Christmas is in the Giving
Bhutan. “Land of the Thunder Dragons”, with a Himalayan Mountains backbone. The Happiest Kingdom in the world. China to the North, India to the South. Slightly smaller than Switzerland.
Kiba Wangmo lived in the small village of Phatsuma, about 150ks east of the capital, Thimphu. Kiba had heard what a beautiful city Thimphu was, but could not imagine how it looked. She had never travelled there and most likely never would.
Kiba was twelve years old, a happy, good natured child whose greatest joy came from attending the tiny local school. A teacher came to their village two days each week to instruct the students in writing, reading and basic mathematics. On those days, Kiba got up earlier than usual so she could feed the goat and chickens before she left home. Two families provided food for the goat, and its milk was shared between them, but she enjoyed looking after it each day. All the fowls shared the two fortunate roosters in the village, so each family regularly had young chickens for eggs and meat.
Her younger brother, Tandin Dorji brought wood in for his mother to start the fire to make their breakfast. A large metal frame used to support the cooking pots stood over the open fire pit. Every morning they had the national dish, ema dashes, for breakfast - chilli and goat’s cheese with nutty red rice.
Kiba played with her three-year-old brother Sangay Tenzin for a while, then brushed her hair, plaited it neatly, and put on her dress, ready for school. She and Tandin walked along the dirt road to the hut where the classes were held. In springtime, the fallen petals from jacaranda trees made a purple swathe along the roadside and they pretended to be rich people walking on an expensive carpet.
Her brother often ran ahead to meet his friend while she finished the short journey alone. ‘Hurry up Kiba,’ he’d call to her. Kiba walked slowly, placing her left foot carefully. She had leprosy and, even though she had it bandaged, a sore on her foot was rubbed by the flip flops she wore.
The doctor, who visited the village fortnightly, gave her medication and told her in six to twelve months she would be cured. She calculated she had another seven months before she would be completely free of the disease. It was the one thing in her life that brought her sadness. She had to be careful to not breathe, sneeze or cough near anyone as the disease was passed on by mucus. Fortunately, the old myths and fear of leprosy had been overcome by health education, so she was not banned from the village, and had a normal life.
A large, ancient monastery was built into the mountain on the opposite side of the deep valley, and Kiba often stood and gazed at it while helping her parents to tend their terraced rice paddies. Sometimes she could see the tiny figures of monks in red tunics walking around when they were preparing for a sky burial. The circling vultures always gave her the shivers. When she went to the Buddhist temple with her parents, Kiba asked Buddha to please make her completely well quickly. She watched the other girls running, jumping, playing sports and dancing with such freedom and happiness. She longed to be able to join in with their games.
Summer was coming to an end, and winter would soon bring cold winds and snow from the mountains. Last winter, Kiba remembered, members of a Christian church in the nearby town of Chamkhar came for their Christmas festival and gave each child a piece of fruit and some pencils and a notebook for their school work. Kiba was excited to receive the little gifts, and hoped they would come again this year.
Kiba’s mother was teaching her to weave the wool from the cashmere goats owned by the little town. The finished goods were folded neatly, wrapped and packed into woven bamboo leaf baskets. They were then sent to Chamkhar for sale each year, profits being shared by the families in the village. Winter winds pushed cold air up through the wooden floorboards and the women laid out heavy matting to block the gaps. Kiba’s thin socks barely kept her feet warm now and the sore throbbed from the cold. She would not ask her mother, but hoped some of the money from selling the woven goods this year could buy her some new, warm shoes.
As she concentrated on the pattern for the scarf she was making, Kiba heard children’s voices and squeals of laughter, and walked to the door to see what was happening. Her friend Sonam Pena was running towards her, calling her to come quickly, the Christian lady was here with gifts. Kiba wriggled her feet into her flip flops and hurried as fast as she could to the crowd of children in the centre of the village.
Chaaya came from India. She worked for The Leprosy Mission and had brought gifts for the children to celebrate the Christian festival of Christmas. All the children were given fruit, pencils and notebooks again, and were very excited. Kiba looked around quickly for Tandin, and saw he already had his gifts.
Chaaya smiled at the happy faces and asked, ‘Is Kiba Wangmo here?’
Kiba was so surprised this lady knew her name, she couldn’t speak but just looked at her. Some of the children pointed at her and shouted, ‘There she is.’
The lady walked through the group of children and stopped in front of Kiba. ‘Are you Kiba Wamgmo?’
‘Yes, I am,’ she replied uncertainly.
Chaaya pulled a parcel out of the almost empty bag and gave it to Kiba. ‘I have a very special gift for you,’ she said with a gentle smile. Kiba opened the parcel, being careful to not tear the pretty paper. She held up a beautiful pair of new shoes, specially made and padded to protect her sore foot. She bowed respectfully, said ‘Thank you. Thank you,’ then turned and hurried as quickly as she could back home to show her mother.
As soon as she entered the door, she kicked off her old flip flops and slipped her feet into her new shoes. ‘Look at me dance, Mamma,’ she shouted as she twirled around the room, arms held high, dress flying. Laughing; dancing for joy in her Christmas sandals.
Leprosy bacteria affects the nerves with loss of feeling in arms and legs, and is spread by repeated contact of mucus. It takes 5 years to incubate. With antibiotics, can now be successfully cured in 6-12 months. Mostly affects children.
No family surnames in Bhutan - all are different.