Robes and Realities

Robes and Realities


When I live and work in a new country, I am each time surprised by the distance between the standard perceptions and knowledge of a country and the reality on the ground.  With Pakistan I feel this difference has been abnormally high – even taking into account my ignorance before arriving here, a country of 170 million people living in all landscapes from river delta to mountain, desert to forest, hamlet to metropolis, cannot fail to surprise. Especially when, as usual, the stories we see coming out of Pakistan stick to a standard trend: Taliban, corruption, political assassination, coupled with the odd story about the cricket or the beauty of the mountains.

I have always found flying a humbling experience, and I have been doing a lot of it over the last few weeks – it gives an idea of scale, of sheer numbers of humanity below, that, even with the biggest influence, you will never touch.  It throws you in amongst other journeymen, representatives of their homeland, whose mannerisms and dress remain mysterious in the sterilised world of international air travel, yet impossible to conceal.  The first attack to my media-tuned senses came when I saw a large group of hardened tribal heads from the Northern Areas all kindly helping their elderly wives up the stairs, bending over backwards to carry their bags and ensure they had a seat. The second came when I inadvertently caught a cheeky wink from a flirtatious Pakistani girl in a headscarf, having it written in my mental planning for Pakistan that this was a definite no, when the father interrupted with a smile and a joke on the matter.

From the air, almost the entirety of Sindh, Punjab and Baluchistan is simply a mass of pan-flat land as far as the eye can see, patchworked by fields and settlements.  There is an impression of a sort of long historic order to the madness, of the sort that I never saw in Congo – despite today’s poverty, the roads, settlements and fields in Pakistan give the appearance of meticulous planning, a hint that the Indus delta was one of the cradles of agricultural civilisation.  Viewed from the sky or the marketplace, Pakistan’s poverty is more organised than that of Africa, it seems to sit under the weight of hundreds of years of different bureaucratic systems, where a well organised rural feudalism thrives and functions (And here, of course, the government functions to a much greater extent, and people have expectations of the government to provide certain essentials).  From the air the flood damage is still evident, swathes of salty plains and beige fields where silty deposits have destroyed the year’s productivity, breaking the fine balance of feudal functionality.  Often it seems survival has been down to the quality of the landlord – those who have tightened their belt and pulled strings to fight for their workers, or those who, as exist in any organisation, fail to recognise that decent treatment also equals better productivity.

One of my initial impressions of Pakistan is that it is one of the world’s truly diverse nations – to take only Sindh – there are Baluchi nomads who travel by horse and camel peddling their wares; there are poor Sindhi peasant farmers with their small patches of land and kitchen gardens; there are large swathes of industrial agriculture; and of course the rainbow truckers who toot through day and night (our office is a few hundred metres from the main north-south highway).  Some of my staff are experienced Karachi businessmen from the likes of Price Waterhouse Coopers, others are villagers who have worked hard through a barely existent rural school system to gain posts as our Community Mobilisers.  We had been warned early on about Baluchi bandits, kidnapping and ransoming travellers.  In fact, it turns out that the kidnapping is far more established – there are fixed prices for different levels of businessmen, specified targets and standard exclusivities – as a humanitarian organisation targeting the most vulnerable, we have been informed that we are theoretically off the hook, and straight from the horse’s mouth as it were, since one of our suppliers has just been released after his family had to pay off his substantial ransom.   The anniversary of former president Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s assassination (father of Benazir, also assassinated) is a huge event in the Bhutto homeland of Northern Sindh – on 4th April we couldn’t even get near the local airport for all the ministerial cars, well-filled waistcoats and flower petals.  As if to ram home the point, on the road on the way home, we passed a long stream of 70 militia on motorbikes, all with headscarves and flowing shalwar kameezes and AK47s strapped across their shoulders.

After taking a brief look at Pakistan’s inequalities, what of its equalities? The first must be the shalwar khameez – kidnapper and kidnapped, rich and poor alike, basically everyone wears this outfit, perhaps a rallying call for lost socialism – and the loose fitting trousers and long shirt will always look cool billowing in the wind on the back of dusty motorcycle.  The second of Pakistan’s inherent equalities is, of course, cricket.  The rich have the resources, the good schools to learn and be coached properly, the poor have the time and the hope.  Cricket happens everywhere, on every patch of land, at every time of day and night.  I was privileged to watch the India-Pakistan World Cup semi-final on a small black and white TV with the national staff – despite the barely concealable passion for one of the deepest international rivalries, there was much gentlemanly clapping for fine moments of Indian play, and a diminution of volume and cheering during prayer time.  The papers the next day were full of reserved praise for fine Indian batsmanship, and vitriolic condemnation of an inadequate Pakistani performance.

So, apart from watching cricket and craving a cold pint, what are we actually doing here?  For the official spiel: ‘An integrated approach to post-flood reconstruction’.  To best explain the situation, best to describe some of the camps that still exist after the floods of nearly a year ago, and life in the villages it not far different from the camps – there are still many millions of people without permanent shelters or a good food supply.  In winter, the camps are too cold, in summer, too hot  (it has already hit 37 here, and plenty of sandstorms have already blown through), and in monsoon, two wet – leaving about 3 weeks of the year where they might make a half-pleasant living environment.  Many of the crops and farmland were destroyed and rendered unusable by the floods.   With about £10m of projects from a few different donors, we will directly target a total of about 7000 households, or 35,000 ‘beneficiaries’.  This involves providing flood-resistant shelters, key household items, various types of seeds and training,  water pumps and latrines to those identified by extensive surveying as the ‘most vulnerable’ (women-led households, elderly, those without land etc etc).  It is a massive undertaking, with a few hundred staff and, for example, one third of the UK government’s entire humanitarian budget for Pakistan – but, even then, as ever, it will be a drop in the ocean for Sindh’s flood affected.  From a personal perspective, it’s a very different job – a coordination role, so less time for playing around on building sites or tinkering in the logistics department.   I’m glad to be in the field – Islamabad is an odd world, where one basically lives a European life, a colonial one in fact, with thriving organisation like the British Club and Marriott Hotel, nestled in an artificial city and comfortable climate between the mountains and the lively bustle of Rawalpindi.

And what of those Pakistani stereotypes – the terrorism, the treatment of women, the hatred of the West? I have the same response that I have seen in every country – the closest truth will always be found inside the nation’s borders, not in the newspapers of another nation.  There is a very different attitude to the behaviour of women, that, again, is so much written about that I will add nothing new, there is a large presence of Islam (both less extreme in Sindh than in the North, but all the same pervasive).  There is simply a real life – my Pakistani colleagues do not thrust religion upon me – Whether or not high-level Pakistani politics is taking a serious turn for the worse, 99% of our days are spent on the job or having normal conversations, bearing in mind certain obvious sensitivities, but not wrapped up in the problems theorised by English newspapers.  We had a field visit from a very experienced consultant contracted to assess our work, and, despite his many years in volatile nations, the UK government rules stipulated that he had to be accompanied by an armed convoy.  He was very unhappy with the ruling, completely unnecessary in rural Sindh, but stuck with it, and we both noted that our journey round Sindh with an armed convoy was probably the most damaging contribution to our local acceptance so far:  build a fence, and people will try to build one higher.