Last Sunday morning, I observed a group of youths gathering outside my hotel in Thimphu, the capital of the Kingdom of Bhutan. Curious, I joined the crowd and found that they were volunteers from various youth groups gathered for the Clean Up Bhutan project, which coincided with the United Nations’ Clean The World Day (21-23 Sep).
Having a free Sunday, I decided to join the group and followed them on their trail around the streets of Thimphu.
The event was initiated by Mr Dorji Wangchuck from the Department of Youth and Sports in the Ministry of Education. He wanted to mobilise youths from various youth groups together to get them to make a change in their living environment. Mr Dorji was earlier working in a rural school and was the school’s scoutmaster. Frustrated that his school was often passed over for many activities because it was too remote to be allowed to participate, he jumped on the opportunity to be based in the capital to follow his passion of driving volunteerism and youth activity across the country when the post was opened up.
The event started late. Apparently, the truck from the municipal that was to deliver the collection bags, gloves and tools for the clean up did not show up. Undaunted, Mr Dorji gave a pep talk and managed to move the group to get supplies donated by nearby shops to get the event going.
It was already getting hot at around 10 am. The enthusiastic youths fanned out in two groups towards two parts of the town. I followed one group. A little later, I noticed some had gloves. I wasn’t sure if those were donated by a shop or the supplies did come later. We went through around 10 km of streets zig-zagging between alleys until we reached the collection bins in the Tourism Centre where the bags of garbage were emptied before piping hot food was delivered to them in Mr Dorji’s car.Later, I realised that the food was paid for by Mr Dorji himself. A supposed sponsor for the event did not turn up and there was no refreshments. Not wanting to disappoint the youths which may discourage them from future volunteering, Mr Dorji went to buy his own food. I heard it cost around 3,000 nultrums (Bhutanese currency, which is about $60). As a civil service officer, I figured it would cost him around 15% of his monthly salary, a substantial investment for a day in his volunteerism work. His remarkable spirit in wanting to mobilise youths for change and to spread the message that we can all do our part in improving the world around us is admirable.
Later that afternoon, another group came out to the Clock Tower Square outside my hotel. I knew this group. I had met Mr Sagar Guring earlier at the Musk Restaurant in the Square where he and his friends frequent in the evenings. He had invited me to see their weekly Sunday cleaning routine for the Square using a group of volunteers.
Two months ago, the owner of Musk Ms Diki and her friend, Mr Tshering Yonten (a retired top government official now in private business) were musing about the amount of waste people were putting around town, and across the country. Being Green is something that is part of the Gross National Happiness (GNH) concept and even taught in schools. However, with increasing urbanisation and people forgetting what they were taught in school, garbage is being thrown indiscriminately. They decided they can do something, at least in the environment around them.
They mobilised a group of friends, numbering around 15 and started a Sunday cleaning campaign around the Clock Tower Square. Theirs was a little more serious, regular and organised than the morning youth group. They have invested in brooms, gloves, pails and even made name tags for themselves. They call their group the Jurwa Club. Jurwa is the Bhutanese word for Change. Change because they wanted people to change their mentality about garbage. Change because they believe people are capable of change to improve the environment around them.
This group is comprised of young adults to retired folks, all well spoken, mostly professionals and business people. After over 2 months, there is currently over 20 people turning up each week, depending on whoever is available. Most make it a point to keep this Sunday afternoon date. Being more experienced professionals, some with media background, they were able to mobilise the media to cover the event to drive home the message to the rest of Bhutan that each should initiate change to take care of the environment around themselves.
With better tools, they go about cleaning up the tougher dirt and garbage around the Square. An hour later, all hot and sweaty, they completed their task. Tools were returned, washed and stored up for next week’s cycle, and the group were rewarded with tea and cookies from Musk restaurant.
In observing these two clean-up events, I was reminded of the many “Use Your Hands” and cleaning campaigns I had gone through as a student in school decades ago. Our campaigns too were to drive home the message of the importance of cleanliness and to do our part (use our hands) to make things happen.
I recall once while in Junior College, some from our class initiated a night hike across Pulau Ubin island. We trekked through plantations and reached the northern end of the island when it was pitch dark and camped there for the night. The next day, we packed up to go. Some of us had left their rubbish behind in the deserted beach. One of the group members picked up the rubbish and carried these with him. The nearest dustbin must be at least 5 km away, back through the plantations we had trekked through. No one else would know we had put rubbish in the beach if we had done so. Yet this member reminded us that we should handle our waste properly. So everyone picked up every bit of waste that we had created on the beach and carried them till we came to the first dustbin miles away.
I can still remember this till today because it was a powerful message sent by one member to the rest in the group that we can take control of our environment. We can choose to keep it clean. We can choose to change and inspire others to change. Never underestimate the power of a few to inspire others to change by your simple actions. Jurwa – for a better world.