Red, purple, yellow, fuchsia. The women of Tharparkar dress in vibrant colours. The more barren and colourless their lives, the more they have a need to dress in brightly-coloured clothes. Perhaps this is a defense mechanism – hunger and poverty can suck the colour out of peoples’ lives. Yet, the colour of hope lives on in their faces – the most beautiful colour. Perhaps, this is what helps them survive. - Photo Courtesy: Farah Zahidi Moazzam

Travelling to Tharparkar for the first time, I experience excitement and nervousness in anticipation. My friend, a fellow journalist, had forewarned me that “Tharparkar is not for everyone. Not everyone can take it.” As the scenery whizzes past on our six-hour journey by car from Karachi to Mithi, I wonder what my friend meant by that fleeting remark.

The landscape soon begins to change as we approach district Tharparkar in Sindh. The spectacular sunflower fields we saw in Sajawal are replaced by white sand dunes, dry shrubs, Neem trees, cacti of different varieties, sand, sand and more sand. Out of nowhere, a peacock suddenly appears and a myriad of blue and green splashes its feathers – against the barren desert backdrop, it is definitely a treat. Camels lazily trudge along the way. Men pass by in brightly-coloured shalwar kameezes. I can hardly spot public transport. I peer for an oasis or a pond on the way. I was hardly able to spot a couple.

Tharparkar has the lowest Human Development Index out of all districts in Sindh. Ironically, the crime rate is very low. However, contentment and values seem to have been passed on as heirlooms in the generations of its inhabitants. Sharma, a local, tells me that “legend has it that in Tharparkar, seven years of drought will be followed by three years of rain. For a major part, the legend has held true.”

Nagarparkar, another two hours from Mithi, is worse off in terms of the food crisis. Tharparkar is one of the most food-insecure regions in Pakistan. The water is brackish and the incidence of malnourishment is staggeringly common. In spite of this, Sharma reveals that “the locals traditionally divide the little harvest they get into three. One portion for themselves and their relatives, the second for selling off in the market or bartering for necessities, and the third is to feed to the birds as charity.” I am a little taken aback and a little ashamed at my urbane sensibilities that initially do not get why they would give away one-third as charity in such dire circumstances.

My work takes me and my co-workers to many villages, for which we travel for hours in four-wheel drives on desert safari-type back-breaking routes. One such village in Taluka Nagarparkar is Malji-joWadhio. Like all villages, it consists of many small circular clay homes with tiny doors. Villagers, when asked, say that the doors are kept small so that the women stay healthy, active and slim as they must bend down each time they go indoors. When I enter one such hut, I realise it is simply an intelligently-built home adapted to the climate. Dried straw called khip covers the roof for insulation. Two tiny windows of approximately six by ten inches is all the ventilation the huts will have. The strategy keeps the huts very cool.

Parwati Bai is a Lady Health Worker (LHW) in the village. Her house is exceptionally clean, and this is typical of the houses of the Meghwar Hindu community in Tharparkar. The district, incidentally, has a majority of Hindus as its population. Muslims and Hindus co-exist peacefully in this region.

As Parwati welcomes us, some 15 women have already gathered at her house to meet us. “Community living” is the word that comes to my mind instantaneously – something that is on its way out in the cities.

The women of Tharparkar, like all of rural Pakistan, deliver babies mostly at home with the help of a daai, who usually inherits the profession from her mother. The daai usually charges Rs. 100 and gets a dupatta as tip for helping deliver the baby and serving as a nurse for the mother. In case of a complication, a woman of this area might have to be taken in the state of labour to the nearest health facility on a camel or on her husband’s back for a journey of hours. - Photo Courtesy: Farah Zahidi Moazzam

Parwati proudly shows us the tiny clean room that serves as a health centre in her house. It has a small steel trunk which stores basic medicines that can help bring down a fever, help rehydrate a dehydrated child or capsules that give necessary folic acid to a pregnant woman to avoid anemia. Parwati helps give necessary supplement doses to the malnourished children of her area and works hand in hand with a local NGO.

But 13-month-old Nirmala, the youngest of Parwati’s five girls, is clearly malnourished. Parwati says “Nirmala had gotten much better, but has gone into a relapse. It is due to the recent bouts of diarrhea and pneumonia.” But the reason, as in many cases of malnourishment relapse in the region, could simply be that in moments of extreme hunger, the target child who was being given a specific dose of food supplement, ended up sharing the dose with other siblings or the mother – all of whom are possibly border-line cases of malnourishment.

The women of Tharparkar live lives of extreme hardship. Hunger and extreme climate results in wrinkles forming on their age prematurely. However, this elderly women’s wrinkles are formed because of hardship and wisdom etched on her heart and face. - Photo Courtesy: Farah Zahidi Moazzam

Even so, Parwati does not forget her hospitality. She insists on serving tea. Sheema, Parwati’s neighbour, holds my hand and we talk about her children and my daughter. I compliment her white bangles, which she wears up to her shoulders signifying she is married. We are just two women from very different backgrounds, connecting very comfortably. With one major difference: I look up to Sheema and the women of Tharparkar as an inspiration. Yes, Tharparkar is not for everyone as the poverty rattles your system. But the values of its people and their spirit of survival leave an indelible mark.

Farah Zahidi Moazzam is a freelance writer.

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