IN these trying times of lockdowns, I have found relief in books. Currently, Michelle Obama has brought me the comfort I was looking for. America’s former first lady’s memoir, Becoming, grips your attention with its lucid style. It also gives you a graphic insight into the life of the African-American community, whose struggle has fascinated me since Martin Luther King made his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech more than 50 years ago.
What struck a chord with me in the book was the author’s account of how she found working for her community so gratifying. After completing her law studies at Princeton and doing a short stint with a prestigious corporate law firm, Michelle Obama gave up her lucrative position to join the Chicago city hall for half her previous pay. Engagement with her community in South Side (Chicago) was, for her, not a job. It was “fulfilling work”.
Becoming also reminded me of the lessons I learnt from the legendary Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan, the founder of the Orangi Pilot Project. Doctor Sahib always insisted that the members of a community understood their own problems best and also knew how to find feasible solutions. What they do need, he would say, was some guidance or funds if technology was involved. He often spoke of the wisdom of the community. Above all, Dr Sahib identified himself closely with the community he worked with. That was important if his message that he respected them was to get across.
That is something most development workers fail to understand as they try to impose their sponsor-driven schemes on the people. As such, they emerge as condescending outsiders doling out charity. In fact, only those programmes designed for the uplift of a community succeed which are guided predominantly by local leaders themselves. They understand their people’s needs and also devise the best approach to negotiate the stormy waters.
We are lucky to have an amazing set of community workers.
I strongly believe that Pakistan survives today because of the services rendered by millions of amazing community workers who struggle tirelessly in all fields through thick and thin, even in ‘normal’ times. Given the decades of criminal neglect of the social sector by governments through the ages, how else would you explain the country’s ability to sustain itself?
I discover new community workers each time I am investigating an issue. Their stories of achievement delight me. There are the 10 or so teachers in The Garage School in Karachi, the 600 or so men and women working for the Indus Resource Centre all over Sindh, the numerous workers in Orangi and Lyari who look after marginalised communities. True, many of them work for various NGOs, but the fact is that they are indispensable and committed to their people.
The Citizens Foundation (TCF) tells us success stories of many of their students who return to teach the youngsters of their villages and give them a better childhood than their own. The Teach the World Foundation counted nearly 20 workers on their rolls, while the ubiquitous Idara-i-Taleem-o-Agahi sent me a list of 20 volunteers who help promote education in underserved communities, whose offspring would otherwise have joined the burgeoning ranks of out-of-school children. These are just those I know personally. There are countless of them across the country.
There is yet another brand of workers who are quite distinctive and have few parallels. They are the ones whose forebears were born in the community, created the opportunity to empower themselves with good education, and then returned ‘home’ to uplift their people. Not that they did not have a choice. They did. They could opt for high-paid jobs and a life of comfort while making donations for public welfare. But they opt for the hardship of service and that too somewhere in the backwaters of civilisation.
The community worker in this category I know is Naween Mangi who studied economic journalism at Columbia, worked as the country head of Bloomberg in Karachi, and then left her position to work with her people in Kheiro Dero under the umbrella of the Ali Hasan Mangi Memorial Trust that she set up in her grandfather’s name — a people’s man of humble origins. Her satisfaction lies in addressing development issues with the community’s collaboration. Many would be impatient with the pace of progress. What they fail to see is that progress is not at the cost of her compatriots’ dignity and self-esteem. Besides, with education of all children being a unanimous priority in the village and the TCF’s presence being a big help, progress is assured.
There must be more like Naween around, I am certain of that. For instance, I am told a somewhat similar story about Leena Talpur in Badin. We need more of them — people who are empowered and understand the issues from both perspectives. Michelle Obama articulated this dilemma: “Being black and from the South Side helped me recognise the problems that [others] did not even realise existed.”
Published in Dawn, April 10th, 2020