It’s 44 degrees and we’ve just pulled up outside a cluster of brick buildings in a small village in Larkana, Sindh. Already the sweat has started to trickle down my back, the glare of the sun unforgiving on the sun-baked earth. In the shade of a dusty building, village women have gathered. To their left, buffalo lounge under a straw roof; cow dung dries in perfect circles on the walls; a little girl dozes in a hammock hanging from a rope bed.
I am in Sindh, Pakistan and I will be for two months. I’ve been wanting to come to Pakistan since I left Indonesia and my gap year in 2016. After my gap year, Pakistan became the next big adventure: a chance to learn a language and connect with a country that I can lay claim to. I’ve been here two weeks now and it hasn’t always been easy. As I stepped off the plane in Karachi there were no fireworks, no ‘Maleeha-this-is-your-homeland’ feels, but there was a familiarity that comes with arriving in a place that you’ve been visiting since you were born, a vague sense of cultural belonging.
Two months is a long time and to fulfil my goal of learning more about this country I needed a starting place. Sindh Rural Support Organisation (SRSO), where I’ll be interning for the next six weeks, is the perfect place to start. SRSO is part of a network of rural support organisations that work across the country, aiming to alleviate rural poverty. Their main program: the mobilisation and empowerment of women living in rural areas. Under the UCBPRP Success Program, women are organised into community, village and district organisations. Each household is asked to draw up a plan for improving their income; for example, investing in livestock, starting a sewing business or opening a village shop. The community organisations are then able to apply for various grants or loans which allow them to support their plans. Take the example of Fehmida who used a Community Investment Loan to purchase a goat. Two years down the line, she had sold the original goat to pay her loan and kept the kids – a vital source of income for her family.
But the local organisations do not simply provide a way for the women to access funds, they also represent an integral step in a move towards gender equality. In organising these women, a group who would otherwise be expected to stay at home are given a voice. Get ready for a blog post all about being female in Pakistan…
The organisations also act as a stepping stone for other projects; the reason for my visit to the village in Larkana in 44 degree heat. For the past week I have been working with the ‘Program to Improve Nutrition in Sindh’ (PINS). Our visit to Larkana was the first in a series of village dialogues around the importance of improving diet, nutrition and hygiene.
Malnutrition rates in Sindh are amongst the worst in the country. According to the National Nutrition Survey (2011), 40% of children in the region are underweight. The rate of stunting is 49.8%; wasting is 17.5%. These statistics are shocking. In the village, the children are tiny; it is difficult to guess their actual age. We all know that poor nutrition has huge consequences on health, mortality and susceptibility to diseases. It also has significant long-term effects: poor attention and capacity for learning reduces education achievement, which in turn means less opportunity for jobs and social mobility. In depriving children of the correct diet, you are depriving them of the chance to improve their socioeconomic future. Malnutrition and stunting have direct links to reduced productivity and work capacity as adults. These consequences don’t just matter on a personal level, but also have huge implications on the national level. How far can Pakistan progress if a significant proportion of its children cannot meet their basic needs?
So why is nutrition such a problem?
A mainly agricultural economy, poor female literacy, patriarchal society and a lack of food and hygiene makes a toxic mix. Most households live on a diet of rice and a narrow selection of vegetables; they eat salan (curry) just once or twice a week. In the poorest villages, families survive on rice, roti and chai in the lean season. Chai – sweet milky tea – is an essential energy drink; households spend 30% of their income on the milk, sugar and tea leaves needed. Each year, families have to sell their crops at harvest to buy essential household items, only to buy the crops back in the lean season, often for higher prices. Each day, the men are served first and then the children, leaving the least nutritious foods for pregnant and breastfeeding women. Poor sanitation and hygiene only exacerbate the problems.
In the past, the government has focused on food distribution as a method of reducing nutrition associated problems. This is obviously not sustainable and, although improving nutrition is a part of the government’s agenda, no one department is responsible and it has largely taken a back seat.
And then, for this area of Sindh, we have PINS.
PINS, among similar projects in the region, aims to improve the nutritional status of children under five and of pregnant and breastfeeding women. Our visit to Larkana was the first in a series of dialogues about nutrition, sanitation and hygiene; an attempt to change behaviour around food and feeding practices. While the District Officers talked to a gathering of men and women about defining nutrition and improving diet, I sat off to the side, a waterfall running down my back, wandering what exactly was being said. Everything is in the local dialect, Sindhi; I can barely hold a conversation in Urdu (the national language), let alone in other local languages. The meeting concluded by selecting two community project leaders, one male one female, who will be given training and information relating to improving diet and sanitation. They will then be able to take this information back to the village and educate their peers. The project also aims to support villagers in developing kitchen gardens to increase diversity among consumed vegetables, provide poultry, and build infrastructure to improve sanitation and farming.
PINS is in its early stages and none of the many interventions have yet been put into place. District Project Officers are still in the planning stage; the dialogues in the villages highlight how much is to be done – most people aren’t aware of the concept of a balanced diet. However, looking at the success of other projects in SRSO and the interventions this project will put in place, I have high hopes that rates of malnutrition will decrease over the next few years. Hopefully I’ll be able to report back with more in six weeks’ time…
And so my first week at SRSO drew to a close. I’ve sat in meetings where I can only understand 40% of conversation, proof read reports (English is the official language of monitoring and evaluation) and spent long car journeys staring fascinated out of the window at the passing countryside. There’s been many sweat soaked days, freaked out phone calls home, and nights assuaging homesickness with Love Island (don’t tell anyone). Good days and bad days: I’d managed to forget the difficulties of being alone in a different country and language.
But I have made friends (!!) and things are looking up. Friday night saw me hanging out with my new friend, Mahira, and her cousins in the womens’ area of a water park – lots of dancing to Bollywood songs, laughing, and not going on the slides because load shedding meant the electricity was off! The weekend continued with a wander through Sukkur: pizza in a fast food restaurant and Lab-e-Mehran and Sukkur Barrage (the history of colonialism is clear – more on that another time).
But the real highlight is…
The season started just a few weeks ago and it’s set to last my whole time in Pakistan. Nothing cures loneliness like a deliciously cold, sweet PAKISTANI mango…