thimphu, to host the Camp in Khuruthang. We had to visit the town a few times in advance for site reconnaissance. We definitely need a local institutional partner, and the Youth Centre could be the one towards the next winter camp.

We also found it not so easy for JICA alone to formulate the whole one-week program with its own accessible resources at the time. We need more institutional and individual partners who still remain untapped. Teachers and college students in the low land could come and share their skills and knowledge. International volunteers are welcome, too.

We learnt from the Camp that education would be one of the most critical areas of support to the highlanders. But we also felt that a single-donor support could not be a viable solution for Bhutan to rely on. In order to scale up, we should go for multi-stakeholder partnerships, involving more Bhutanese individuals and institutions in the framework. 

Contributed by  Koji Yamada

Chief Representative, JICA Bhutan Office

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