Sir Tshering Dorji was the Principal of Rangtse School from 2006 to 2011. The school is in an extremely remote area in Haa. It is a five day walk through forests from the nearest roadhead. He told me no one wanted to be placed there, so he volunteered despite knowing no physical school structure existed in Rangtse then.
He told me it is His Majesty, The 4th Druk Gyalpo who inspired him to make that decision. He said after having received free education his whole life and free professional training with stipend, he felt he had to give back. His Majesty’s selflessness, especially when he led troops into battle in 2003 was a key motivating factor.
His exact words were: “Nga No Ra Ma Tsup.”
“His Majesty could do so much for us, how could I not even do this much?”
So in 2006, at the age of 24, Sir Tshering found himself in Rangtse with a school that didn’t physically exist. He rallied the community to come together and build school huts. There was no government funding. He told me UNICEF provided nails, roofs, etc. This school was built by the community and himself.
The school began with 38 students. Students who had no shoes or uniforms. Sir Tshering who had saved his transfer grant used it and two months’ salary to buy them uniforms and shoes from Samtse. You need to cross the Damdum river “21 times” to get to Rangtse, Sir said. It took a week for ration to arrive from Samtse, so he was advised to stock up for an entire year.
One day, when he sent his students home for lunch, a few came back crying. Upon enquiry, he discovered that their parents had gone foraging for potatoes so there was no one to cook for them. This was a common family story. Sir then decided to share his one year ration with them. This included only rice, oil, and some Wai Wai. He said all other food items perished on the long and arduous 7 day journey from Samtse.
Sir’s staple diet was rice fried in a little oil. No curry. Wai Wai was cooked and sprinkled on top of the rice as tshoem. His one year ration ran out in a week. Then, he and his students survived on maize and wild potatoes until food could be brought in from Samtse.
There was no mobile connectivity in Rangste. Sir Tshering told me their only mode of communication was via BBS radio. Whenever he would undertake a trip to Samtse, he would ask one of his teachers to listen to the 11AM English request show. He said he would try and call in to the show from a landline in Samtse (this is no easy feat- we know how patient and lucky one has to be to get through), and then share that he is returning with things, please send porters. Then the teacher listening to the show in Rangtse would send the required number of people to help Sir.
Please, allow me to point out that this was happening between 2006-2011. Not in the 1970s.
Then Sir told me about Mindu Zam. He found her while walking around Rangtse one evening, in his first year at Rangtse. She was sitting so still that he was a bit frightened initially, he shared. He later discovered she could not walk. She was eight years old, but not in school. Sir Tshering went and met her parents. They told him she was not in school due to her inability to walk. He asked them if they would allow her to join school if he arranged for her to be carried back and forth by himself and older students? The parents said yes. So Mindu Zam attended school thanks to the backs of Sir and his students at Rangtse. She even attended the Education Festival in Haa in 2009 which was a two day walk from Rangtse. She was carried there too.
Sadly, Mindu is no more. She passed away in 2012 after succumbing to an illness. This was after Sir Tshering was transferred to his current teaching post at Arekha MSS in Chhukha.
A speech-impaired student was also enrolled in the community school by Sir Tshering at about the same time as Mindu Zam. Lhakpa Rinzin was seven when he joined the school. He would sign to communicate. However, he was not discriminated against positively or negatively. He was made to participate in all school activities. Lhakpa suddenly spoke six months into being a student with Sir, during a game of football. He has been speaking normally ever since.
Sir Tshering says simply: “We may not be specialised or experts in differently-abled care, but we can try.”
In order to be able to provide food to the Rangtse students in a sustained manner, Sir Tshering Dorji tried to get WFP meals at the school. This finally happened in 2008. After the WFP meals began, during admission season, Sir Tshering Dorji would see children as young as three years trying to be admitted. They would all come to Rangtse School carrying plates. When he turned them away saying they were too young to join, they would begin crying, said Sir Tshering. These little children turned up for the free meal.
The community in Rangtse was very removed and severely underdeveloped then. They practised Bonism, and animal sacrifices were normal. Sir Tshering was quite appalled by the animal sacrifices, but he managed to replace the animal sacrifices with cheese, butter, and egg offerings (Ka Choe) by the end of the first year. He said it was initially difficult to convince the community to make the switch, but he managed to do so by telling them that if anything were to go wrong, he would be accountable. Fortunately, there were no dire consequences after the animal sacrifices stopped, he shared.
“A teacher plays multiples roles,” Sir Tshering told me. “Sometimes we have to be health workers and often, even changemakers in the communities we teach.”
Rangtse School had two apprentice/ temporary teachers (both male) along with Sir Tshering in 2006. On the day of enrolment, Sir told me that his teachers, himself, and two female NFE (non-formal education) instructors lined up the students and gave them baths. It was probably their first baths, he said. There was only one tap for the entire community in 2006. Sir Tshering had to educate the students on matters of hygiene and health.
In 2009, Sir Tshering took his students to the Haa Tshechu. His students were the first from their community to witness a Tshechu. It was also the first time in their lives that they saw vehicles.
