“The Best Way To Find Yourself Is To Lose Yourself In The Service Of Others”
She is, without a doubt, Bhutan’s longest serving volunteer and philanthropist. For decades she has worked quietly and dedicatedly behind the scenes for Bhutan’s impoverished, destitute, ostracized, and sick, touching thousands of ordinary Bhutanese lives in a way few have. Her name is on the lips of many whose lives she has changed. It is only fair then that on this International Volunteers day, we pay tribute to this amazing Bhutanese woman who has given off herself so selflessly and generously, not just for the Bhutanese people, but also for many beyond its borders in countries like Cambodia, Nepal, Thailand and India.
Ashi Kesang Wangmo Wangchuck is no ordinary woman. She may be a princess, the daughter of the late Third King, His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, and younger sister to Fourth King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, but in Bhutan she is known more famously for her work with the Lepers, and now more recently with the hospital supporting numerous programs under pediatrics, maternity, kidney, psychiatry and cancer.
Sangay Penjore, 62 is an old friend of Ashi’s having met her almost 40 years ago when she was but 13 years of age and he was about 20. “She was just a student studying in the U.K and I was working at the Department of Manpower,” he said. After being introduced, Ashi invited Sangay and a group of friends for a meal and thus started a life-long friendship. “It was during these times in the 70’s, when she was on holidays that Ashi learned about the sad and alarming prevalence of the leprosy epidemic in our country,” Sangay Penjore said. A new drug called Rifampicin that helped build resistance to leprosy had emerged on the market and according to Sangay, Ashi had heard about this. At that time Bhutan had leprosy hospitals in Gidakom, Khaling, Yebilepcha and Wamrong, and they were all full. Bhutan was aid reliant and there was little ordinary Bhutanese could do. The scourge was taking a toll on innocent lives across the country and Lepers were people who were being shunned and ostracized by communities. But in an era where there was no treatment, this was the only way to deal with it – set up leprosy colonies as far away from human habitation. “Each tablet cost Nu.1,200 which was a lot of money those days so Ashi began in earnest to raise funds.” According to Sangay, they organized Jam sessions, auctions, fairs, and even went door-to-door collecting donations – money, clothes, shoes – whatever they could get. “She didn’t want us to sit on the sidelines watching,” he said.
I think she is in many ways responsible for eliminating Leprosy in Bhutan
By the time she was 18, people close to her say they could see this was her calling – to improve the lives of her fellow people. In a radical move she dropped out of college in California to pursue fieldwork in the Leprosy Control Program in Bhutan. According to Sangay, Ashi decided to go and live in one of the ostracized Leper colonies in Patpachu, Lhuntse. During her time there, she was physically active in their daily care. Sangay, who witnessed Ashi at work, said she kept herself busy assisting the health workers by taking blood samples, washing patients wounds, and chatting with them. Nado, a government employee, and now a well-known photographer, who was also a part of Ashi’s entourage to the east said, “It was humbling to watch Ashi nursing, washing and changing pus-soaked bandages and consoling patients. She is a true Bodhisattva.” He wouldn’t be the only one to call her that.
“I think she is in many ways responsible for eliminating Leprosy in Bhutan,” said Sangay Penjore. And he is not alone in this thought. “ She was definitely a pioneer, when it came to this kind of work,” said Dr. Chencho Dorji a psychiatrist at Thimphu Hospital. “Ashi and Dr. Sonam Tenzin, along with many of her friends have done wonders in this field of work,” he said. “They were responsible for reducing the stigma related to this illness,” he said.
Dr. Chencho said that Bhutan had the assistance of Missionaries, Overseas Volunteers and our own health workers, but Ashi and her group gave it emphasis and due importance that highlighted this cause. Over the years Leprosy cases declined considerably to the point it was eliminated. “The number of cases dropped to 1 per 1000 which means that it had reached the point of elimination.”Thanks to Ashi and the dedicated Leprosy workers, Bhutan saw a retreat of the scourge and most of the Leprosy Centers slowly closed down. Unfortunately though, there has been a recent resurgence after all these years. According to Dr. Chencho, 13 new cases have just been reported this year.
“Looking back on those years, I now realize that because of Ashi we were able to be a part of doing something good for Bhutanese society,” said Sangay Penjore.
