Winterport woman spends five weeks teaching in remote region of Pakistan

Posted Jan. 29, 2010, at 6:56 p.m.

“Gaway? GAHWAY?” a piercing voice that can’t be ignored. A wizened Balti grandmother with mischievous eyes and a jack-o’-lantern smile yells to me from the flat roof of her home. I’m late for school, but I can’t afford to insult or alienate any of the villagers. She readjusts the wool blanket holding a bongo (baby) on her back and calls again, emphasizing her inquiry with a sharp twist of her hand in an L shape.

It is my third week in the Hushe Valley of Pakistan, so I know what she is asking, an all-inclusive “Who are you? Where are you going? What are you doing here of all places?” But I still don’t really know the answer. Why did I decide to bankrupt myself to spend five weeks alone in the “most dangerous country on earth” (Newsweek October, 2007)? Did I come for a challenge? An adventure? To escape poor job prospects at home? To always have the best story at the bar? Or did I honestly come to help the people of Pakistan? Am I even doing that? The truth about yourself is the hardest to see and at night, with no electric lights for miles, the stars ask the difficult questions. What is the meaning of this? Will it all matter in a month, when I’m back in the easy world? Will I, or anything, change for the better?

I certainly can’t answer any of these questions — let alone translate them into Balti — so I point down the steep and rocky road that runs through the small village of Kande and say “Madrasa [school].” Satisfied, she goes back to grinding grain, and I turn to the gathering group of giggling girls who are ready to escort me down to the Amin Brach Public School. The girls all wear loose, light blue cotton pants and tunics along with bright white head scarves in various states of disarray. “Gud marning! ‘Allo? What iz yur name?” The braver girls practice their English and fight to hold my hand, as we parade past the whitewashed stone homes set among the gigantic boulders.

At the edge of town some zoe (cows) are ambling by the brightly colored Amin Brach school. Amin is supported by the community and teaches five levels in Urdu and English, as opposed to the government-run middle school that teaches only in the national language of Urdu. The Amin Brach school is the crowning achievement of the self-proclaimed “new generation,” mostly men in their 20s and 30s who strongly support education and modernization. I am here for five weeks at the invitation of Ibrahim Khalil, the president of the village, to work with the four teachers at the Amin Brach school and five teachers at the public school in Hushe, the next (and last) village up the valley.

My work at the school is based on a combination of common sense, lessons from my mother (a teacher in Winterport), a little bit of research and my own experience teaching children at Camp Beech Cliff on Mount Desert Island and teaching English in France. “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”? Instant hit. Hangman? A little harder to explain without knowing any Urdu or Balti.

I teach classes every day, jumping in and making activities up as I go to show the teachers things they can do beyond the “repeat after me” style of Pakistani education. I’ve met with the teachers many times trying to explain the benefits of lesson plans and actually staying in the classroom rather than taking arbitrary tea breaks. They are eager to learn, but all were hired for their family connections rather than their teaching credentials or grasp of the English language. This is a common problem. Even schools built by the famous “Dr. Greg” (Greg Mortenson, the author of “Three Cups of Tea”) have trouble finding and keeping good teachers.

Sitting on the floor hunched over their books, meticulously copying sentences in the dim light with perfect handwriting, the students are heartbreakingly dedicated to their studies. They and their parents believe this is their one chance out of a hard life carrying either towering loads of firewood for their families or 50-kilogram packs for the expeditions that come through every summer. They are learning English as their third language after the local Balti (an ancient form of Tibetan) and the national Urdu (looks like Arabic, sounds like Hindi). The odds are stacked against them, but they have the support of their community, so I have to believe that some will succeed.

