The lazy, sleep-all-you-want holidays of the winter approach, sadly, an end and the hustle and bustle of students gearing up for another academic year stretch country wide. Athang Community School, the last frontier of education in Bhutan, will wake up to classes, albeit a bit dampened.
Easier urban lives, the need to continue education and over five hours of steep separation from the nearest motor road – in Kamichu – have taken and kept Athang’s own at bay.
Athang Community School was, previously, Athang Primary School but has been downgraded for students in attendance have been steadily declining over the years. From 50 students in 2010 when the school started amidst much local anticipation, the number has plummeted to 14 in 2011. And in just two years, locals are hearing talks of the school drawing down the shutters.
After schooling in the community is completed, the children are then sent away to boarding schools or relatives, mostly in Gaselo or Thimphu, and that’s when Athang starts seeing less of them each year until they grow estranged from their roots. Locals fear that the 2,000-year old community itself would see a similar fate if the trend continues.
“I can well imagine a day when the last house locks down,” said an apprehensive Agay Passang, who last saw a car two years ago during a zomdu in Kamichu and now, with a broken leg, will probably never see one, except in death for the village takes it’s dead to Wangdue. He has no children.
Only during vacations and Choku (annual pooja) do people come home and that, years apart and just days long.
“I haven’t been to my village in five years,” said Dechen, wiping her brows of sweat and glancing with distaste up the rest of the mountainside, an hour of the same below. Dechen works in Thimphu and is going home for the choku with her mother. They will be back in Thimphu within a week.
Tshering, a Kelki class XII student, is also home for the winter holidays. She has not qualified for a government college and has not yet decided between a private college and a repeat year in school but either way, she will have to leave soon.
“There is no opportunity for me here,” Tshering said. “A job is the only prospect for me right now to provide a better life for my family.” She dreams of being able to take her family to a modern place, to a place far from the daily hardships of her village.
The Gup is, however, toiling hard to change the fate of the village with the mother of all means, a road. He has said no to a ropeway and is still working towards a road. “A road would not be far from a revolution for Athang,” said Tshogpa Sonam Dorji.
Athangpas, however, are reserved in their expectations. “We have already been promised one in the 2008 election campaigns and that’s the only time we have had even a whiff of a road,” said Aum Chado. The Athang School, many locals joke, is a simulation of the community itself.
“From class VI to class III, and now they are even talking about shutting it down completely. Who is to say our village will not go the same way,” jokes Pasa; he is home for a month from Phobjikha where he farms potatoes.
Where urban centers cry for dearth of schools, Athang shall cry for want of students and, for whatever uncanny predictions Pasa’s jest may hold.