Of yaks and trigonometry

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Early every morning when I was staying with the Brokpa people in the Himalayan country of Bhutan, I would bump into a rather serious little boy, wrapped up in his felted yak hair coat, setting off on the half hour walk in the mountains to go to school in the next village. I asked about him and was told ‘he’s the cleverest boy in the class’. It didn’t surprise me, he looked like a boy on a mission to me.

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The Brokpa are semi- nomadic yak herders living in the remote and mountainous area of Eastern Bhutan, moving their yaks to new pastures as the seasons change.

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One morning I’d seen the same boy diligently heading off on his own for the half hour walk to school in the sleet at the crack of dawn.

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Some considerable time later I was meandering around the settlement and came across these two young brothers in no hurry to reach school.

They had stopped to methodically rip apart their school maths exercise books and were busy dropping the pages in the mud.

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I saw that the subject of their indifference was trigonometry, and seeing the bewildered look on the young boy’s face, dressed in his felted tunic, cracked skin on his hands and face from the harsh climate, as he stared at the lines and numbers on the page, I could understand his perplexity.

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It all just seemed a bit incongruous.

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Previous generations of Brokpa hadn’t had any schooling at all, but now, most of the children have a chance to go to the village school in one of the settlements, at least for the part of the year when the families are living in communities, before they move on to find scattered winter pastures lower down the valley.

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There were certainly plenty of children around, being brought up surrounded by age-old traditions of lives lived for generations.

©ClareRowntreeXF18mmF2 RX-E1FUJIFILM-33Youngster kept warm with a sheep hide plays as his mother weaves

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Life happens outdoors for the Brokpa and it didn’t surprise me that some of them found it hard to sit indoors in the school doing maths.

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My guide was a lovely local girl, Pema, who had been brought up in the community and since moved down to the town to work in a hotel, where I’d met her.

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She’d taught in the school for a while, and one of her young pupils was keen to show me round and practice her English.

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This is Pema’s sister and her daughter who still live in the village, and below is more of her extended family.

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Pema’s nephew practices his archery, with one of the pens from school.

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Archery is a way of life for the Bhutanese, their national sport which helps define their identity.

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Pema took me to visit her friend, Tashi Tsomo, who’d just had a baby, and was busy hand carding fleece to prepare it for spinning.

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We sat by the bukhari fire stove and after my encounter with the boys, I was keen to know her views on education.

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She told me it was a mixed blessing as when the children were educated they wanted to leave the community and go and work in the towns, especially the more able ones which depleted the community.

Brokpa women not uncommonly married two brothers so that one, usually the stronger one, could take the yaks to higher pastures whilst the other brother could see to the family.

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‘If the strong ones go to the town who will be here for us?’

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A boy of 15 had come in and joined us round the bukhari. He was her younger brother who had dropped out of school and was going to Varanasi in India to become a monk.

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I learnt that one problem is that because of their nomadic way of life, many of the children don’t have fathers, having been the result of fleeting liaisons. The problem is that when they reach 17yrs old the children can’t take exams and matriculate, as without their fathers’ names, they can’t have the necessary ID cards for matriculation.

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I mused on our discussion as I wandered round the villages over the next few days and met young mums with their babies and children and wondered what the future held for them all.

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The problems of rural to urban migration, and the lure of Western lifestyles challenging traditional ways of life, egged on by the digital age of communication, has reached the Brokpa, and this generation will grow up to find its place in this fast changing society on the cusp of change.

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One bright young boy I got chatting to quietly but confidently told me he was going to become a doctor of Western medicine. Pema confirmed that he was very able, and whereas a generation ago this dream would have been out of reach, I think this boy might well come to realise his ambitions.

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Before I left, I had the honour of meeting two more young mothers with their beautiful newborns.

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Like every other mother in the world, they want the very best future for their babies, it’s just a little less clear now what that will look like. I placed  a little offering in each of their tiny hands, and wondered whether these two would grow up together, living in the same villages all their lives like their ancestors before them, or if they would be heading off down their individual paths to very different worlds seeking pastures new, and what that would mean for the Brokpa of the future.

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Categories: BhutanTags: , , , , , ,


  1. Your words and pictures are so moving Clare xpx

    Liked by 1 person

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