Beyond the Pale

Fr. Peter Woodruff
September 15, 2013

Some of the displaced families

My job was to get a story about an outreach project. I was staying in a room at St. Elizabeth Hospital, Hyderabad, not as a patient but as a visitor. My recommendation was Columban Fr. Robert McCulloch who had worked closely with the hospital’s medical outreach program, raising funds and discussing possible projects. With Aamir Sohail, the coordinator of the hospital’s medical outreach program, at the wheel we eased our way through the city traffic faster than most other vehicles. As we approached the long bridge over the Indus River (built by the British colonial administration in 1931) we stopped briefly, and Aamir also took advantage of the moment to put on his seat belt, so I followed suit. The security guard waved us through with a smile and a salute. The white foreigner was sitting in the front passenger seat!

We headed out of town in a south westerly direction along the old highway to Karachi. Franklin, the man who maybe had the problem with documents, spoke English and told me that we were going to some villages where the hospital team was helping with flood relief housing. The road passed through a flat, semi-desert landscape with small, dried mud houses scattered along the way. I began to wonder how far we would have to go to find our villages. Then we turned off the main road along an unsigned but paved narrow road, which soon became a dirt track and then on to another dirt track, and another until we finally arrived at a hamlet tucked away behind a wall of trees. Arriving depended entirely on local knowledge; there were no road signs of any kind, and the hamlet displayed no name.

Franklin, the liaison between the hospital and the building contractor, informed me that the hamlet was called Moha Parigal Shoro Goth, that the 22 families living there belonged to the Kachi Kohli tribe and were Hindus. Ama, the head woman, gave us a warm welcome, and then numerous children and adults showed us around from house to house. Tethered water buffalo occupied much of the free space; in one part drying red chili was spread out on a surface of hard, dried mud. Clearly life was a constant grind for these people, but we heard no complaints and saw plenty of smiles.

I also felt sadness when on asking about schooling for the children they told me that they don’t go to school as the nearest school is five kilometers down the road. Children walking alone for that distance would, I suspect, be at risk; also, at the school their Hindu and tribal background might be cause for discrimination, overt or otherwise. It seems that so many of the children in rural villages and hamlets have little chance to go to school, and so the cycle of poverty, due in part to illiteracy, continues to follow its fatalistic course.

Yaqoob Aziz, the building contractor, was intent upon showing me the eight toilet blocks (two small rooms, one for washing and one for the toilet). The residents’ houses were one room per family, with one steel door and windows for a cross breeze. The hospital relief project supplied the steel and wood roof supports, the steel door and windows. The residents built everything and then added a large verandah. One wall is made of dried mud and when the monsoon rains come they beat against one of the walls. The home-owner rebuilds the fallen wall after the rain passes. The builder told them that mud plastered on intertwined sticks would not fall in the rain, but to no avail. Old habits die hard!

These people work the land for a landowner. Their village has a Hindu temple, and they observe the teachings of their religious faith, one of which is not to eat any kind of meat or fish, even though other groups of Hindus might eat chicken or fish. Ama showed me with pride her personal religious shrine located in the outer living space of her home.

We moved further down the main road to what was one of the most heart-rending sights of misery I have ever seen – 75 families of the Parkari Kohli tribe, all Hindus, and living in a space beside a river, which was the fifth place they had been moved to. The St. Elizabeth Hospital team is negotiating with a local landowner to buy four acres of land nearby, around which they will build a wall and have the land use transferred from agricultural to urban, from his name to that of a building society that they must form. The 75 families will move on to the site and Yaqoob will begin building the houses, which will be elevated about two feet above the ground to protect against flooding. Because construction costs have more than doubled in the past few months, even after receiving all the money they have been promised, there will only be enough for about 40 houses.

The cost of purchasing the four acres of land is about $6,889.00, of transferring its use from agricultural to urban use $787.00, of building one house $1,2790.00, of building one toilet block $394.00 (one toilet block serves three houses). The hospital outreach team takes on this kind of project in the context of its program of preventive medicine.

I was introduced to Reshma, the head woman who has been active in finding a solution to her people’s housing. Like Ama, Reshma was gracious and kind in her welcome. We went from shelter to shelter photographing family members posing in front of their temporary dwelling. I don’t think they realized that I was using a telescopic lens, and they had a great laugh at the expressions on some of the faces when I showed them the photos on the digital camera display. No doubt they saw me as one more big shot from officialdom doing what has to be done to help their dream of a home come true. These people may be slight of build but most of those I saw were gaunt not slight. Needless to say, their children have no chance to attend school. Our last stop was a Sindhi Muslim village with 46 families. They too gave us a warm welcome but, for the most part, the residents were busy about the business of the day; we arrived there just after noon. The head man, Ali Buksh, walked us around his village, Burfat, and obviously knew Aamir quite well. Every Saturday he travels to one of a number of villages with the hospital mobile medical team (including a doctor). In Burfat, Yaqoob proudly showed us the finished houses that he had built, and one family posed in front of their house for us. Life is clearly hard for the residents of this village too, but they do have stability even though most of their children don’t go to school either.

We returned to Hyderabad, and my hosts invited me to a meal at an air-conditioned restaurant that serves very good Pakistani food.