But Ashi Kesang’s altruism extends beyond that of the Leprosy program. At a time when there were no civil society organizations she was a silent leader, single-handedly mobilizing people to support the needs of the vulnerable and the weak. Amongst her many altruistic deeds, she sold her expensive European car and donated the money to Leprosy hospitals while she drove a Toyota Jeep. She has built guesthouses in Thimphu, Mongar and Trashigang for needy patients and their caregivers who have no place to stay when they come into the towns for referrals. The guesthouses have also turned into permanent shelters for some homeless.
At a time when there were no civil society organizations she was a silent leader,
single-handedly mobilizing people to support the needs of the vulnerable and the weak.
Agay Phurba, 80, from Dagana is one such beneficiary. Alone, bereft and destitute, he had given up hope on life altogether when he met Ashi Kesang who sent him to live at the guesthouse near the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital. He has been living there for the past 12 years. “If it hadn’t been for Ashi and this roof over my head, I would have died a sad death a long time ago,” he said. And the walls of this guesthouse resonate with many similar stories. Lobzang from Kanglung in eastern Bhutan and Rajesh Kumar from India cannot imagine what would have happened to them if it hadn’t been for the guesthouse and Ashi’s support. “Though I miss my family back home, I know I couldn’t have been in a better place,” said Rajesh, 30, who has lived in Bhutan most of his life.
Jigme Palden, 36, who is paralyzed, also lives at the guesthouse. He fell off a building in 2010 crushing his spinal cord, while he was painting a house. Soon after, his wife abandoned him and his two-year old daughter. Desperate and running out of options, he heard about Ashi Kesang’s generosity and submitted his story through somebody he knew. “No matter how much physical pain I am in, I don’t feel so alone and neglected anymore,” he said. “At least I have someone who cares about me.”
On one of her frequent visits to the hospital, Nima Tshering Tamang, 58, a homeless man, smelling and in need of care was taken in by Ashi. Sister Tandi Pemo the nursing superintendent who has worked closely with Ashi for the past decades said that Ashi personally cared for the man and was very distraught when he passed away. According to Nurse Tandi Pemo, he wasn’t the only one in which she took a personal interest in. Lotay Tshering, a chronic schizophrenic, is lucky to have the princess accompany him to the psychiatric ward on his regular check-ups.
People close to Ashi say that she takes a great interest in the smallest details in the lives of these people. For instance she wants to ensure that the homeless patients are re-united with family members. Towards this, she even pays for announcements on the Bhutan Broadcasting Service, which seems to work, as Budhi Maya a 47-year-old psychiatric patient was found by her family through such an announcement. For Bhutanese patients traveling on referral to Indian hospitals she helps pay for rented apartments and sometimes funds their entire treatment when the hospital doesn’t.
As a patron she has established clinics and wards for Leprosy, Cancer, Maternity, and Pediatrics and supports the Kidney and Psychiatric programs. She even funded building a children’s park. “She seems to do good wherever she can,” Sister Tandi Pemo says. Ashi also accompanies many troubled youth to the emergency room. During one such trip to the ER she saw that the chance of survival for critical patients could be increased with mobile ventilators, which the hospital lacked. “I was instructed to procure these mobile ventilators which Ashi paid for,” she said.
In an effort to reach the most needy patients, Ashi Kesang started a welfare fund for poor patients, executed by Tandi Pemo and the Medical Director. “Her only instructions were that the funds go towards helping as many patients who are disadvantaged, delinquent or poor,” said Nurse Tandi. This fund also provides a monthly stipend to 40 needy patients. Recently a similar fund has been set up in Gelephu.
Her only instructions were that the funds go towards helping as many patients who are disadvantaged, delinquent or poor
Beyond the home frontier Ashi Kesang has also been very busy. In the early 1980’s she took time off to work for an orphanage in Cambodia, an HIV/AIDS clinic in Thailand and India, for Leprosy patients in Nepal and for Mother Teresa’s Home of Dying in Kolkata India.
