In a country where dreams are killed every passing minute, a young man from a remote village of Balochistan has apparently beaten the odds.
Rafiullah Kakar, 23, is all set to live “a dream come true”. He is the 2013 Rhodes Scholar for Pakistan. The Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University in UK, one of the most prestigious awards in the world, is given to one Pakistani every year since 1951.
Kakar does not belong to a feudal family. He grew up in one of the most hostile and backward regions of Pakistan and no one had gone to college in his family before him.
His transformation from a boy who did not learn Urdu until the seventh grade to a Rhodes Scholar is a story of hard work, family support, perseverance and the pursuit of personal ambition.
Right on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, the Killa Abdullah District is famous for its headquarters, Chaman. But there’s more to the district than the gateway city to Afghanistan.
Gulistan Tehsil, centred on a city by the same name some 80 kilometres southeast of Chaman, is the district’s other subdivision. It has around 20 villages, one of them called Killi Ahmad Khellan. That is where Kakar was born, to a family of four brothers and eight sisters.
The area is “dry, mountainous, arid,” according to Kakar. People, including Kakar’s father, usually tend to gardens of grapes and apples, but the agriculture, affected by lowering water tables, load shedding and poor economic conditions, is fading away. Some have moved out of the area. Others, who have survived the infighting among tribes, have taken to human and drugs trafficking.
In 2001, Kakar, a smart student from the beginning, got “lucky”. He got a scholarship to study at the Balochistan Residential College (BRC), Loralai, on the district quota.
But he felt isolated among the children of the elite, kids who had studied at Quetta’s grammar schools and who spoke fluent English. He could not understand a word of the English-medium textbooks. The first year was especially difficult.
“I had gone there from an institution where I only knew Pashto,” Kakar says. “I did not know Urdu and absolutely no English.”
He stuck to his studies and did not flunk. Memorising the texts, he built up his Urdu and English vocabulary. It took him a while.
“In two years, I covered the language gap,” he says, in almost pristine English, just a hint of a Pashto accent hanging from his vowels. “After that, I never looked back.”
Winning declamation contests, representing BRC at national conferences and graduating among the top three of the pre-engineering exam for Balochistan’s intermediate board, Kakar kept building from strength to strength.
In 2007, he got admission at the Government College University (GCU), Lahore, to study political science. The switch from engineering to social science was one he made at the request of his family. He could not refuse them.
Kakar says he could not have done it without his family’s support, especially his older brothers. When he first got the scholarship, his father was against him leaving for Loralai. But his brothers intervened.
Kakar says it might have been because of their personal unfulfilled ambitions to continue their studies. He remembers how his brothers would drive him back to the school every six months after holidays, the whole family would bid him good bye in a procession of tears.
Pushing the boundaries
In Lahore, Kakar encountered a new world, a “culture shock”.
“I came across many stereotypes, many assumptions that I had not heard of before [in Balochistan],” he says. So he started interacting with his Punjabi friends and teachers, trying to understand their perspectives.
“GCU was another watershed in my life. My time there truly opened the windows of my mind.”
He chose ethnic politics and religious extremism in Pakistan as his academic area of interest. Kakar had expected GCU’s academic life to be tough, but when he realised he was cruising in academics while being active in extra curricular activities, he decided to challenge himself.
He tried to get into the Lahore University of Management Studies. That didn’t happen, but he was selected for the Global UGRAD student exchange programme of the United States Educational Foundation in Pakistan.
He spent his seventh semester studying at Augustana College in South Dakota in fall 2010. Kakar admits he had some biases and conventional prejudices before he left for the US. But that changed while he was there.
Kakar says answering the questions of his international friends helped him understand the realities of Pakistan better.
“If I have to say two things that hurt Pakistan’s political culture the most, they will be bad governance and conspiracy theories.”
He says there’s a positive side to Pakistan but we should not live in a state of denial, always looking for external factors for domestic problems.
When he got back from the US, he came up with an ambitious plan to do his graduate studies at either Harvard or Oxford. He could not do it without funding, so he applied for the Rhodes Scholarship.
What the future holds
Rhodes Scholars form an elite international club with members such as Waseem Sajjad and Babar Sattar. For now, Kakar will be studying International Relations at the Oxford University.
But Kakar is a planner. While applying for Rhodes, he has also been preparing for the Central Superior Services examination. His long-term plan, however, is to become a politician whenever he gets a chance, because he believes “You cannot change anything without being in power.”
Published in The Express Tribune, December 6th, 2012.