Back in Germany

Dear faithful blog readers,

Unfortunately, I had to leave Pakistan for health reasons and am now back in Munich. Since I arrived in Lahore three weeks ago, my stomach has been giving me troubles. I tried everything to adjust to Pakistani food, but my body stubbornly resisted these efforts. All in all, I’ve lost about 5 kg of weight. In the end, I decided it was not worth to jeopardize my health. Keeping a rice-and-banana diet for two more weeks was also not an option (I had eaten not much else for the preceding weeks already). Eventually, I rebooked my flight and showed up at Simon’s doorsteps unannounced on Thursday. It was a nice surprise!

Despite these issues, I still managed to get a lot of work done, both for my PhD and for the home. In several visits I made to the home and to Sister Hend, the Pakistani coordinator of the project, we’ve laid the foundation for our future work. The most important point in all this is always to build trust with people. Openness and transparency are crucial for any kind of development work. So much foreign aid in Pakistan fails because of the disconnectedness between Western donors and local staff that creates misunderstandings. Most of it is really a communication problem. We’ve always tried to avoid falling into the same trap. The change we want to initiate has to start from the people at our home. It’s their work, after all, and their life. We can only assist them in their own cause and walk a bit of the way together with them. We’ve never imposed our own ideas on them, but took their experiences and ideas seriously. Even though change often comes frustratingly slow and not without immense effort, we still feel it’s worthwhile. In the past two years alone, so many things have improved, from clean water to a better environment and more accountability on part of the staff. It’s often a delicate balance and many things remain imperfect. Still, we can look with pride on the fact that today people on the ground feel motivated by our support, encouraged by our interest in what they do, challenged by the new ideas we confront them with, and most of all, respected and moved by the fact that we acknowledge the immense effort and energy they put into this work on a daily basis. It is the caregivers’s faithful service on the ground that is truly humbling to us and that actually teaches us a lesson or two about compassion and dedication.

Thanks for continuing to read so far! And don’t forget to check our website for upcoming projects and infos: omidepunjab.com!

Love, Maria

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Visions

Yesterday, I met with Sister Hend, the superior of the congregation that runs the House of Wonders. She determines the overall direction of the work, decides about staff rotation, and manages the finances. Whenever we want to discuss big ideas, we go to her.
After lunch, we sat down together to talk about the situation at the House of Wonders. So far, it acts as a shelter home and an emergency accommodation. Homeless people, beggars, ex-prisoners, victims of domestic abuse, divorced women, acid victims, street children – everyone finds a place here. There is no condition for getting admission and the sisters don’t demand any fees. Some people are brought in by their relatives, some by the police, and a few come by themselves. There is the street child who doesn’t know his parent’s names, there is the disabled daughter who was rejected by her family, and many other cases. Most of the residents have some sort of mental or behavorial disability, and many are actually traumatized. In the House of Wonders, they find a safe haven, they are clothed and fed and their basic medical and personal needs are taken care of. However, once admitted, people usually stay for many years, or even until they die. In very few cases, their families take them back home.

Sister Hend taking notes
Sister Hend taking notes

Until today, no real concept has been developed that goes beyond the emergency help described above. Many residents pass their days dozing in the shade of a tree, chatting with others, singing, or watching TV. Many help with household chores, but not everyone is fit to do that. The sisters offer physical activities and art therapy on an irregular basis. But too often they have their hands fulll with administrative work. A greater vision is lacking, an idea for how to serve the residents beyond their most basic needs.
In our meeting, Hend and I developed the fundamental outlines for a new concept. We asked ourselves: what kind of institution should the House of Wonders be? What can we offer the residents once their basic needs have been met? What short-term and long-term goals exist with regard to each person living there? How can we help them to create an alternative life, another existence beyond the pain and trauma they went through?
Hend and I saw our brainstorming as a first step to initiate a longer thought process about the home. She will take the ideas we collected into her community, discuss them with the sisters working at the home, and develop an outline for a new vision based on their input. Visions can only come into reality when they are carefully nurtured, and when people have a chance to grow with them. The more contextualized and localized our vision will be in the end, the better.

Politics and stomach troubles

Dear readers,

Sorry for the silence of those past few days! I haven’t been able to get out of the house lately for two reasons: political troubles and my stomach. On August 14, Pakistan’s Independence Day, two politicians started a long march from Lahore to the capital Islamabad in order to protest against the government’s politics. In the run-up to the march, several clashes between police and protesters broke out in the city. Our hosts here in Pakistan deemed it wise to keep us PhD students out of trouble. We could not go back to the library to continue our research, and certain areas were also closed off by police barricades. Now the protesters have arrived in Islamabad. Life has gone back to normal in Lahore and we’re able to move again. The second issue was my stomach. It has always been giving me trouble whenever I travel to Pakistan, and it also happened this time. I’ve been on a rice-and-banana diet for the past six days and felt very weak. Since yesterday, things have started to look up, so there will again be activity on this blog. Pop by again soon, and thanks for sticking with me during this Pakistani adventure!