And just as Leprosy was a scourge in the 70’s and 80’s, Bhutanese society’s recent scourge seems to be that of addiction. Once again, as someone who cares so deeply for her fellow Bhutanese, Ashi has become increasingly involved in rehabilitation work for addicts. At the very initial stages when the psychiatric ward had just been established in early 2000, Dr. Chencho recalls her visiting the ward simply out of interest, to talk to the patients. “She brought them cakes, books and little gifts and she seemed to enjoy chatting to them,” he said. “She then asked me if I needed support and that the patients needed to do something to keep busy.” Together Dr. Chencho and Ashi initiated a little arts and crafts project in which patients were encouraged to knit, make envelopes and paper bags, which were then sold. “The money was used for the patients and this kept them busy and occupied. They enjoyed doing this,” he said.
Dr. Chencho said that Lama Shenphen, a British Buddhist monk living in Bhutan, who has provided a great deal of support to addicts and patients at the psychiatric ward, also works with Ashi Kesang. “Together they have coordinated a system to provide opportunities for rehabilitation for needy patients in Serbithang and India. She has given generously towards this cause,” he said. “The best part about her is that she gives from the heart and she doesn’t do it for publicity or to impress anyone,” said Dr. Chencho. Sangay Penjore agrees. “She believes in what she is doing and this work comes genuinely from a deep-seated compassion like a Bodhisattva. She doesn’t do it for recognition.” Which may be the reason why Ashi refused to talk about herself when The Raven asked for an interview. Sangay said that the idea of nominating Ashi for the CNN hero award has occurred to him, but he feels she wouldn’t want that.
Tshoki Dorji, 23, from Trashigang is a recovering addict. He abused drugs for 14 years. Having exhausted all goodwill of family and friends he found himself desperately alone. Lama Shenphen, who met him on the streets one day offered to get him into rehab and Ashi Kesang paid for it. On his way to recovery, he arranged a tour one day for Ashi to give her a glimpse of his life as an addict in the back alleys of Thimphu showing her places where people could avail the drugs. “For once in my life, the help felt real,” said Tshoki, who now works as a waiter at Ambient cafe.
Meanwhile Nawang, 35, who also recovered from his addiction with Ashi’s help is now a peer counselor at the psychiatric ward. He has counseled more than 200 youth in his four years with the Chithen Pendhey Association – a group for recovering addicts.
“There is a certain kind of inspiration and satisfaction that comes from helping people who need it the most,” said Nurse Tandi Pemo, “and even as a Nurse I learnt this from Ashi Kesang.” Apart from just the sick and poor, her philanthropy also encompasses the protection and preservation of Bhutanese culture. Along with His Majesty the King, she is also the patron for “84000 – Translating the words of the Buddha,” a project initiated by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentsee to make the works accessible to the Bhutanese public.
Ashi’s social work at the grassroots may not have been largely recognized by Bhutanese society, but in 2008 many were jubilant that she was recognized internationally when she was presented the Mandala Award for Arts and Humanitarian Achievement by the Rubin Museum of Arts in New York. Alongside her was French Buddhist monk and author, Matthiew Ricard who was also honored for his work in Asia.
Many who know Ashi have made references of her work to that of a Bodhisattva –someone motivated by great compassion to work for the benefit of all sentient beings. “Nobody wonders why the sun shines every morning. It just does. Like the sun, Ashi also just does – it’s who she is. She is kind, warm, genuine and a hands-on person,” said Lama Shenphen. Then, perhaps like the sun is taken for granted rising everyday and sustaining life on earth, we take for granted people who are just good and do much for society without expecting anything in return.
Our generation, particularly the younger ones today, are struggling with many social problems. We are in need of good role models and inspirations, but with all the information that we are bombarded with from foreign media, we tend to forget the role models and do-gooders in our own society and country. Like Ashi there are many Bhutanese who are also working hard and doing what they do best, striving to give back to society. But when it is done behind-the-scenes, we don’t hear about them nor do we make an effort to learn about them. Ashi is a classic example of the work a true Buddhist does and should do – a life of privilege could have easily allowed her to forget the needy. Instead she has committed herself to a lifelong cause of uplifting the suffering of ordinary people. It is something that we as educated Bhutanese should not take for granted, and aspire to do as well.
There is a certain kind of inspiration and satisfaction that comes from helping people who need it the most