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Footprints: Roots and stems

Updated September 21, 2018


MADIEA Ghafoor enjoys a girls boxing match at the Benazir Bhutto Shaheed University, Lyari.—Photo by writer
MADIEA Ghafoor enjoys a girls boxing match at the Benazir Bhutto Shaheed University, Lyari.—Photo by writer

“THERE … yes there, she is! That’s her … yes, that’s Madiea!”

The students gathering around the entra­nce of the gymnasium at the Benazir Bhutto Shaheed University Lyari (BBSUL) were pointing towards this thin girl in jeans and a blue and white printed shirt with a black stole around her neck and hair neatly tied back in a ponytail.

She was watching a girls’ badminton match. Well, she did kind of have an uncanny resemblance to that larger than life poster of the international athlete behind her. It was the first public appearance of the Dutch athlete of Pakistani descent since her low-key arrival in Pakistan over a week ago.

Madiea Ghafoor admires a picture of Benazir Bhutto during her visit to BBSUL. — Photo by writer
Madiea Ghafoor admires a picture of Benazir Bhutto during her visit to BBSUL. — Photo by writer

This country of her forefathers first woke up to Madiea Ghafoor two years ago when she competed in the 4x400m relay at the Rio Olympics, even though the first Baloch female Olympian was not in Pakistan colours.

She was representing the Netherlands. When pointed out to her then that she was not just competing for the Netherlands, but was also making the Baloch back in Pakistan, particularly in Lyari, very proud, the youngster said that she, too, had no idea that she was the first woman among her people to be competing in the Olympics.

Born and raised in Amsterdam, the 26-year-old Madiea is the maternal granddaughter of the late politician Lal Bakhsh Rind, a political icon in Lyari.

Later, his political activities caused him to go into exile in Afghanistan. The years of unrest led to his taking some bold decisions about his family. He let his brother take his young daughter Gulnaz (Madiea’s mother) to the Netherlands, the adopted country of some of his relatives.

Abdul Rauf, Madiea’s father, was born and raised in Lyari, but when the time came for him to find a life partner, the family selected Gulnaz for him. And after the wedding he, too, moved to Amsterdam.

But the ties with Lyari continued. Madiea says until 12 years ago, she used to come to Pakistan every year with her parents to spend her vacations. The visits helped develop a bond between herself and her parents’ extended family. “My studies and sports activities then came between my visits here,” she explains.

The badminton match is over by then and there is a table tennis match under way now. A few members from the electronic media approach Madiea for a few comments, but upon realising that the questions coming her way are in Urdu, she smiles politely before apologetically informing them that she didn’t speak Urdu. “Sorry, I only know Balochi, Dutch and English,” she says.

“In that order?” a newspaper reporter asks in English.

“Yes,” Madiea laughs. “Balochi is my mother tongue. I only speak Balochi at home with my parents,” she adds. She also speaks in the language with her uncle and cousins who have accompanied her to the university event.

Her cousin Shahdad Baloch, who is also a student at BBSUL, says that Madiea is very much into kick-boxing too. “Kicking and boxing is in our blood. Although we like to kick around the football and box in the ring, she has selected an activity involving both kicking and punching.”

“Well, I do indulge in some kick-boxing, yes. But it is only during my off season when I am not practising on the track,” she says.

Meanwhile, the table tennis game is also over and female boxing matches follow. Madiea is suddenly up and on her feet, cheering the boxers in the ring. She also takes out her phone and films the encounters.

“I don’t indulge in football or boxing, sports which my people are known for, but with my presence here maybe I will be able to inspire a few girls to think about taking up athletics. I would love to be their role model,” she says.

Asked whether she would ever be willing to compete for Pakistan on the international stage like the British boxer Amir Khan or the Japanese judoka Shah Hussain Shah and footballers like Zesh Rehman, Madiea shakes her head. “It is not easy for me since I am not an individual, but a member of the Netherlands track and field team,” she explains. “The entire team gets good coaching, physiotherapists, track and gym facilities, which I would be depriving myself of if I break away.”

The busy athlete says that she also travels a lot with her team. “Since it gets rather cold in the Netherlands during winter, we head to warmer climes such as the US, South Africa, Spain or Turkey for practice once a year,” she says. Reading my thoughts she says with a smile: “Yes, Karachi is warm enough. But sporting facilities are not developed here.”

But she adds: “What I love about Pakistan, especially Lyari, is that despite a lack of luxuries and facilities the people here are happy and love life. I don’t find anyone complaining.”

Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2018