Inside Africa: Why the Indus is longer than the Nile (for some Pakistanis)

Pakistani expats are a strange breed. Their passports are as green as yours and mine but something sets them apart...

Meiryum Ali July 12, 2011
Pakistani expats are a strange breed. Their passports are as green as yours and mine but something still sets them apart: their perceptions. Their comparisons between Pakistan and their country of residence are more objective and less cutting.

Expats are essentially loners, travellers permanently stuck in places, who still attend functions thrown by the Pakistani embassy, but speak the local language more than Urdu. They’re not amusingly confused like American desis and they won’t bring you back gifts from airport duty shops like your Dubai cousins. The only thing they’re good for, in fact what they’re best at, is breaking stereotypes - countless of them, about themselves, about their neighbours, about different cultures and religions.

I was privy to a conversation comparing two third world countries from commentators who are my age: One was a Pakistani expat living in Kenya and the other a Pakistani who visited Tanzania.
“The airport, frankly, is terrible. It makes Jinnah International look like JFK.”

It’s the first in a long list of complaints by the expat. She has lived there, taken the malaria shots and put up enough anti-mosquito nets. She is less wide-eyed about Africa as the Pakistani traveller, whose entire trip started and ended with the Safari.

The traveller starts gushing about wild cheetahs. When this dies down, she goes back to commenting on the airports.
“Dirt tracks for runways in some places.”

But unlike Pakistan:
“There’s something really quaint about the whole thing - even if it’s just two terminals, it’ll be spotless.”

Cleanliness! Roads are clean, no paan spit, no garbage dumps - yes, safai is innate to east Africans. So are gorgeous wildlife, fantastic weather, and inspiring tribes like the Masai...

Africa, according to National Geographic, is too predictable. Africa according to a Karachi wallah isn’t.

So I turn to ask them about the cities. The expat lives in Nairobi, Kenya, far away from the clichéd Savannah. It is ‘modern’ and poised to become the largest metropolis in East Africa
“But it doesn’t even come close to Karachi; things shut down too early.”

The traveller echoes this opinion:
“There was no branded stuff, I mean, things you take for granted. You know how there’s a KFC and McDonalds every five minutes back home? Tanzania doesn’t have that.”

But, they have at least one thing in common: load-shedding. Serengiti, a national park, has to produce its own electricity.

Then there are observations that only Pakistani girls can make:
“There are police women everywhere, not just in the city.”

Africa caters to everyone:
“They’ll have separate menus for vegetarians, they’ll have halal meat, and they’ll have their alcohol...”

Africa is diverse. The expat friend talks about her school, full not just of ethnic Africans, but of Sri Lankans, Indians, British and everyone in between. Some of them are expats, like her, while other families have lived in Kenya since the colonial era. Her school is ‘chilled out’, says the expat.
“In Pakistan we’re so much more studies obsessed. Over here kids are just more relaxed.”

And all East Africans are, well, just plain nice:

“All the tour guides kept saying Rafiki [meaning friend in Swahili] to us, and kept joking about The Lion King,” says the traveller.

Until, of course they ask where you’re from. One waiter said:
“Oh Pakistan! So, have you met Osama bin Laden?”

Another guide asked:
“Pakistan isn’t that where they make explosives?”

It’s back to stereotypes again, but this time it’s the Pakistanis who’re confused.

“I don’t get it,” says the traveller. “I’m so used to hearing over and over again that Pakistan is the worst country in the world, that when I arrived in Tanzania I expected something more and I didn’t find it.”

Could you live there? The traveller can’t dream of it.
“Roads, you have no idea how brilliant Karachi roads are. And airports. Zanzibar’s airport was practically a shamiana.”

As for the expat, the first place she visits on holiday in Pakistan is... Khadda Market.
“Bazaars! What I would do for even a Zainab market in Kenya!”

Some of it smacks of pure homesickness but I know the expat would live here given the choice.

Are you sure, I ask, that you’d want to move back here?

Karachi, the city of contradictions, of target killings and endless Atrium outings? Karachi, which is dusty compared even to Lahore, let alone rainy Kenya on the Equator.

“It’s home,” she says with a shrug.

Or as the traveller puts it,
“They don’t have much, but they’re very proud of it.”

A barbed way of saying I under-appreciate my city.

So maybe expats (and travellers) aren’t objective at all.

Maybe home is best after all.

Or at least, finding out that home isn’t quite as bad as you thought it was, and that you needed a Pakistani abroad to tell you that.
Meiryum Ali A freshman at an ivy league school who writes a weekly national column in The Express Tribune called "Khayaban-e-Nowhere".
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

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