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Volunteer Voice from Bhutan
29 December 2000
by Sonia Josserand-Mercier, UNV IT Trainer

The greatest qualities required of a UN volunteer are "flexibility and adaptability". At the time I was not too sure what it really meant, but now it has become quite clear and I couldn't agree more with the UN Volunteer who told me that a while ago.

I've been in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, for a month now. I am working as an IT (information technology) Trainer in the only Youth Center in the country. The Youth Center is a huge building (a bit like in The Shining) which used to be a hotel for dignitaries attending the coronation of the present king in the early 70s. Later it became to expensive to run and the building was given to the Ministry of Health and Education to host the Youth and Guidance Counseling Division and the Youth Center. It is 7kms away from town high up at 2600m in the middle of a pine forest. This is also where I live at the moment as there is a major housing shortage in Thimphu. It is a long way to the nearest Internet connection!

Bhutan really started with IT only a year and a half ago. The country had a few computers before, but its IT strategy has really kicked off in mid-1999 with the set up of the first (and still unique) ISP. Email and the Internet has seduced the youth in particular, but that is for those lucky enough to study in a wired institute.

While the country is slowly equipping itself with hardware, the lack of skilled people in the country is a major issue. Also, because IT is new here, there is a need to strengthen the existing IT awareness programs. IT workshops are currently being offered to teachers from various schools in the country since Bhutan plans to have computers in every school by 2020. UNDP is now offering for the second time in 6 months, free access cards to the Internet cafes in Thimphu to young people. The Royal Government of Bhutan is aware of the fact that the infrastructure, the hardware and the IT Trainers are necessary to make the next generation truly computer literate. As an IT trainer, my principal task is to design and deliver IT courses for both the youth coming at the Youth Center, and to develop training programs for trainers to ensure sustainability. IT courses should range from basic computer literacy skills, to using office applications and email, and of course Internet training.

Over the past 6 months, the Youth Center has offered a unique 50 hours "computer course" which is quite popular among the youth who want to keep pace with the world and increase their chances to get a job in a country starting to face the problem of unemployment.

At the Youth Center we have a computer lab with 14 computers which may sound like luxury. However, the machines do not have the same specs nor run the same version of Windows, there is no LAN (local area network), no printing facility and no telephone line, which means no connection to the Internet. How to explain and practice what a network is, or a shared drive, how to send a message or surf the web is still impossible. When I first arrived I was also horrified to see that out of 7 sockets on the wall only 2 were in working order, which meant that 7 machines were plugged in onto 1 socket!! Eventually an electrician came last week (apparently he had promised to come for months) to fix the electrical system

The students often ask me for handouts which I would love to give them if only I could find enough paper somewhere and a photocopier with toner in it!

I have learned how to recycle every bit of paper, how not to lose any pen, how to re-use bits of cello-tape, how to systematically photocopy on both side of a sheet, how to work in a freezing room without a heater, how to work without a flipchart and how to make a presentation in a meeting room without a beamer and without a computer I share an office with the other IT instructor but until yesterday I had no table and no chair and there is no computer for me so, I often work at home on my laptop (I'm so glad I have one!) but I also know how risky that is without a surge protector in a country where voltage can unpredictably rush 400 volts through your equipment and burn it in a second.

Being adaptable is also a quality required outside work! It took me about a week to get properly organized for things as simple as taking a hot shower when there is no shower and no hot water, or washing clothes and bed sheets by hand in the absence of washing machine. It is in fact a bit like camping indoors! I have become the queen of recycling: a tin becomes an ashtray or a candle holder, elastic bands and newspapers are put aside for a VSO volunteer who makes wheelchair seats out of them for her young patients at the hospital, a plastic bag is used, washed and re-used as often as possible, and a wooden stick can have many functions such as walking stick, door holder and dogs fencer (wild dogs are everywhere)

But I love my life here. Everybody is incredibly friendly and I have made lots of friends already, many Bhutanese and a few foreigners as well, but I often prefer the company of the local people. There is so much more to learn and exchange with them. We laugh a lot because of the way I pronounce some Dzongkha words and the way I put on the traditional dress! (very complicated!!!). Often at the week-end I go trekking in the mountains. Most of the time I go with other volunteers, but last week I went with a Bhutanese friend really high up to a monastery that clings to the mountain by some incredible miracle. The view over the Himalayas from there was impressive. I didn't want to get down again... I would have loved to stay up there close to the sky in the magic peacefulness of that tiny village at 3900m... not yet reached by the Internet!