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Diary from Bhutan: Dogs, rice and debates

Type: Article

In her fifth diary entry, Stephanie Earnshaw talks about frightening encounters with the ever-present dogs, her students' obsession with rice, the joys of teaching a special education class and the sorrows of the parents, an adventurous fire safety training and her college students' debates.

This morning, on the way to school, I was attacked by a (huge man-eating) dog. At the time it looked more like one of Bhutan's native black bears but I'm fairly sure it was just a really big, really angry dog. I was late for work, rushing down the path whilst talking on the phone, not looking where I was going, when all of a sudden, it pounced. I screamed, swung my bag fiercely and ran away (not very brave, I'm quite disappointed about the screaming). My neighbour, who has been similarly terrorized in the past, now won't leave the house without pepper spray or a rock.

school children

When I do make it to work in one piece, my classes at school with the five-to-seven-year-olds are going well. Each child now has a mini whiteboard (made by laminating sheets of plain paper). The aim is for more interactive lessons – no mean feat with 50 children in a class. The whiteboards seem to be effective, and popular, especially when used for spelling games in which everyone is assigned a letter and then has to move into the correct order as quickly as possible to spell a word containing the phonic sound of the day – great fun to play in teams. And, they find it absolutely magic that you can write on the boards with pen, and then wipe it off!

In a recent lesson we were acting out the book they are reading, which is called Father. Father is running, Father is washing, Father is cooking, ... . I was impressed with the political correctness, although I don't know any fathers round here who cook. Despite this progressive attitude towards household chores, the children are surprisingly conservative when it comes to food. When we were acting out I am cooking, I asked, 'What are we cooking?'
Their firm response was, 'Rice!'
'And what else do you like?'
They chorused, 'Rice!'
'And you eat rice with?'
'Rice!'
I suppose it's good that they didn't mention junk food but I felt slightly depressed at the thought of all that rice.

The special education group I teach once a week still seem to think it's weird when I ask them to do anything other than copy from the board. Last week we did a song to practise the vocabulary they'd been learning. The students were shy and I initially did a lot of the singing. To my surprise and mild horror, this attracted an audience of other teachers who thought the singing was hilarious and were more keen to join in than the class ...

However, it certainly is great fun teaching the special education class, not least because, with just six students, it's the smallest I teach. The downside is the monthly parents' evenings – which start and finish late. A colleague told me that this is due to 'BST' – Bhutan Stretchable Time. During the last meeting a parent began crying because her 15-year-old son (who is in grade four with nine-year-olds) had asked to go to secondary school because he didn't like sitting on little chairs in class. She doesn't know what he'll do in the future.Later on in the same meeting (to make us feel better) the principal showed a video of a man with no arms or legs giving a motivational speech to school children. The theme was: when you are down and you think you can't get up, keep on trying. The man with no arms and legs demonstrated how to get up without any arms and legs (it’s not easy). By the end several members of staff were in tears.

Up at college where I teach in the afternoons, our main problem recently has been the extreme cold. Thimphu is 2400 metres above sea level and the college is even higher up the mountain, so when the sun doesn't shine it's bitterly cold.To my constant dismay, we sit outside for assemblies and speeches. When we had fire safety training recently, I found myself thinking, after the first half an hour of shivering, that a fire in the college might be a nice idea. As if in answer to my prayers, the fireman giving the talk announced hands-on practice of the fire extinguishers he'd just demonstrated how to use. This involved spraying high pressure water and dry chemical (powder) extinguishers on fires deliberately set by the fireman. Chaos reigned. The buildings were saved but we lost the bushes.

mangy dog

There is also a college pet dog. There are dozens of dogs on campus but one particularly scrawny, flea-bitten mongrel consistently stands on the stage whenever speeches are being made. Last week the skinny flea-bag was watching the Dean from the front of the stage, listening attentively and gazing adoringly at him. Amusing for us but she was probably standing a little close for his comfort. She's losing fur and fleas can jump quite far.

In college classes we've been holding debates, with the students choosing the topics themselves. We've covered everything from Boys are more intelligent than girls and A woman's place is in the kitchen to Corporal punishment should be legalized in Bhutanese schools and Democracy is good for Bhutan.

I was interested in finding out what the students thought of corporal punishment (illegal in Bhutanese schools since 2007) and democracy (Bhutan had its first election in March 2008). After some heated discussions (BBC Question Time eat your heart out) and graphic descriptions of punishments being meted out – about half of the students had experienced some kind of corporal punishment at school – the verdict was that Bhutanese teachers must be strict but corporal punishment should remain illegal. As one student sagely explained in his closing speech 'If your sins are like horses, they will come and trample you.' I think that might sound even wiser in Dzongkha.

students having tea at Royal Thimphu College

Students are very pro-democracy, despite the fact that many of the older generation in Bhutan would have preferred to keep the respected fourth King as their leader. Although the students suspect that democracy brings corruption and would rather rely on the wisdom and foresight of a benevolent King, they feel that democracy is necessary to modernize Bhutan and gain it respect from its western allies.

I just wish they'd do something about the dogs. There's a big one barking maniacally outside my window right now ...

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