The temperature has dipped to -1°C. and with dark clouds hovering, rain is imminent in Merak, Trashigang. Merak, located at an altitude of more than 3,000m above sea level, is one of the remotest nomad communities in eastern Bhutan where they primarily rear yak and cattle for daily sustenance.

But the weather doesn’t deter the students of Merak Primary School, who are busy practising for a cultural show. The students have been preparing for the event for almost a week. The school started on Apr 1.

Choki Wangdi is one of the performers. The Class V student stands out for his height. He is 17 and the oldest at the school. Five years ago, Choki Wangdi left school to become a monk.

“As a child, I always wanted to become a monk. But my parents wanted me to go to school,” he said. “When I was in class V, I told my parents that I could no longer pursue school education. I wanted to become a monk.”

In 2013, he left for the Jangtse monastery in Mysore, India. There he had few friends from the village who had left before him. However, after four years at the monastery, Choki Wangdi changed his mind. “It was easier said than done. I was unable to cope with the discipline and culture at the monastery,” he said.

Choki Wangdi returned home last year and decided to join school again. “Working as a farmer was not an option for me. I was helping my father with the cattle after I returned to the village but it was difficult,” he said. “I then decided that I would go back to school and my parents were supportive of the decision.”

It is only in recent years that parents in this remote area of Bhutan are starting to send their children to school.

Today, Choki Wangdi’s former classmates are in class X studying at various central schools in Trashigang. “When I see my friends I regret my decision to drop out of school. Had I continued, I would be at their level,” he said.

The eldest in the family, Choki Wangdi is concerned that his younger sister, who is in class III, and brother, who is in class II, might catch up with him. “I’m trying my best to study hard this time. I’ll do my best for I want to become an army officer and support my parents.”

Unlike other highland schools, enrolment at Merak Primary School has been increasing over the last few years. This year, the school saw 177 students compared to 157 last year. However, between 2013 and 2016, the number of students decreased annually.

School principal, Zung Dorji, said that unlike in the past, parents are now aware about the importance of education. He said that the practice by parents to take their children out of school in the middle of an academic session has stopped. “Parents want their children to complete class XII at least.”

Although the school couldn’t provide boarding facilities, Zung Dorji said the students are provided breakfast and lunch. He said that until last year, parents who had their children at the school had to provide 225 cubic cm of firewood for every enrolled child.

“We think that doing away such a practice has also encouraged the parents to enroll their children in school,” the principal said.

A resident, Tshering Dema, said that in the past, enrolling a child into school was akin to imposing a tax on the family. “We depended solely on animals and by sending our children to school, there was no one to look after the cattle,” she said.

She, however, said that with several developmental activities coming to the community, life has become easier. “Facilities like road, electricity and communication networks has empowered those in the highlands to pursue activities other than just rearing cattle,” she said.

“This, in turn, has enabled parents to send their children to schools.”

Another resident, Tashi, said that despite being provided free education, the highlanders failed to reap the benefits until now. “Our children can also become officers if they are allowed to study. We have restricted this opportunity so far.”

He said times have changed and so has their outlook. “Education is important and henceforth, we’ll support and encourage our children to pursue education.” – Kuensel (Bhutan)/Asia News Network