Love, Maria

Antida

Antida is one of the sisters who serve as a caregiver at the Dar ul-Karishma, our home for people with disabilities. I say “serve”, because she is not receiving any salary for the work she does. She felt it was her calling to become a religious sister and care for those who were neglected by society.
AntidaAntida was born into a poor Pakistani Catholic family. In her village, there was a school run by nuns. When her mother had given birth, the sisters visited the newborn and suggested to name her Antida, after the community’s founding saint, Joan Antidea Thouret.
Antida went on to study at the nun’s school. As a teenager, she felt the wish to become like them – that is exactly her own wording. She wanted to become a sister and help those who are poor. Her usual shy manner of speaking is less prominent when she talks about how this wish was fulfilled. In 2003, she joined the Sisters of Charity. “We visit families”, she narrates in a simple voice, as if there was nothing special about it, “we learn about their basic needs, we give their children education, and we take them to the hospital when they are sick. This is our work.”
Antida sits in front of me, in her plain habit of a nun, her chestnut-brown eyes displaying a sparkle whenever she mentions this work. She is younger than me, and yet, a strength emanates from her that surpasses my understanding. I lean back and let myself be enwrapped into her personality.

Protests and monsoon rains

Last night, clashes broke out here in Lahore between the police and supporters of the Pakistani cleric Tahir ul-Qadri, a rather obscure figure who has lately become active in politics. Four people died in this incident. Qadri’s house, which is located in a part of the city called Model Town, was sealed off with a police cordon. He has planned to hold a demonstration in Lahore tomorrow to address some grievances with the government. If you’d like to know more about this man, I recommend a portray by the BBC journalist Ilyas Khan written last year: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-20998010

When I went to the archives this morning, there was already a lot of police everywhere carrying batons. Containers stood ready to be used for blocking major roads. But all in all, life goes on quite normal in most parts of the city. It only came to a halt around 11 o’clock when it rained uninterrupted for almost one hour. It was quite a veritable downpour, and I decided to leave the crumbling yellow pages in front of me together with the dusty air of the old books for a minute to observe the rain. Those moments when the monsoon rains are coming always carry a very peaceful atmosphere. I was leaning against the door of the reading room and looking into the rain, taking in the smell of monsoon, when an old man, bend forward on a walking stick came up to me. He offered me a chair, and we struck up a conversation. Together we stood and looked into the courtyard outside for a while as it turned into a river. On my way back home, the taxi got stuck in the middle of a road that had been almost completely flooded. Behind us, the water was closing up, and in front of us children were swimming and even diving in the muddy stream. Others had fetched a tyre and floated from one end of the road to the other. The next dry bit of land was about 500 meters ahead of us. All along the side of the road, people had lined up on walls to watch the cars who attempted to cross. Once they made it safely, they cheered. Two cars in front of us got stuck, but when a passenger bus came along, our driver dared to follow it. The water came almost up to our door handles and splashed on the left and right up to our roof! The engine was howling and struggling, the wheels were floating and not getting any grip on the ground, and I quietly said some prayers. We made it safely to the other side. This was one of the most daunting South Asian adventures I’ve ever had, I must say.

Street Wisdom

When I go around Lahore, I often use the rickshaw. Some of my Pakistani friends disapprove, but I think you’ll have more adventures. You can meet all sorts of people and sometimes great conversations develop. Rickshaw
Today, I took a rickshaw on Mall Road, and the driver asked me where I was from. When I replied that I was German, he demanded: “Please do a big favor for me – give your chancellor Angela Merkel my regards!”
I thought he was joking, and with a smile I answered: “Ok ji, do me also a favor, and give your prime minister my warmest regards, too.”
The driver got upset. “The devil I will do! We work so hard for our daily bread, and these politicians sit in their big houses and ruin our country. I am literate, I can read and write, and here am I, driving the rickshaw every day! I can barely pay for the rent or bring food to the table. We have no electricity, no educational system, no health care. You can forget our prime minister, he is certainly not my prime minister! But Germany is a good country, and German people are upright, honest people. So please give your chancellor my salaams, and consider yourself lucky that you were born in this country.”

Back in Pakistan

Hello everyone, I’m back in Pakistan! I arrived in Lahore last Wednesday, and since then it rained 5 times, I saw 17 little grey donkeys, I studied Urdu for 22 hours, and ate 3 mangoes. Just three? I know! But the mango season is not over yet, there will be more chances to make up for this neglect.
On Sunday, I visited our home for people with mental disabilities. It was such a joy to meet everyone again! Both caregivers and residents looked very healthy. Thanks to the two water filtration plants we had installed at the home, infections with waterborne diseases have gone back dramatically. Last year at the same time, one quarter of our ninety residents was ill with diarrhoea and other infections from polluted water. This summer, only three people have fallen sick!

The second project Omid-e Punjab funded was the renovation of the men’s bathrooms. Fourty-five people are daily using them. They were lifted to the street level in order to prevent waste water from flooding back inside. Shower cabins and toilet seats were installed, bathroom fittings added, floors and walls tiled, and the drainage system restored. We spent exactly 7,281 Dollar on it, or 5,421 Euros.
This is what the old bathrooms on the women’s side still look like. The men’s facilities were in the same bad shape:

Women's bathrooms     Unrenovated bathrooms

And these are the men’s bathrooms

after the renovation:

Men's renovated bathrooms    Men's bathrooms

Our next project will be to provide the same facilities for the female residents!