Where the Streets Have No Name

Where the Streets Have No Name


After a certain time on mission, depending on the conditions of that mission, time can start to stand still: as the projects begin to run themselves better, the exhilaration of the more exciting and varied jobs in the world can begin to weigh upon the shoulders, and the energy of learning in a new country begins to turn to exhaustion.  Sindh itself further embodies the barren and hellish furnace, land of the forgotten villages in the desert.

These are hardships that have existed in Sindh for many thousands of years, and were also experienced by generations of young colonials seeking fortune and adventure in Indian service.   My education has usually given me cause to view colonialism in a negative light, but I start to see some advantages that it has over the modern aid world.  First, there is the permanence: a colonial officer on posting would stay for years in one place, seeing through season after season, supervising large engineering projects, the growth or permanent systems of administration, often going long periods without supervision and communication.  In modern aid, the connectivity of the internet and air transport means that missions are shorter, and that a field officer could live on his internet island in a field base.  Often the greatest progress we have made on projects has been when the internet is broken, when we are not trapped in the eternal cycle, not unique to aid, of proving that we are doing the job, rather than getting on with it.  The colonial diaries I have read, from 1850 to 1950, do not tend to reek of prejudice: they are products of their time, with some comments that will make the campaigners baulk – but they are works of devotion – of an enthusiastic and open-minded curiosity to understand a society in which the writer is completely immersed for more than a few years at a time, with very few ties to life at home.  Richard F Burton’s history of Sindh certainly does not read like a novel, but provides more detail than you will ever find in the writings of a modern aid worker – intriguing descriptions of the African slaves in Sindh, step-by-step instructions to a Sindhi wedding ceremony, pricing and comparisons of the different categories of prostitutes available.

Pakistan has a more intimate and perhaps more successful relationship with colonialism than Africa – Pakistanis still have a love affair with all things English (with the unfortunate exception of the military decisions of the UK government), if the frequency with which I receive lessons on cricket, grammar and tea-drinking is anything to go by.  There is an irresistibly charming twinkle that appears in the eyes of any new acquaintance when they are informed of my English heritage, a phenomenon I never encountered in East Africa.  I spent an evening philosophising under the stars with our Sindhi staff in an attempt to heal some divides rotted in Sindhi nationalism, which turned out to be a political sensitivity verging on paranoid, an irrepressible revolutionary spirit of those who regard themselves as Pakistan’s forgotten underdogs.  From this background, I was therefore surprised to hear a very cogent and balanced analysis of colonialism in the torchlight – our Sindhi activists even went so far as to thank me for the damns, bridges, and irrigation channels, that are the lifeblood of Sindh fifty years on (I had never understood what was meant by the brilliance of British engineering until I saw the scale of these systems in Sindh).  They were ambivalent about the legacy of government systems, conscious that 60 years of history does much to the evolution of functioning of failing governance.  And they were equally conscious of what they regarded as the direct responsibility of a universally unpopular, but seemingly unbreakable, feudal system that still has the vast rural population of Sindh in its grip.

Melting in Kandhkot’s open pools of festering sewage, I sadly found myself laughing at one of Burton’s more wild statements:  ‘the chief merit which Sindh in its present state possesses is its capacity for improvement’.  I was reading, 150 years on, the statement of someone who had seen so much potential and so little improvement in Sindh.

Then Sindh turned green.  It is a phenomenon that has to be seen to be believed: a spectacle of human organisation, hard work and capability, survivability, especially given the sheer number of fields that needed completely re-working after last year’s floods.  The change occurs when the irrigation channels are opened, some weeks before the monsoon: in a matter of weeks the land is flooded, and the brown deserts turn green as the rice paddies are planted.  The dry canals are full, and leaves suddenly flower from the dead wood lining their banks.  The dry brown expanses of land become hives of activity as the rice is planted, the temperature becomes bearable, and ay every corner children are diving into the nearest channel, completely at home in the water.  The optimism is infectious, our projects are running well: on a recent field trip to test an accusation of internal corruption, I found some energetic and motivated field engineers, and 100% completion of our shelters – in this case, thankfully, the corruption turned out to be simply bad paperwork.

Prior to this release, everyone had their own way of coping with Sindh’s war of attrition.  Khalid is our highly respected security officer – full of integrity, wisdom, and the complete inability of an academic to condense a conversation.  Far from being the hardened ex-military stereotype of security workers, Khalid is a Sindhi poet of some renown, passing his long journeys to tense negotiations writing odes to lost loves or romantic effusions on Sindh’s perfect landscape.  His recent portfolio includes the aforementioned case of the bungled stitch-up operation and ensuing incarcerations and tribal arguments; a plethora of gunpoint robberies in the field; the unfortunate death of a child at the hands of one of our drivers; and the persistent threats from those seeking or no longer in our employment.

