High desert, high mountains, thin air, ancient Buddhist monasteries, and intensely blue skies–this is Ladakh, or the Ladakh that most tourists know. But there are other Ladakhs to know, worlds inside of worlds that most visitors to Ladakh are not aware of.
When we arrived in the village of Domkhar, 120 kilometers from Leh, I knew I had arrived in a different world. Village elders calmly rimmed the gathering area in front of the school, prayer wheels spinning in their hands, mothers sat with their children in their laps, and thermoses of tea from each family waited beneath the tent shade. The village’s community spirit was palpable as the entire village welcomed us in a ceremony that celebrated the community’s recent accomplishments. Located in a beautiful, narrow valley with sheer cliffs made of uplifted conglomerate earth on the side of the Indus River Valley, Domkhar is home to approximately 32 families who farm apricots, barley and a variety of vegetables on terraced plots. Intelligently, the villagers have channeled water to run by the houses and along the walkway that winds up through the village. The night we spent in Domkhar, the moon’s light, one day short of full, shone so intensely that it lit up the whole valley–the immense, rust-red mountains, the fields of thick barley, the blue sky, all shyly emerging from beneath night’s cloak. Two years ago this past April, the area got in one day the amount of rain that they would normally receive in 50 years, resulting in mudslides that carried away bridges, houses, people, and much of the valley’s good soil used for farming, replacing it with rock. The whole region is still recovering, as is Domkhar.
I went to Domkhar with my husband Michael as part of the Partners in Education teacher training work we do with teachers in Ladakh, and also with the Tibetan Children’s Village Schools here in India. This was our second visit to Ladakh, and our school principal from the American Embassy School and one of our technology teachers, Gagan Soni, accompanied us. The purpose for our visit was to observe teachers teaching in their classrooms in order to get a better understanding of their situation and needs, and to give them feedback on the ideas they have put into practice ideas from our previous teacher training workshops that they have attended over the past couple of years since we began our work with them.
Teaching in the Ladakh region is challenging for numerous reasons. The Indian government considers the Ladakh area a hardship posting, so the government moves teachers to different villages every three years, sometimes more often. One of the teachers in the village of Domkhar has been moved six times in one year. Her child is one year old and has rarely seen his father since birth. Children who have a parent who is a teacher often only have one parent present with them in the home. Another challenge for teachers in the region is that the tests and text books are in English, while the local language is Ladakhi, a language which is not taught in schools, and the official language of the country they live in is Hindi. Neither teachers or students feel they are competent speakers, readers or writers in any of these languages. Also, schools often have very few books or resources to assist them, in addition to the fact that in India beginning teachers are required to have only one year of training beyond high school. These, and other other challenges make it difficult for teachers to be adequately prepared to teach, thus affecting the quality of the education they are able to give their students.
While the situation is very challenging, teachers continue on with their work. Villages like Spituk, Matho and Dhomkhar believe in the value of education for their children. In Domkhar, for example, the village has raised the money for their own school building and for a satellite so they can communicate on the laptops that our school, AES, donated for their use. They have also raised money for a micro-hydro generator so that they can create electricity for their school and community. A new project for them now is that they are adding on a new section to their school using the plastic bottle construction method that a number of locations in Latin America have begun to use as a way of recycling plastics. Tashi Thokmat, the Domkhar village leader enthusiastically shared with us his news yesterday that as part of World Environmental Day, the villagers of Domkhar have made an appeal to tourists and citizens of Ladakh to place their used plastic bottles in collection containers. These containers as of yesterday are placed in various hotels in Leh. The villagers will then take the bottles back to their village and use them for their new building. “We can’t stop the plastic bottles but we can reuse those empty plastic bottles in many other ways” the villagers explain in their appeal to hoteliers–an appeal which made it into last night’s TV news. The vision the villagers are creating together has built a strong sense of community and citizenship, so much so that the young people who have gone away to Delhi to university want to come back to the village to live because they feel committed to their community.
People like Cynthia Hunt of HEALTH Inc., among other NGOs, are helping Ladakhis to improve their lives. Still, after their numerous accomplishments the Domkhar teachers ask “What can we do to improve?” This is the question we all have when we want to change our lives and make things better. In the midst of difficult situations, however, a number of Ladakhis are already doing a variety of things that create hope. While the main source of income for Ladakhis is tourism and more and more hotels are being built, the hotels use water from aquifers that is drawn up for use. This is an unsustainable process, however, as Ladakh is a desert. Water is scarce and the water withdrawn is not replaceable. One of the teachers who works at one the local government schools, Chetan Anchok, is writing scripts for production on local TV, and radio plays for a program called Family Serial, a popular program for Ladakhis. The purpose of the scripts he writes for these programs is to make Ladakhis more aware of social issues and of how to use environmental resources sustainably. The teachers in Domkhar are reaching out to attend teacher trainings and they are working to understand and apply new skills and to improve their English, as are the other teachers we are working with in the schools around Leh and in the Tibetan Children’s Village Schools. It is a slow process and the need is great but small changes make bigger, systemic changes more possible, and they make difficult situations feel more bearable.
Since moving to India five years ago, I have often struggled with how to respond compassionately to the enormous social problems present here. No matter what one might do to alleviate the poverty one sees, it seems it will be but a grain of sand in the vast desert of need. I have been reading the book 106 Impossible Things To Do Before Breakfast, by Robert Quine and John Nolan, a book of exercises to keep the mind creatively looking at solutions to problems that seem impossible such as doing laundry without soap, telling time with a broken clock, or taking a shower without water, etc. The authors describe three key ideas for a person to keep in mind when dealing with impossible situations: “1. Consider all the possibilities, 2. Accomplishing the impossible takes a lot of work, 3. Everything is possible.” The authors describe that though problems may seem impossible, you have to open your mind to get rid of preconceptions to find ways around the obstacles. Once you do, you will start looking at the world in a different way. You’ll see it alive with possibilities, not barriers.” Beneath Ladakh’s raw and elemental beauty is a world of work to do to create a better quality of life for its inhabitants. Working together, constructive change can be made. There is no way around the fact that the problems are large, that the work will be hard, and that it will take time, lots of it, but the world remains alive with possibility.