In Haa, Sir ended up winning the lottery organised by Chundu Sports Association. He became the owner of a Pulsar bike. Within three days of winning the lottery, he sold off the bike for Nu. 50,000. He decided he wanted to use the money to build the first Mani Dungkhor in Rangtse. He added Nu. 18,000 more from his savings, then raised about Nu. 400,000 with help from the locals, to build it. Sir told me he felt he won because of the community’s goodwill towards him, so he dedicated his win to them and used it to improve the quality of life in Rangtse.
Sir Tshering is also responsible for the first kitchen garden in Rangtse. He said the community had no agricultural tools or seeds at the time. The Ministry of Agriculture provided the school with the necessary tools and seeds for a kitchen garden.
When the Nation celebrated the Birthday of His Majesty The 4th Druk Gyalpo and Children’s Day on November 11, Sir would take his students to Dorokha, Samtse. It was not easy to travel to Dorokha. They had to walk two whole days. When the students’ feet began to blister, the teachers and Sir carried them. Sir Tshering said it was important for his students to participate in and experience the nationwide celebrations.
A school fete day was also begun in Sir’s time at Rangtse School to encourage people from the community as well as neighbouring communities to come together in Rangtse. The fete continues to be organised to this day.
Sir Tshering is a firm believer that good happens when one’s intent is sincere and selfless, and that things have a way of working out if one is motivated so.
Students from the first batch at Rangtse School have just finished Class 10, and five of them have done well enough to qualify for government schools.
Sir Tshering Dorji set up “informal boarding” at Rangtse Community Primary School as well. He did this despite limited resources because he felt every child had a right to education. He said it was his responsibility as an educator to ensure that right to the children he came across, even if these children were from other villages. They came from far-flung villages like Putsina, Natsina, Thangdokha, and so on. Sir Tshering met these children who were all in the school-going age but staying at home, during NFE (non-formal education) monitoring tours. The parents kept their children at home, some availing of NFE facilities, as there were no schools nearby. The students and Sir himself had to cross the Toorsa river via a shaky, temporary bridge made out of bamboo to get to Rangtse.
Housing was a challenge the entire time that Sir Tshering was at Rangtse. There were no teachers’ quarters. Everyone lived in temporary houses, some had tarpaulin sheets for roofs. Sir said it was like living in a hostel. “We lived like a big family, sharing everything, no matter how little,” Sir Tshering said with a chuckle.
Rangtse School began formal boarding facilities after Sir left for Arekha Middle Secondary School in Chhukha.
This now brings me to the current part of Sir Tshering’s life. At Arekha MSS, Sir is continuing to positively transform the lives of his students. In 2014, Sir conceived of an ‘Edutainment Tour” for students who would score above 80% in their exams. He told me that it was to motivate his students to do well, and also to provide them an opportunity to build their character through exposure and experience. The majority of the students at the school cannot afford trips to Thimphu and other districts, Sir said.
That year, 11 students scored above 80%. Sir confessed with a laugh that he had thought only 3-4 students would perform well, but they surprised him. He wasn’t financially prepared for 11 students, but he did not go back on his promise either. Sir, instead, looked for food and lodging sponsors, and it was then that Bhutan Tourism Corporation Limited (BTCL) came through as their main sponsor. BTCL is their main sponsor, every year. Sir Tshering told me he does not accept cash for the edutainment tour.
So in 2014, Sir took his students to the place they most desired to visit. It was Paro. They wanted to see aeroplanes.
Thimphu is also a part of the edutainment tour. Several hotels in the capital and in Paro host the students during the tour. Sir shared with me that this year’s batch of 35 students will even get to fine dine at Zhiwaling in Paro! This year’s students are very fortunate, he said.
Notice the numbers? They’ve jumped since 2014. It’s now 35 students who have scored above 80% in their exams. In 2014, it was 11 students. “The students work hard to qualify for the edutainment tour. They go home and tell their parents not to disturb them, as they need to study to score above 80%. Parents have told me their children stay up late at night and wake up early to study,” Sir Tshering said.
However, he added, the focus is not just on academics. “I want my students to be well-rounded. They have to have life skills too. They must know how to interact with all kinds of people in all kinds of situations. The selection process we have for the tour is completely based on merit, and is fair and just. This opportunity is open indiscriminately to everyone who is willing to try and grab it.”
Sir told me the edutainment tour takes place right after the summer break as they need to wait for exam results, and also because he uses the break to find sponsors based on the number of students who qualify for the tour. He said one other important reason for doing the tour during the academic session is to get the other students to see off the toppers. They even receive them upon return. Sir said this is a huge motivating factor for the students who do not make the cut. It encourages them to try and do well in their exams so they may be the ones who are seen off the next time.
The tour, unfortunately, did not take place one year. In 2016, a massive landslide shut the school for eight days and even stopped vehicular movement.
This year, the 35 students from Arekha MSS were lucky enough to meet the Prime Minister as well as the Education Minister on their edutainment tour. Upon their return to the school, they were thrown a surprise welcome party by their parents.
Video of Arekha MSS in Thimphu:
Interview with Sir Tshering in Thimphu: