Distance Education arrives in Bhutan

When I first arrived in Bhutan, I was invited to help the government’s Department of Information demonstrate the power of technology in an effort to get more government funding. We mocked up a distance education system using the two Polycom systems that were in the country at the time. The teacher stood in one room and drew on the blackboard as he spoke. The students sat in an adjacent room taking notes and asking questions through the VC.

The idea was extremely ambitious because at the time, Bhutan had virtually no wide area network. The mountainous terrain and the shear distances ruled out wired connections. The villages that most needed distance education were days walk from any road and had no electricity. That changed while I was there, with phone lines and solar powered e-centres being installed in a few places, and full data links for the ten major government offices, but they were still a long way from having the bandwidth to schools.

Today, I see that Ericsson have begun work with Bhutan’s education department to install videoconferencing into five remote schools so their students can take lessons from a central group of specialists. I’m excited to see that Bhutan has overcome the geographical problems and is now in a position to make this work. Instead of getting the lowest skilled teachers, who couldn’t get better placements, these students will now have access to the same quality teachers as the students in the capital. I’m looking forward to seeing this rolled out to the rest of the country in coming years.

PopMatters Review

John L. Murphy has completed a mammoth review of just about every book written on Bhutan. He understands the value of a book written by locals and residents.

There are many more books about this amazing country than I knew of, and I’m delighted to see he rated some of my favourites highly – see Beyond the Sky and the Earth and Treasures of the Thunder Dragon. I wondered how he missed Bold Bhutan Beckons, but then I realised that, like my publisher, CopyRight Publishing is an independent publisher. I’m even more honoured, then, that Murphy found and took the time to read Dragon Bones. While it’s not mentioned until about halfway through the article, it’s clear that he valued the depth of experience that went into writing it.

‘Like his compatriot Launsell Taudevin’s With a Dzong in My Heart memoir set in 1988, Murray Gunn finds that advising the locals about Western methods clashes with rank-pulling bureaucrats, a more lackadaisical work ethic than he expected, and a series of culture clashes mixed with awe at the kingdom’s beauty, Buddhist traditions, and courtly atmosphere. While Gunn repeats many of the trekking adventures others do in his account, unique to what I’ve read in other versions, he listens to his guide: “This is our life. We have to come up here no matter what the weather’s like and we do the same trails over and over until our feet are sore. And we can never go anywhere else. There’s no holiday for us.”’

I love the line he chose to quote and his reason for doing so. For me, the trek was fascinating because of the attitude and companionship of the locals who helped us on the journey.

Dragon Bones Discussion Guide

I tried very hard to allow the Bhutanese people in Dragon Bones to tell their own stories and to minimise the bias created by my beliefs, my mood and other aspects of my life. I knew it was an impossible task before I began writing, so I provided clues to my own state of mind in the story and made it clear when I was describing my reactions to an event rather than the event itself.

I wanted readers to experience Bhutanese life themselves and to learn about the Bhutanese culture without forming opinions. There is so much that is good in Bhutan and so much that is discomforting to a foreigner, but of course neither is true for the locals – it’s all just life. If readers were to make judgements, I hoped they would be of my decisions and actions rather than of the local people who were acting according to their own culture and local norms. As the outsider, it was my job to learn and to fit in, but I didn’t always succeed.

I hope this guide will be useful to book clubs and to any classes that may read Dragon Bones. As with all my writing, the focus is on cultural understanding and tolerance. If I have given people a taste of the fascinating Bhutanese culture and generated discussion around tolerance, I will be satisfied.

By |November 11th, 2012|Bhutan|0 Comments

A New Future

In 2009 I set myself 4 goals as steps towards a future of providing assistance on locally driven aid projects in developing countries. In their original form, those goals were:

Publish a book on Bhutanese culture
Complete a Masters in anthropology
Buy a studio flat in Australia
Invest the rest of my savings to create a modest passive income

I imagined a life as I’d had in Bhutan, where I kept myself entertained with a mix of my own projects and helping develop local talent. In this future, I would collect stories of living and working with locals to tell as part of my mission of building cultural tolerance. As often happens in life, both the goals and vision changed along the way.

Studio flats were more expensive than I had expected and my savings didn’t stretch as far as I had planned, so I ended up buying a one bedroom flat to rent out on a weekly basis. I could then reserve it myself for the times that I returned home. All my CDs and precious items would be accessable from local storage.

But the most important feature of my goals was the flexibility they gave me. I could combine IT, anthropology and writing as appropriate to help local projects. I could focus on writing or on personal involvement in tolerance building activities. Or I could simply enjoy travelling.

Sri Lanka was recognition of my achievement of these goals and a chance to reflect on my priorities. Now I’ve finished my 6 weeks of teaching IT to children from poor families, I know that I want to share my time with someone. So, I’m exercising that flexibility by heading back to Australia to build a life with a special woman. This […]

Tribute to Robin

Robin, my Bhutanese friend who ran the rock climbing group, passed away last week. He didn’t seem the type to have email let alone facebook (in fact he did) so I haven’t exchanged a word directly with him since I left. My decision to leave came suddenly so I don’t recall even saying goodbye. I wrote the following brief tribute to be included in a book some friends are making in his honour.

Robin, I remember you best from Sundays at The Nose. You welcomed me into the climbing group and taught me how to lead climb. I saw you do the same for countless others, including the Fire Fighting team. You understood our fears and our capabilities and you combined your sense of humour with a touch of drill sergeant to encourage the best in all of us. You were generous. You were a friend. You were inspirational. You were the best of the Bhutanese spirit. I’m sad to know that I’ll never be able to fulfil my promise to bring you Tasmanian fishing lures. May you find all the adventure you seek in your next life.

By |May 4th, 2012|Bhutan|0 Comments

Australian Himalayan Foundation

I received a letter from the Australian Himalayan Foundation thanking me for my donation of the royalties from Dragon Bones. It confirms that the money will go entirely to the RENEW project to enable disadvantaged young girls from Bhutan to attend school. As I know some of the people involved in the project, I hope to be able to post some photos of their work in the future.

Dragon Bones Supports Education of Bhutanese Girls

The first royalty cheque for Dragon Bones was for 502 copies sold over 6 months. That’s about 10% of my big goal of 5000 sales. My main driver for selling so many copies (it is a lot for an unknown writer) was to ensure substantial support for Bhutanese organisations. To put this in perspective, my full target of 150,000 Nu was equivalent to 18 months base salary for a government employee. The recent strength of the Australian dollar makes the royalties worth far more in Ngultrum so I’ve decided to donate the entire first royalty cheque instead of just half.

This first cheque is going to RENEW. I mentioned RENEW a number of times in Dragon Bones for its work in addressing issues relating to the treatment of women. The organisation is currently partnering with two Australians to provide assistance to girls in rural Bhutan. The money will be used to fund school books, uniforms, meals and boarding facilities as required.

I would encourage others to donate to this cause. The Australian Himalayan Foundation will take donations online and, as a registered charity, can provide a tax receipt to Australian residents. Your money will help educate children who live up to two days walk from the nearest road. A$100 will support one girl for a full year. Please help out.

Birthdays

2011 has been a big year for me. In March, my first book Dragon Bones was released in Hong Kong. In May it was released in the US. In June, I moved into my new flat – the first place of my own that I’ve ever lived in. It’s right on the train line, but it’s large and the sound proofing is excellent. A few weeks ago I submitted my thesis on culture in virtual teams that completes my Masters of Applied Anthropology. And I’ve shared the year with a very special woman.

With so much to celebrate, why then did my friends and family insist on celebrating my 40th birthday? For me, it held no importance, but I was bullied into organising two parties (I chose two to keep them as close to a typical dinner out as I could) for the benefit of others. Whenever I mention my dislike of celebrating a lap of the solar system, people make a comparison to Jehovah’s Witnesses, who apparently also oppose making an event out of birthdays. But I believe that the majority of the world’s people have traditionally had no such celebration.

Birthdays are really a celebration of individualism. The more value a culture places on community, the less likely it is to make a big deal out of an event specific to an individual. Even Christians historically celebrated the name day of their patron saint rather than their own birthdays. Ironically, and perhaps counter to my argument, I have to celebrate my birthday in this individualistic culture for collectivist reasons of meeting community expectations. In my own life, I’ve felt more comfortable […]

By |December 31st, 2011|Australia, Bhutan, Japan|0 Comments

The Good Samaritans

I didn’t see what befell the old man, but he’s being helped off the highway crossing by two others as I walk around the corner. He doesn’t appear to know his helpers and doesn’t acknowledge either. As soon as he reaches the curb, he grabs hold of a railing and tries to support himself.

I try to work out what has happened before I offer help. Is the man hurt or in shock or just slow? Was one of the men who helped him off the road a friend? Did the two of them have the situation under control and would they resent interference. Two men and a woman in business suit approach from behind me and offer their help. There’s a hospital just across the road – I wonder if that’s where he came from – would he like them to take him there? It seems to me that the old man really wants to be left alone with a chance to redeem his pride, and he has enough assistance so I go on my way, but with a smile.

Too often I write about how life in Australia frustrates me. We’re usually too focused on ourselves and I miss the culture of Bhutan, where people always have time for one another. I might prefer the passersby to be more aware of the situation before stepping in, but I’m glad to see my countrymen looking out for others. And perhaps I should do something myself. Am I wrong not to step in and offer help? Am I wrong not to ask the others to give the old man some space?

After word: While […]

By |November 6th, 2011|Australia, Bhutan, China|0 Comments

Bhutanese Repatriated

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot about Bhutanese/Nepali refugees settling into new homes. It’s news I’ve waited years to hear, but that’s short compared to the time these people have waited to feel welcome somewhere.

While I’m always sympathetic to the plight of refugees, I generally don’t think that them fleeing, or repatriating them, is the best option. I said this in a recent post and I’ll say it again until someone shows me why I’m wrong. The Southern Bhutanese case is different. These people didn’t flee. They were pushed out by a government that saw them as a threat to its independence.

As with most events in life, everyone tells a different story. The facts, as far as I can piece them together, are that in the latter half of last century India annexed Sikkhim and Assam and China annexed Tibet. Bhutan was worried that it would be next so they began enforcing the Code of Conduct that dictated citizens adhere to traditional ways – speaking Dzongkha, wearing ghos and kiras etc – in order to reinforce its cultural distinction.

Nepali immigrants who lived mostly in the south, where it’s too hot for the traditional dress, wanted to maintain their own traditional religion, festivals and to (at least occasionally) dress in traditional Nepali costumes.

In 1990, the Bhutanese king decided to remove any non-Bhutanese people and pushed them into India to find their own way. I’ve heard many reasons for this including fear of a planned Southern-Bhutanese revolution to create democracy; fear that India would use the Southern Bhutanese as an excuse to claim Bhutan was culturally part of India; the need to get rid of illegal immigrants; and […]

By |August 1st, 2011|Bhutan|0 Comments

Warning: mt_rand() [function.mt-rand]: max(-1) is smaller than min(0) in /home/takin/murraygunn.id.au/bbclone/lib/marker.php on line 26