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Changing Pakistan from the bottom up

By Wajahat Ali, Special to CNN
updated 1:59 PM EDT, Sun May 13, 2012
Women play a prominent role in Abdul Qadir Lashari village and its process toward empowerment and self-sustenance.
Women play a prominent role in Abdul Qadir Lashari village and its process toward empowerment and self-sustenance.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Journalist Wajahat Ali recently visited a Pakistani village that is pulling itself out of poverty
  • A group has helped teach the people professional skills and financial management
  • Women are playing a prominent role, too, in a place they once didn't
  • Ali says the village's story runs counter to more extreme narratives in the country

Editor's note: Wajahat Ali is a playwright, attorney, journalist and researcher. He is co-editor of the upcoming anthology "All-American: 45 American Men on being Muslim."

(CNN) -- This is a story affecting millions of Pakistanis — and it does not involve suicide bombings, honor killings, extremism or President Zardari's mustache.

"What would you like to be when you grow up?" I asked Sakafat, a boisterous 12-year-old girl, while visiting a remote Pakistani village in the Sindh province.

"A scientist!" she immediately replied. "Why can't we be scientists? Why not us?"

The confident Sakafat lives in Abdul Qadir Lashari village, which is home to 500 people in Mirpur Sakro. It is in one of the most impoverished regions of Pakistan.

There was a characteristic resilience and optimism in this particular village. This should come as no surprise to anyone who knows anything about Pakistan's often dysfunctional, surreal yet endearing daily existence.

Wajahat Ali
Wajahat Ali

The 500 villagers live in 48 small huts, except for the one "wealthy" family who recently built a home made of concrete. The village chief, Abdul Qadir Lashari, proudly showed off his village's brand-new community toilets, paved roads, and water pump that brings fresh water to the village.

These simple, critical amenities, taken for granted by most of us in the West, resulted from the direct assistance of the Rural Support Programmes Network, Pakistan's largest nongovernmental organization. RSPN has worked with thousands of similar Pakistani villages to help them achieve economic self-sufficiency.

I visited the Sindh village with RSPN to witness the results of using community organizing to alleviate poverty. The staff told me its goal was to teach villagers to "fish for themselves."

Every household in the Abdul Qadir Lashari village was able to reach a profit by the end of 2011 as a result of professional skills training, financial management, community leadership workshops and microloans.

Specifically, a middle-aged, illiterate woman proudly told me how she learned sewing and financial management and was thus able to increase her household revenue, manage her bills, and use a small profit to purchase an extra cow for the family. She was excited to introduce me to her cow, but sadly due to lack of time I was unable to make the bovine acquaintance.

Young Sakafat, 12, believes she can become a scientist one day.
Young Sakafat, 12, believes she can become a scientist one day.

Women play a prominent role in this village's process toward empowerment and self-sustenance. Here, in one of the most traditional and rural regions of Pakistan, almost all of the presentations were led by women. All of their daughters from the ages of 6 to 12 are now 100% literate. In comparison, only 31% of the entire village and 12% of females 15 and older can read.

All this is particularly pertinent to Pakistan's wider sociopolitical context. In a country where change is so often top-down and directed by national elites mostly interested in maintaining the status quo for sake of sustaining their vice-like grip on power and wealth, grassroots empowerment can potentially change deeply ingrained feudal and tribal traditions. This power — to progressively change societal patterns and norms from the bottom up — is a rarity in Pakistan and a crucial counterweight to more extreme narratives currently sweeping the nation.

The village's local community manager — a woman — reflected some of this positive sentiment when she passed on a hopeful message to America: "We take pride in our traditional work and livelihood, and we hope you too can enjoy them. We hope to trade with you in the future and to have better relations. And we hope and believe we can be a developed nation like you."

Asked what single thing she felt was most important most for her village, she replied education. Upon asking another elderly lady what she wishes for Pakistan, she repeated one word three times: "sukoon," which means peace.

When it was time to depart, the people of the village presented me with a beautiful handmade Sindhi shawl, an example of the craftwork the villagers are now able to sell for profit.

As I left the village with the dark red, traditional Sindhi shawl adorned around my neck, my thoughts returned to the 12-year-old girl, Sakafat, who passionately asked why she couldn't become a scientist.

I looked in her eyes and could only respond with the following: "You're right. You can be anything you want to be. And I have every confidence you will, inshallah ("God willing"), reach your manzil ("desired destination").

By focusing on education and local empowerment to lift the next generation out of poverty, Sakafat's dream could indeed one day become a reality for all of Pakistan.

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