After trying for three years, the Pakistani government finally decides I am not a threat to their country and grants me a visit visa. They have reason to fret and delay as they are (naturally) apprehensive with anybody with numerous in and out passport stamps visiting India and Afghanistan. I want to go visit the CAI donor-funded school being built in the rural area of Saleh Pat, Sindh.
I thought I’ll have a hard time with immigration at the airport in Karachi, but the bountifully bearded officer is amiable enough and does not care about the past passport stamps. He thumps my passport and welcomes me to his country – in perfect English. After successful emergency surgery at the Fatimiyah Hospital in Karachi, I fly to Saleh Pat three days later, accompanied by Hassan Abullo and the Late Mamaji from Hussaini Foundation, CAI’s working partners in Pakistan.
Although I have visited Pakistan several times on other humanitarian work for Comfort Aid International, this is the first time to rural Sindh. The aging PIA flight lands at a brand-new airport at Sukkur, the third-largest city in Sindh. It is surprisingly chilly when we land so I am grateful when we pull up at a guesthouse not too far away; oddly, there are no worthy hotels in the city. The guesthouse has no heat and no hot water. Bummer.
We drive to Saleh Pat the next day and arrive at the village ninety minutes later. I am pleasantly surprised at what I see along the way. I always imagined Sindh to be arid, with the country’s agricultural basket land more towards Punjab. Wrong. Sindh grows abundant rice, dates, cotton, sugarcane, and wheat. Then why is it so poor, illiterate, and backward? The following narrative of a young girl might answer this question. Let us call her Reshma.
I am the last born in a family of eight; I have five other siblings. My father cultivates a plot of land for a zamindar (landlord) for the right to retain one-third of the harvest. My mother is a housewife who runs the household and keeps us all alive, including her husband. We all live in a makeshift mud and brick home on the same piece of land rented from the landlord. I also have a grandfather and grandmother, uncles and aunts who are neighbors, all doing the same work and who live likewise.
My parents are illiterate, so are my elder sister and the rest of the clan. Except for my brothers. They can read and write in Sindhi. Although I am ten, I’ve never been to school. I know A, B, C, and baa, baa black sheep because my cousin’s family next door has a tape player which repeats this rhyme repeatedly. This is the extent of my English.
Due to a land dispute with another squatter, I’m betrothed to a man twice my age as part of the quarrel settlement mandated by our common landowner. I have no say in this matter, nor am I consulted or asked for my consent to the planned nuptials. However, I’ll live with my family until I am sixteen. Until then, I go to my in-law’s farm and run errands for them. The zamindar landlord is our absolute master; he is the law, above the police or the government. All the squatters obey him unquestioningly. This is true with all zamindars of Sindh that I know of.
My day starts at dawn. Together with Mother and Sister, we go to the communal washrooms then fetch enough water for the family; my father and three brothers sleep in. We return home, Mum prepares breakfast while Sister and I gather fodder for the animals, clean and feed them. I gather dirty clothes and soak them for Mother to later wash. Father and the boys wake up, wash up with the water we brought, and are fed breakfast. The boys go to a government school about an hour away. We girls are not eligible for education since the house and crop field needs are more important; we make rotis possible.
When the sun is still low in the sky, the three of us head out to the field. Depending on the planting season, it is us women who till the land, sow the seeds, irrigate the fields, make sure the rows of wheat are clear of weeds and all is well with the coming harvest. We take the weeds and other unwanted vegetations home as fodder for our cows. Mother also rears chickens that bring us some extra income from egg sales that Father pockets. He needs the extra money for his chewing gudka (tobacco), smoking hookah with other men, and a few glasses of bhang (local light cooling intoxicating brew) in the summer.
In the afternoon, after lunch, Mother washes clothes and Sister cleans the house, and they do other chores like sewing. I go to my in-laws and run errands for them. This can be very painful in the summer when the temperature can shoot up to 122F. My suiter is twenty now and studying in the city; I have yet to see or meet him. I’m sure he’ll be kind to me when we eventually live together. I’m strong and can do many tasks for his family. Even though I’m only ten, I can make rotis and other food dishes that Mother insists I learn to cook. Father eats lunch, habitually burps and most times farts audibly, takes a siesta, and then listens to the radio, mostly cricket matches when Pakistan is playing or listens to Sindhi songs. My brothers return from school, eat lunch, and then go out to play cricket with their friends.
I have no friends except for cousins from nearby squatters. We meet rarely, since there is so much to do, and I’m exhausted most days and just want to go to sleep after I finish clearing the dinner dishes and washing them. There is a repeat of today’s chores tomorrow. The only break I get is when we have Eid holidays or the period after the harvest. If the yield is good, everybody is happy, since the zamindar will give Father our full share. If not, Father is in an awful mood and resorts to drinking bhang, even though it’s not summer. The bhang makes him a predictably evil person.
My only wish is that I, too, get to go to school. I’d like to learn to read and write and be like other girls in the city working in offices and wearing beautiful clothes. I see them on television and my heart yearns for a life like theirs. A little of it perhaps? But this is not possible for me. I’m already married, and my life’s role is to take care of my husband and his family.
Reshma’s story is the rule rather than an exception in Sindh. These poor girls are doomed to the cruel cycle of poverty and ignorance. There are many reasons for this brutality of course and no easy answers. Lack of education, acceptance by the womenfolk of their subservient status to men, assumption of the man as a superior creation over women, and most damaging, the role of the medieval zamindars. Almost the entire rural Sindh is ruled by a feudal system by the zamindars who have absolute control over their subjects working their land. They have the power to manipulate and mistreat their subjects with impunity. They collectively ensure that their subjects do not acquire an education because that will be the beginning of their end.
There is hope insha’Allah. Comfort Aid International is constructing a unisex school in Saleh Pat to educate these children. We may not be able to help this Reshma, but future Reshmas certainly can acquire knowledge. An education eradicates poverty, levels the playing field, and will eventually empower many other Reshmas to breathe the sweetness of freedom.
Remembering Raza Mama
It was with shock and profound sadness that we at CAI received the demise of Raza Mama (Mamaji) of the Hussaini Foundation. This gentleman was truly devoted to his work in serving humanity. He was a critical link for CAI humanitarian activities in Pakistan and all of us at CAI will miss him terribly.
Mamaji was 76 but worked like a horse, always available, always on the go. He put people much younger to shame with the pep and vigor he possessed. Mamaji died peacefully in his sleep in Karachi, Pakistan, on January 25, one day after I talked to him on the phone. He had no ailments; he died doing what he loved.
So long Raza Hussain Ghulam Ali Kanani (Mamaji), RIP. May Allah (s) grant you His mercy and reward you abundantly for all the goodness you parted in your life.