Soon it is time for lunch, so I head back up the hill to Khalil’s house. While I am in Kande I am his guest and his responsibility. Since I am here alone, he is refusing any sort of payment for his hospitality. Khalil is small, strong, big-eyed, wiry, and full of a crazy elfish energy that has made him successful as a guide in the Karakorum Mountains. These not-as-famous neighbors of the Himalayas bridge the area between Afghanistan, China, India and Pakistan and hold some of the highest mountains in the world, including K2. Today, though, Khalil is ula or down village — (in the old village of Kande that was mostly destroyed by mudslides about five years ago). It is threshing time and he has been helping his relatives and friends harvest wheat for the past week.

His oldest daughter, Shazia, and his two sons, Ahmir and Mushtaq, walk home with me, gossiping and showing off their newest toy — which happens to be me — to everyone passing by. I greet men and women with a polite and shy “Asalama leikum” (peace be on you) to which they automatically respond “Waaleikum asalam.” Khalil’s two youngest daughters, Lizwana and Shyna, greet me at his door with delighted shouts of “MEEMO! Meemo! ANGO memo nangla!” (Our ma’m! our ma’m! Mother, our ma’m is home!)

The kitchen is the social center of the house and Khalil’s beautiful and feisty wife, Nihsa, is at her usual perch by the hearth, expressing some strong opinions to a few visitors while making chapatti, tortillalike bread that accompanies every meal. Nihsa and I do not talk much — we can’t. She speaks only Balti and I speak only English — but luckily we both speak the international language of women. A raised eyebrow or sideways glance mean the same thing everywhere. Our relationship mostly consists of her trying to take care of my every need and me trying not to give her extra work. “Milk tea?” she asks, I long ago realized the futility of declining so I smile and nod.

Lizwana runs over and starts singing her favorite song while squirming around in my lap, trying to find the best position. That is until Shyna joins her and after a small tussle I have two little girls happily curled up in between my knees, sharing secrets and jokes in Balti. Khalil’s ancient father with his toothless grin singsong-shouts at me “Ah-merika! Ah-merika! Balti Shargo! Lizwana Amerika” (“America, Balti life is simple, Take Lizwana to America.”) I would love to do just that, Lizwana has been my favorite since I arrived. She exudes an innocent and wild energy that I pray my own daughters will have someday. When I think of Pakistan now, she is whom I remember. Kande is a difficult six-hour drive from the nearest city, Skardu, and even farther from any trouble spots such as Kashmir, Gilgit or Swat, but I can’t bear the thought of Pakistan’s troubles invading her world and quenching her fire.

It is fitting then that it was Lizwana who finally gave me the answer to my question. I came back to Winterport and visited my mother’s fifth-grade classroom to talk about my trip. I was showing one of my many videos of Lizwana goofing around, dancing and making faces when one of the students suddenly exclaimed, “Hey! They laugh the same as us!?”

Yes, they do. That is why I went to Pakistan. To return and tell you that there are people there. People who are eager to invite you into their homes and go out of their way to make sure that a silly little girl from Maine makes it home.

At the time, each day seemed like an eternity, but looking back my time in Pakistan flew by.

What I found there was similar to other rough spots around the globe, squat toilets, wandering livestock, dirty faces, simple food loaded with spices, fresh gamey meat offered to me — the honored guest — at great cost, loud, colorful and crowded public transport bumping down dusty and interminably long roads, checkpoints, casually held Kalashnikovs, open air markets and always the milky sugar water that passes for tea. But these are just the details that you can find in any modern account of travel in the developing world. The latitude and longitude changes, but poverty, and the combination of hope, ingenuity and fatalism that goes with it does not.

But Pakistan is different and intoxicating. So many contradictions and dangerous complications, if I go back to another valley, or another province I will have an entirely different experience. I can talk only with the slightest authority about the people of Kande, in the Hushe valley in Gilgit-Baltistan (formerly known as the Northern Areas). While I was there, major bomb attacks were carried out against the U.N., the police, the army and even the Islamic University. There was an earthquake while I was on the Karakorum Highway heading back to Rawalpindi for my flight out. Death is close in Pakistan, which was a new feeling for me, but to the people of Kande it is just one more thing out of their control. Insh’allah (if God wills it) they will prosper and so will I.

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