His most recent case involves another of our creative local coordinators, who was kidnapped for a large ransom fee.  The kidnap set a ripple of fear in motion through the ranks of our field staff, and, as the situation evolved, it once again emerged that the situation was more complicated that it had first appeared.   After long investigations with police, family and friends, tribal heads, politicians and local characters with influence over the kidnap gangs, anomalies began to reveal themselves: friends and family who were suspiciously quiet, unexplained periods of absence, odd connections to the kidnappers, and the revelation that our esteemed humanitarian regularly turned up to work with a pistol.

As the deadlines for the ransom passed, and there was no word of an execution, and progress on negotiations began to stale, we had information from the Pakistani intelligence services, which left us in a certain moral dilemma, but led to the release of our erstwhile colleague.  It remains unclear as to the exact terms of his release were, and there is still no clear conclusion on the nature of the alleged kidnap.  However, it is as good a solution as we might expect – our staff seem content that we did our best in assisting with pursuing all channels to negotiate the release, and thankfully we have not been faced with a situation where money has been involved – were we to pay, of course, the kidnappers, very astute businessmen, would begin to target the humanitarian organisations in Northern Sindh – and, were he to have been executed, they all may have pulled out altogether.

As for Khalid, his romantic poetry has been his rock: he was for many months lovestruck by our elegant Portuguese expatriate from the Islamabad Office, who flew in on fleeting field visits.   So inspired, in fact, that he penned some words during these difficult times, a short poem, basically outlining that, once a man has shaken hands with his Portuguese Juliet , he would never wash them again.  The poem was a hit, it flew around the staff, and a public reading was demanded a few months later on her next trip to Kandhkot, to raucous applause, the good-humoured embarrassment of Khalid and his would-be muse, and the inspired addition of a new verse from another aspiring performer amongst our ranks, a moon-walking stand-up comedian.

My own greener grass was to be found on a short leave in Korea.  It proved to be the polar opposite to the dusty furnace of summertime Sindh, where the potential, far from Burton’s regretful tone, seemed to be real.  Free to move where I liked, and not dependent on others for food, transport, security, Korea seemed to be a land with a Midas touch, where everything had opportunity, potential, where hope and optimism seemed to pervade society. In Sindh, empty rural schools are commonplace, teachers who get a job through connections, and then cannot be bothered to teach.  In Korea, the young generation is everything – so much so that the pressures on the young are often too much for them – and with this in mind it is some relief to me to me that outdoor pursuits (and to a lesser extent international development) are rapidly taking a hold in Korea.

From Seoul, we took a trip through the immaculate linear patterns of Korea’s rice planting, in contrast to Sindh’s erratic and frantic arrangements, to stay in a hillside Buddhist temple overlooking the southern coastal deltas.  There, I could find no complaints that tea-drinking was a spiritual cornerstone of this particular interpretation of Korean Buddhism, and we spent many hours burning both ends of the philosophical candle over cups of home-made green teas.   These sessions of gentle discovery were accompanied by sunrise services and meditation sessions in the ornate wooden temple, and the painful, battle of a polite, scaffold-legged English man trying to match the easy serenity of this teacher.  The discipline of the Buddhist temple life, with its early morning services and long devotion to tolerance and character improvement impressed me – we went to cut wood in a secluded hut in the forest, where monks would stay, unvisited for months at a time, under a vow of silence.

The monks, the youngest of them having been a member of the monastery for five years after becoming disenchanted with his journalistic career, enjoyed the fast life.   Our devout friend came to us in the evening, seemingly desperate to get out of the monastery, and drove us to the coast to watch the sunset.  As a man who has experienced many varieties of driving all over the world, I am rarely shaken – but this monk wound down the windows, wound up the volume on his hip hop mix, and tore through the blindsides of the corners on the twisting road south, determined to make his table tennis competition in town.  However there was a nagging feeling – that, for all its sound philosophies of tolerance and peace, there is a selfish element to Buddhism – the emphasis on personal enlightenment and improvement, and the need to cut oneself off from society in order to achieve that.  Yet here was a man who seemed to some balance – truly appreciative of what his Buddhist life had done for him, and yet not cut off from the real world, from politics and emotions, from worries about the future and life outside the monastery.

I see many Pakistanis too wise to the world, despairing and tired at what they see as their society going backwards around them.  Korea on the other hand is a young society – standing on a hill overlooking Seoul, city of over 10 million people, and realising that most of the buildings in that vista, stretching as far as the eye could see had been constructed in the last 30 years – a powerful observation, when compared to Pakistan’s Moenjodaro or more modern examples (Zimbabwe) of the speed at which society can rise and fall.  The youth, and its associated naivety, has come with wealth – you will not see much naivety in Pakistan: Korea’s older generation have experienced some hardship, poverty, even war, and struggle to come to terms with the life the young have chosen in Korea.  Korea is also one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in the world: there is a refreshing innocence in that, a trust that has made Seoul a remarkable safe capital, where one can leave a laptop unattended in public, and walk the litter-free streets anywhere with no trepidation.