A group of men and women are practising a performance at the school ground in Bebji village of Sangbaykha gewog, Haa.

The group consists of elderly non-formal education (NFE) learners.

The NFE learners at the last centre in Sangbaykha applaud after each performance. Harka Bahadur Rai is one of the learners.

The 53-year-old is  undergoing the NFE’s basic literacy course. His eldest child will graduate from college this year.

“Last year, our madam nearly left us,” he said, pointing to a young lady standing by the group observing their dance moves.

He said that when the NFE instructor, Tshering Yangzom, announced her decision to quit, they requested her to stay for a year more.

The lone non-formal education (NFE) instructor in Sangbaykha gewog, Haa, said she decided to quit after 16 years of service. “But the learners were not sure if a substitute would come when I leave, so they asked me to stay,” Tshering Yangzom said.

She said she reconsidered her decision fearing that if she left, the students, comprising mainly of elderly farmers, might drop out. “Most of them have made good progress and withdrawing at this point won’t be good.”

Harka Bahadur Rai said he is happy that the instructor chose to stay. “I want to learn as much as I can before the course ends,” he said.

His classmate and nephew, Panchaman Rai, said the NFE programme helped people understand the rule of law and build a harmonious community.

He said he wants to contest as tshogpa to represent the village and the NFE would help him learn the basics.

NFE learners, however, say that with NFE centres closing in the locality, they are worried that their’s might close too.

The NFE centre at Nakha village closed in 2010, the Shaba-Shebji centre closed in 2013, and the Nakhekha centre closed in 2015.

The NFE centre at Bebji has 17 students, including the post-literacy course learners.

Haa had 12 centres in 2014 with 127 female learners, and 14 instructors. In 2015, the centres dropped to 10 with 102 learners of which 60 were female.

In 2016, there were 12 centres with 155 learners and in 2017 the dzongkhag had 18 centres with 142 learners.

Across the country, there were 8,079 learners in 774 centres in 2014; in 2015 there were 7,618 learners in 721 centres; in 2016 there were 7,236 learners in 674 centres, and in 2017 there were 6,668 learners in 668 centres.

The programme had benefited about 174,000 learners as of 2014. As of May 2017, there were 7,236 learners attending basic literacy courses and post-literacy courses in 674 centres with 682 instructors.

A report on NFE 2015 states that the graduates were able to participate in religious activities like ‘throema tshokpa’ and ‘melam tshokpa’.  The graduates took a lead role in their community developmental activities such as the formation of vegetable groups. Besides, few NFE graduates had become community leader by shouldering the responsibility of gup, mangmi and tshogpa.

The National Women Association of Bhutan (NWAB) initiated NFE programme in 1981 to empower women. Dzongkha Development Commission took over the programme in 1992.

Later, looking at its appropriateness, the education division took over the NFE programme in 1993 diversifying the programme by starting Continuing Education (CE) in 2006 and Community Learning Centre (CLC) in 2003.

Meanwhile, Bebji tshogpa Pema Gyeltshen said the chiwog needs one more centre. “Some of the learners have to walk for more than an hour to the centre from the other end of the village.”

Bebji is made up of houses scattered over a gentle slope opposite Sangbay Ama village. Both villages are more than three hours drive from Haa.

As the performances conclude, every one disperses. Classmates Harka Bahadur Rai and Panchaman Rai head home. There is no class today but the centre has remained open for the learners.

Tshering Palden | Sangbaykha