By Zubeida Mustafa
A SPARK has been lit in a 3,500-strong community living in the backwaters of Larkana district. Known as Khairo Dero, the place was the antithesis of what its name implies: it was one of the most depressed goths in the area. A turning point came in 2004. A young female journalist touring rural Sindh was deeply moved by the neglect and apathy she witnessed, especially in Khairo Dero, her ancestral village.
That was Naween Mangi, today the Pakistan bureau chief of Bloomberg, a premier American business and financial news channel. It took her four years to internalise the despondency of her people and think of a strategy to breathe new life into their existence. Thus she hoped to bring about the ‘silent revolution’ she had begun to dream of.
Mangi was convinced “it had to be community-led”. She was spot on, even though she modestly added she had no expertise in development and was learning on the job.
Once the strategy took shape in her mind it was not difficult to translate it into reality. Since the project had to be low-cost and indigenous to become a ‘people’s’ project it could run on a shoestring budget. A family trust, the AHMMT, was founded in 2008 to honour the memory of Naween’s grandfather, Ali Hasan Mangi. His profound love for his people (something Naween has inherited in abundance) had made him a popular figure in the area. Rising from humble beginnings he went on to enter politics to represent his people in parliament.
Before I visited Khairo Dero a week ago, I had no idea what to expect. What greeted me was a paradox. This was not a modern village of the stuff our so-called development experts like to project as their ideal, which in essence is based on unsustainable models artificially created. They collapse as soon as the sponsor pulls out. The residents of Khairo Dero still have poverty writ large on their faces. Sanitation is not perfect. The drains are not fully covered while sewage spills out into the open at places. Three government schools I visited were as good as dysfunctional.
Yet poverty is no longer the face of despair in Khairo Dero. It is what Mangi described as the transformation she is now beginning to see in the people. “Utter and total despair, coupled with urgent and desperate efforts to emigrate, have changed to hope and positive energy. There are several cases of people returning home,” she observed.
That is what is needed. Structures are important to uplift the quality of life. So they are being erected at a steady pace. There is a sewerage system in place with a treatment plant. A TCF primary school runs two shifts while a government middle school has been adopted and made functional. A housing programme helps people build two-room houses and micro-credit helps women set up small handicraft businesses.
The pride of the place is the newly built community centre which runs classes for small children, has a clinic, a library and recreational facilities.
All members of the community — young and old, male and female — are welcome and the centre pulsates with life the whole day and also provides jobs to 16 workers. Eight volunteers, basically students who come after school hours to extend a helping hand, find self-fulfilment here.
The AHMMT was launched six years ago and the physical infrastructure work is beginning to produce modest results. What is more visible is the positive spirit in the people that is now beginning to emerge. The smile on the faces of women, their confidence and their enthusiasm to be involved are heartwarming. In that respect, the mission of the trust is on its way to being achieved.
At the heart of all activity is Mangi’s motto, “each person matters” and that is why every beneficiary — whether a patient, student, home owner, housewife — is followed and nurtured in every possible way to create a community of love and compassion.
There are numerous striking examples of how human bonds are created. The Baloch women receive home tuitions for adult literacy because their men don’t like their going out. Literacy has given them a sense of empowerment.
Integrating the Bheels in the community has instilled confidence and self-esteem in them. But still to be brought into the fold are the men I saw — many of them drug addicts loitering and gambling in the streets.
But there is hope when you look at Raashid. A boy of 11 affected by cerebral palsy and previously shunned, is a changed child today. Love and care have drawn him back into the village family. He symbolises the synergy that the human touch has brought to Khairo Dero.