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WFP Rep In Bhutan Describes Hungry Childhood

Dungkar Drupka runs WFP’s food assistance operations in the south Asian nation of Bhutan. In this article he describes his impoverished childhood in a mountain village and his first experiences of school. He also talks about a conversation he had with a school boy he met many years later, when visiting a remote school as WFP representative.

THIMPHU -- It was not that I had no appetite for eating, nor that my parents loved me any less compared to my other siblings, we simply had nothing much to eat at home back in 1973. That was when I first got to ride in an automobile and to travel 98 kilometres south to my late uncle’s place. A stranger showed up to meet me, and told me that my Mom’s late sister would support me to go to school. For reasons I today understand well, I was somehow excited, pleased, and just wanted to get on with things.

At school I was excited by the new things I was being introduced to. We used to get ‘world food’ (as it used to be known affectionately) that consisted of oil, floor, rice, dhal, fish, and wheat (known then as “bulgar”). Sometimes we would get extremely tasty Australian rice, or huge lumps of dry fish, especially delicious for those of us who had been forced to grow up vegetarian. 


Eating some of these foods for the first time, I also recall an uneasiness in my belly, which  was unaccustomed to this good food. More often than not, we would get sufficient food every day, and did not miss even a single meal). I know that hunger erodes concentration but  cannot recollect well how the food contributed to my being able to pay attention in   class, though I do remember dozing off at times in the afternoon classes after a filling  lunch! As time moved on, I met many friends, including the cooks and the teachers. I started enjoying games and sports and participating in cultural activities. It was a totally different life then, compared to the near penury of life back in the village, where you ate less, worked more and if you were really unlucky might get thrashed when someone was drunk.

Something connected me

But life goes on, you know, time moves on. You grow up. When the advert for my current post at WFP appeared, instinct told me that it was a job for me. Beyond the natural economic aspirations, something connected me to the position. I am not looking for any alternatives, nor will I ever do, because I know I now have a real purpose of living, as evidenced by Tashi during one of my field visits to a remote school in Bhutan.

Tashi Jamtsho, aged seven, lost his dad, after which his mom married another man who wouldn’t care for him. Tashi lived with his grandma, and had to walk for about an hour to get to school every day. If he was late, he would turn back for fear of being punished. At school, he would watch others eating their lunch from the school veranda. When asked why he didn’t play, he gave me this shocking answer: “It made me hungrier”. Today, Tashi is never late to the school, nor does he need to watch others eat because WFP provides him and others like him with a hot, nutritious breakfast and lunch. Tashi’s innocence touched me – it was a déjà vu for me, and continues to be a source of inspiration for the little meaningful things I am now able to do.

In the high Himalayas

I continue to remain inspired by WFP – not by what it is, but by what it is doing, meaningfully. Lodged somewhere amidst the rugged mountains, high in the high Himalayas, seemingly happy, I will continue with this life and purpose, with this organization, because someday, Tashi will grow up too, and tell someone this story, without necessarily even mentioning the WFP acronym and its magical benedictions.

Life, as provisioned by the Bhutan constitution, is a fundamental right. For me, what I am doing now is a fundamental duty, without which I should not live. Tashi will not understand this today - he is too occupied with the angst of hunger, which is really no more than an accident of his birth.

I think we still have a choice to make this world of ours better. From 1975 till 1986, WFP gave me this choice through the food they provided and that is why, today, I am a proud global citizen. Many of my contemporaries from this poor but happy nation will tell a very similar story – WFP gave us opportunities that otherwise we would never have known.