by Rabiya Ezdi
Rahman had a capacity to pick up on the potential of people, and believe in them until they had no choice but to believe in themselves
It is a natural human instinct to celebrate those that leave us. But a tribute to Perween Rahman is like sharing some of the stuff that real legends are made of. Not the people of big awards and media coverage, but those that make change on the ground while shunning publicity; the true heroes of Pakistan.
I first met Perween eleven years ago. After being disillusioned by the role of mainstream architects in making the kind of change that was needed in our cities, I had decided to plunge into the NGO sector. The replication of the OPP (Orangi Pilot Project) model in Punjab had begun, adding to its recognition as a development alternative with much promise. I expected Perween to be the proverbial ‘NGO-type’: scary, aggressive, intimidating. She was none of these. With a warm smile, a chirpy voice, and a kind demeanour, she welcomed me to the OPP-RTI (Orangi Pilot Project-Research and Training Institute) and told me that I should spend the first two weeks just trying to understand the work of the organisation.
OPP was at the time and still is, running on the momentum of Dr Akhtar Hamid Khan’s teachings; simplicity, frugality, and the ideals of love and humanity. Two of the first of Dr Sahib’s axioms I was told I must remember were: “I made a mistake”, and “I have not understood”. Being used to an academic and professional world where flaunting one’s knowledge, talking more than listening, and proving one’s point often in heavy jargon, were characteristic of ‘strong’ professionals — this new ethos was most liberating, and one of the things that made me fall instantly for the OPP’s development philosophy.
Anyone interested in being a part of this most beautiful process of true, rooted change, could just sit back, listen, observe, and internalise when ready. There was no room for ego. Also, where mainstream development work is about ‘doing’ for the poor, this was about learning from the poor, and supporting their initiatives with whatever know-how is appropriate, from technical input, to maps and training. It was the self-help model, committed to bringing human dignity back into the formula of helping the poor help themselves.
It was this that I learnt most from Perween and those at OPP: working for ‘real’ development is, more than anything else, a spiritual discipline.
On the operational side of the organisation, there was the weekly Monday meeting. In appearance just a tedious reporting of the week’s progress by every OPP-RTI team member including Perween herself, in reality it is an exceptional tool for accountability, transparency, and inclusive decision-making. It was the platform for debate, disagreement, acknowledgement of failures, and a celebration of small and big successes.
In work ethic, Perween was a disciplinarian and this had trickled down to all members of the institution. Work was the temple, the worship; there was no compromise. While she was gentle, she was as firm and upright as the trunk of an oak tree. The OPP-RTI research objective was clear: advocacy for the poor. The methodology was simple — interview, mapping, writing, and dissemination.
And then there was Perween’s insistence on using the right words; “It is the terms we use that shape our biases towards the poor,” she would say. Perween was not opposed to the city’s ‘mafias’ any more than she was saddened by the government’s indifference in solving the problems of the poor. She had come to realise that the term ‘mafia’ is misleading; in a system that is not fair by its very nature, and where the majority has no choice but to fend for themselves, a ‘mafia’ was simply an opportunist’s response in a crisis.
The word ‘katchi abadi’ she would say, leads to an automatic anti-poor prejudice. It was merely ‘People’s Housing’, “They are people who have found no alternative and this reflects the failure of the government to absorb them”. And ‘informal settlements’? Perween had concluded that there is no such thing; it was simply that which was ‘unofficial’ planning, unofficially supplied services, and unofficial systems, versus what was ‘officially’ done and recognised. And it was these ‘unofficial’ systems that existed often in collusion with the government, and supported the lives of 70 per cent of the city’s population, hence the need to recognise and understand them.
Perween was high on life. Along with countless people from community-based organisations in Sindh and Punjab, we travelled across the country several times a year, trying to understand and support poor people’s initiatives. Travel was not just business; while the tone was always jovial, it was above all an opportunity to make connections and give people hope. It is this people-building that was the real and lasting investment. Perween had a capacity to pick up on the potential of people, and believe in them until they had no choice but to believe in themselves. She would instil idealism, humane values, and a work ethic without overtly ‘preaching’. She was that rare combination of mentor and friend.
Perween was not the change itself, she was one of change’s most potent agents — the faith of change, the brain behind change. In her inside-out understanding of the city’s ways, and in the networks and relationships with government and communities that she had forged over the years, Perween had crystallised a movement of sorts, where the marginalised were shown ways in which they would really no longer be the city’s ‘Citizen X’. And it is always the true change-makers of the world that shake the hold of those who live only to maintain a ruthless status quo.
Many theories abound about who would want to so heinously rob this gentle soul of her life, this soul that couldn’t hurt an ant. The truth is simply that in the years since she first joined OPP, Perween had quietly grown and come to a point where she could move mountains. The OPP’s ground-breaking low-cost sanitation model, and the upgrading of housing in Orangi, were the primers. The Karachi master plan for the conversion of Karachi’s open nallahs into box culverts was achieved through an arduous process of lobbying with the KWSB. Research into the truth about Karachi’s water crisis, and unearthing water ‘thefts’ was geared by the OPP.
The 2006 floods in Karachi and their connection with the choking of Karachi’s storm-water nallahs due to encroachments by government and private interests alike, was investigated by the OPP. And now the Secure Housing Initiative, wherein it was discovered that pre-partition villages or Goths in Karachi’s peripheral areas, were being evicted by political interests in order to create new constituencies for political parties. Where the government’s figures recognised these goths to be 400 in number, through research the OPP-RTI discovered that there were more than 2000. The OPP-RTI had entered into a process of mapping these goths, and supporting goth dwellers to advocate for land title.
In 2010, these maps helped convince the government to issue land titles to over half of those communities. Now, by 2013, more land titles were on their way. “The maps did it. Maps help to build relationships,” she would say, “The maps tell us what to do, where to go, who to lobby. They help professionals to understand the reality and have the courage to accept it. They help government to understand the reality and accept it too, because they are no longer the only ones that have that information. The people have this information now, and the NGOs and media have it too.” Most of these maps of the goth settlements have now been accepted as official government maps. “It is the community youth who actually do the mapping. We only help train them, and then take a back seat, become invisible.”
Despite negativity and despair all around, with the youthful spirit of a sixteen-year-old, Perween never stopped being an incurable optimist.
In a presentation she made in Bangkok in February at a meeting of community-based organisations from Asia, Perween’s words are the only solace one finds in the midst of this painful turn of events: “Today Karachi is in flames, and one of the aspects of the violence in the city is the politics of land and who gets title to it. Getting land title for these goth settlers, who have lived there since long before partition in 1947, has been a very powerful step forward for the peace and the political balance of Karachi. We were just saying amongst ourselves that if we die today, we will die so happily, because we have done it.”
This was Perween Rahman. With the childlike vivacity of a fluttering bird, the resolve of a revolutionary, and the magnanimity of a sage, this gentle soul had helped to change the map of Karachi.