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The blind children of the Himalayas

Life is hard in total darkness for thousands of blind children in the small Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. And yet there is a ray of light on the horizon, made possible by Austria’s Mission "Licht für die Welt".

Blind children at morning prayer in the school at Khaling, Bhutan
Picture by T. Micke

It is a wonderful little patch of earth, a valley in full spring bloom with all it’s colours that finally opens out at our feet, after the very last mountain pass and more than 20 hours of winding roads on a spiralling mountain road between 300 and 3750 metres above sea-level. The small town of Khaling lies right in the East of the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. And when the small state is difficult for visitors to access, because King Wangchuk mistrusts the western trekking-mania in the Himalaya region, then it really is once in a blue moon that a foreign tourist arrives in this remote corner of the country on the Indian-Tibetan border.

Every morning at eight o’clock on the dot Ugyen Dorji and his some 40 school companions gather for morning prayer in front of the yellow-orange national flag with the symbol of the dragon. Most of these children do not know the beauty of their homeland and the spring colours of late April. Only Ugyen’s eight-year-old friend Rinchin remembers the snow-capped holy mountains. It was two years ago that fateful day when his father, an instrument maker, sent him into the shed to get a bottle of chemical. On the way back Rinchin stumbled and unluckily fell in such a way that the corrosive liquid took his sight from him.

Here in Khaling, in a small area on the outskirts of the local public school, the Austrian "Licht für die Welt" Mission for the Blind is running from today it’s first project, supported by UNICEF, which is to aid to prepare blind and handicapped children for an independent life and integration into society. This is real pioneering work in this wonderful but very poor country, where there is still no infrastructure for the (estimated) around 1000 blind people. Lots of team work and improvisational talents will be demanded from the few teachers as well as the school children in Khaling: At least those who can see a little or who have a physical disability, respectively lead blind school companions over the bumpy area from the dormitory to the classroom or to lunch and back, or help them to get used to the white tactile stick, which can now be professionally practiced after the involvement a few months ago of the Mission for the Blind.

In reverse, for instance, the vision-impaired boys help their roommate Dorji, who can only move with the use of crutches after a serious car accident, by carrying his books and making his bed.

Prayer banners on a mountain pass in Bhutan
Picture by T. Micke

"There is a beautiful fable here in Bhutan", tells the 35 year-old school director Karma Tshering. "It talks of an elephant, an ape, a hare and a pheasant, who decide to plant a mango tree together. The pheasant seeks and finds the seed, the hare waters the young sprout, the ape fertilises it and the elephant keeps watch over it. When the tree bears its first fruit, it has grown so big and beautiful, that once again the animals can only reach the sweet fruit together in a team. – Even our small school, with such limited means, can function according to this principle. If everyone, teacher or pupil alike, but also the helpful people in Austria who are supporting our project, brings what they can."

Besides the teacher training specific to blind peoples needs, the "Licht für die Welt"-Engagement has the urgent project of translating the school texts from the local dialect Dzongkha into Braille. A small printer for Braille-books has just been built. In addition, the school’s old and warped wood-oven kitchen will be renovated so that even the blind pupils can learn to cook there, so that later on they are able to care for themselves.

The story of the 12-year-old girl Nurbu, who belongs to a nomadic family high in the mountains above Khaling shows just how much the fate of the handicapped boys and girls in Bhutan depends on chance and luck. The teacher in the village discovered by chance the severely vision-impaired girl, when the family of herdsmen were selling cheese and milk at the weekly market. He convinced the parents of the school project that is for circumstances in Bhutan very unusual. At the beginning Norbu was taken to be completely blind and therefore learnt Braille writing. Only after an examination by the Christoffel Mission for the Blind did it become evident that the girl could learn to read and write "normally" with the help of special glasses. An opportunity that up until now thousands of blind children in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan could only dream of.

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© A report by Tobias Micke (05-05-02) – Contact