A shunned people

When Bheel children came out of their neighbourhoods to play, they would be bullied and harassed by other kids

Naween A Mangi July 03, 2015
The writer is a journalist and founder of Ali Hasan Mangi Memorial Trust

Perhaps it’s naive, but I'm still startled and ashamed when I hear stories about minority communities in Pakistan and how they're treated without even a shred of human dignity. I've read and heard several times about how the government needs to ensure rights for these people through parliamentary participation, land allotments and uplift programmes. All that is, of course, imperative and urgent work. Separately though, how can we, as communities and citizens, improve matters?

In Khairo Dero village, district Larkana, where a group of community workers at the Ali Hasan Mangi Memorial Trust are working to create a model of integrated rural development, there's a settlement of Bheel people. These are mostly Hindus belonging to the so-called scheduled castes and the majority of them live in the Tharparkar district with smaller settlements elsewhere in Sindh. In Khairo Dero, about 75 families or 400 Bheels live and work.

About a decade ago, they used to live in the farmland on the far outskirts of the village in hamlets made of mud and straw. There, they were prone to theft since the area was isolated and largely uninhabited; even worse, women were often victims of assault. Both men and women had contacts within the village; men frequented tea shops and women went house-to-house as professional beggars. About eight years ago, tired of the social menace, they decided to emigrate to the village. Property owners took advantage of their desperation, selling land to them at several times the prevailing price. This meant they had no money left to fill the land that all lay several feet below road level or to build proper shelter. As a result, during the rainy season, they would end up waist-deep in water and spend days after days emptying out their plots using buckets and tubs. The residents of the village weren't helpful or welcoming. Indeed, children of the village had been taught that Bheels are not to be accepted; they eat the meat of dead animals they come upon, don't maintain personal hygiene and cremate their dead. Therefore, when Bheel children came out of their neighbourhoods to play, they would be bullied and harassed by other kids and would run back to the safety of their homes.

In 2013, when we decided to start a community outreach effort to reach out to people we hadn't yet helped, we began with the Bheels. Our group of community workers visited their neighbourhood where they welcomed us with broad smiles and offered to sit and talk. We spent an entire evening with them, visiting their homes, listening to their problems and meeting their children. One of the first things we did was to draw up a list of their children — none of whom were enrolled in school for fear of retribution. Then we took note of their infrastructure needs — assistance to build houses, gas connections and hand-pumps to access clean water.

When we hauled an initial batch of 75 children into our community school, they all arrived with matted hair, runny noses, hands and feet caked with dirt and soiled clothes. We gathered them in the courtyard and several of us tried to sort them into age-wise queues. They growled at each other and wasted no time in resorting to hitting, slapping and biting. When we led them to classrooms, they didn't know how to sit on a chair. Despite mustering all my loving kindness, I couldn't get them to pay attention or listen to what we were saying. So we started small. We showed them how to wash up; our community workers bathed them, washed their hair with anti-lice shampoo and combed it down. They were intrigued. We talked to them about brushing their teeth and gave them brushes and toothpaste. They were excited. We offered them hugs and smiles. They started to soften.

Almost all these kids' mothers were beggars; they would head into the cities early in the morning, leaving many children of all ages at home and return before sundown to prepare the evening meal. Some kids would be taken along to learn the begging trade. Many of the fathers were farm workers and would also be gone all day. Unsupervised, children left on their own, fell prey to gambling and drugs. They aspired only to join the begging profession, never having seen the inside of a classroom.

Initially, parents were wary that we were serious about schooling their kids. They would send them to school for a couple days and then pull them out and take them begging to the cities. We had two approaches going: one group of community workers would take a list of absent kids from the teachers every morning and go into their homes and neighbourhoods searching for them. If they were home sick, we would take them medicine and administer it ourselves. If they were playing cards for money or smoking cigarettes, we would sit with them to read them a story and entice them to head back to school with us. If they were out begging, we'd go back in the evening to counsel their mothers. We repeatedly showed them how it was possible for them to build a better life for their children. Almost all of them came around.

At school, we started with uniforms. We got a local tailor in to measure up each child and we prepared school uniforms and bought shoes. Then we bathed all the kids, dressed them in their new uniforms, took pictures of them and displayed the photographs in their classrooms. They started to feel important. In class, we used paints, colour pencils, ribbons and beads to let their creative energies flow. We offered jigsaw puzzles and construction blocks to help them build coordination and judgment. When they were ready, they asked for books and we began teaching a course.

We sat down in public to eat with the kids and insisted on no separate glasses at our public water stand. People's attitudes slowly started to shift. Hungry for this sort of acceptance, the children would buy snacks and come to share them with us, blissfully happy that we did.

In less than a year, these children gained such self-assurance that when they played in our community park, and kids from other communities tried to bully them, they'd calmly and firmly stand up for themselves. In two years, a group of these children were selected for admission in a mainstream school. They're on their way now to become teachers and doctors and tell us they want to come back as workers to the community centre where they started.

We became regular visitors to the Bheel neighbourhoods, giving them bricks and encouraging them to build their own houses, providing them with gas connections and persuading them to buy their own stoves. The parents, once guarded and sceptical, now come to find out how their kids are doing in school. And women are confident enough to come to our community clinic seeking medical help. The barriers are coming down. And it wasn't that hard to do.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 4th,  2015.

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