Sakina Hullio starts her day before dawn with a long deep drag of her hand-rolled cigarette. Immediately, she gets to work, drawing water from a hand-pump and mixing it with chopped hay and grass to prepare feed for the buffalo she tends on behalf of the owner. Then, she milks them, rakes the area clean and begins collecting dung to pat into cakes that she’ll dry in the sun. Later in the day, she’ll sell these by the sackful in her village to women who need it to fuel their kitchen stoves in the absence of piped gas. Once this is done, she’ll sweep the small yard in front of her makeshift home constructed using tree branches topped with hay. Then she’ll churn butter or prepare buttermilk and sit down to sew a patchwork quilt from leftover scraps of cloth.
Sakina, nicknamed ‘Hawa’ by her brother-in-law for the rapid pace at which she works, lives in a village near Larkana. At 65, she’s sturdy, energetic and temperamental. Barefoot, dressed in a threadbare shalwar kameez with a tattered rag thrown upon her head, she quietly and quickly moves from task to task. Hawa never went to school and was given the task of making and selling buffalo dung cakes when she was seven. As a girl, she was sent to wash clothes for other women to supplement the income brought in by her father, who worked a landowner’s farm.
Hawa’s rigorous and spartan life typifies that of the village woman in Sindh who works tirelessly inside the home and also earns a living to sustain the family. Indeed more often than not, the woman is the primary breadwinner either by producing handicrafts, rearing livestock or working on farmland owned by a village landowner. She struggles with the unending frustration of her father’s or husband’s drug or gambling addiction, copes with health problems in the family and manages life without the most basic facilities such as water, gas, electricity or a properly-constructed house. Yet, she’s also incredibly hardy and infinitely patient; never without fabulous wit and positive energy.
“I never saw a moment of comfort all my life,” says Hawa. “I used to sell one sack of buffalo dung cakes for 75 paisas when I was a girl and now I sell the same for 30 rupees. I have struggled but nothing has changed.”
Hawa, who is mother to two sons and four daughters, was widowed at a young age. “Since childhood, my life has been so tough that when my girls were little I wanted them to study so their lives wouldn’t be hard but I couldn’t afford the copies and pencils so I gave up,” she says. “I encourage my daughters to embroider Sindhi caps and buy the soap and hair oil they need from that so they can take care of their own needs.” She proudly displays a rusted old stand fan as her most expensive possession.
“She’s stubborn and wants everything but I tell her to be patient,’’ says her sister Anwar. “She is generous. If she has five rupees and her niece or someone else needs it she’ll happily and instantly give it up.”
“My mother has become very irritable over time but she loves us,” says Hawa’s daughter Naheed. “When my sister fell down a few months ago she brought the entire village down seeking help to get to a hospital.” Hawa puts aside her daily worries when there’s a wedding in the family and enjoys singing traditional songs and dancing in celebration; dreaming always of the day she can afford to get her own children married.
Her greatest aspiration: to own a television and fridge.
In an age where an urban wealthy class can barely keep up with swapping gadgets as new ones are released and old ones go out of style, women in these neglected villages are still hoping to watch the evening drama on TV or have a cold drink of water in the unrelenting summer heat. Hawa’s shining eyes when she speaks about becoming a TV and fridge owner before she dies says so much about our polarised and desperate society.
“I get angry with fate sometimes and then I just tie a scarf around my head and go to sleep”, she says, pulling a cigarette out from the fold of her sleeve with a loud laugh. “This is my indulgence. If I don’t do even this, my head will spin all day.”
Published in The Express Tribune, May 29th, 2015.