In the midst of a chaotic fortnight, I received an e-mail from my dear friend Saaz Aggarwal who wrote the moving and poignant Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Homeland. Among the sharing of other news and thoughts, Saaz mentioned that she had noticed a shift in the tone of my columns in the last three months. Earlier, she said, while there was a note of sadness, there was also hope. Now, she detected despair and dismay. Her words hit me like a bolt. I like to think of myself as being reasonably positive; when and how did cynicism and hopelessness sneak their way into my thoughts and words? And that too, without my so much as noticing? Saaz’s e-mail forced me to pause and reflect. And I was grateful to realise I clearly hadn’t been putting enough thought into my thought process.
When I started Ali Hasan Mangi Memorial Trust in 2008 with the aim of creating a model of integrated rural development, hope and optimism were about the only foundations I had. I didn’t have any expertise or experience in development and no exposure to rural Sindh and its social and cultural texture. Yet it seemed to me that the utter despair among the people of Khairo Dero Village in district Larkana where we began the project, could be replaced with at least a little hope that stems from the prospect of a better future. Seven years on, we’ve made tangible progress. We run seven schools, a community centre, a community clinic and medical assistance fund, projects in low-cost housing, water, sanitation and loans as a way for women, the disabled and entrepreneurs with running businesses to improve their incomes. At the heart of all these programmes has been involving the people in their own development, seeking their guidance and motivating them to participate. The most significant difference in these seven years: the village which earlier bore a heavy atmosphere of doom and neglect is now a lively and vibrant place where the young and old speak with excitement about the future.
So I’m intimately familiar with the need for hope and was infinitely thankful to Saaz for pointing out what she observed. Indeed, despair is something which tends to seep into our minds and hearts even if we actively aim to avoid it. This is especially relevant in our current environment where terrorism, corruption and a complete absence of the rule of law has given all of us a good measure of aggravation and despair. Yet, it’s all too obvious that while some anger may motivate some to action — in terms of protesting, lobbying, raising voices and so on — by and large, pessimism is unhelpful. A few days before Saaz sent me her note, another friend shared some views that had done the rounds on a recent article I wrote about the appalling state of government schools and how communities can help improve matters. It was interesting to read those thoughts. The main themes were that work at a community level is nothing more than a drop in the ocean at best, time spent working in the NGO arena would be better utilised in naming and shaming the government on various platforms and that this type of work is usually done to make the ‘do-gooder’ feel good.
All this feedback got me thinking. True, working in one community of a few thousand people won’t change the fortunes of the entire nation. True, also, that holding the government accountable for its misdeeds is our duty as honourable citizens. And true as well that when one plays a role in facilitating improvement in the lives of others, one does feel a measure of inner satisfaction. Yet, these nagging thoughts brew in my mind. If several of us chose to give up some of life’s modern-day comforts and let go of some lifestyle aspirations that would free up time and effort to work with communities; if we each took up the task of facilitating, motivating and working with just one medium-sized settlement of, say 3,500 people, it would only take a few more than 57,000 of us to make things better for the entire country. That figure would become much lower if those not in need of help are removed from the total population.
Second, as we learn to vote responsibly and point out where the government is going wrong, it would only improve matters faster if we also actively did some hole-filling ourselves wherever we can. Both these actions need not be mutually exclusive. If communities can work with governments to deliver at least some of their promises, the rest of the job can be finished off by the people themselves.
And third, while the facilitator doubtlessly experiences happiness to be a positive contributor to society, I’d suggest all the sceptics out there try this experiment. Go out to a woman who has been patting buffalo dung cakes for 30 years to fuel her kitchen stove and now just flicks a knob to get gas. Ask her how much better her life is and watch how her eyes shine with glee. Go out to a village child who had never seen the inside of a classroom, had whiled away endless days in gambling dens and now sits doing homework in candlelight. Ask her what dreams she has for her future and watch her tell you that she’s going to become a pilot. Go out to a despondent father who spent years sitting idle at the local tea-shop and worrying about his family’s dinner and is now rushing at dawn to prepare his vegetable push-cart for the day’s sales because a facilitator helped him get this trade going. Ask him what he plans for the holiday and watch him excitedly tell you that all his children will get clothes and shoes this year.
None of this work, no matter how small, is insignificant to those whose lives it affects. We all talk way too much and do very little. Perhaps if we spent that time and energy doing something, even if it amounts to a drop in the ocean, that is something that can be built on. Being cynical, meanwhile, won’t amount to anything at all. I’ll choose to be reflectively optimistic any day.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 7th, 2015.
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