A bumpy ride through pouring rain and crazy-as-ever traffic in Rawalpindi and I was on my way to Attock. 9 months had passed since I was there last. Shazia, the school principal, told me the girls were beside themselves with excitement that ‘Saba Madam’ was finally visiting again. My feelings exactly, I had thought.
As we reached the checkpoint at Kamra – the gateway to the city of Attock – I noticed barbed wire, hordes of military personnel, and sandbag fortifications where there had been none before. As an explanation for this, my mind flashed back to the suicide attack on the military base in Kamra in October 2009, that killed 7 people and wounded a dozen. The road had now been closed to civilians. A 15km dirt-road detour north of Kamra got us to Attock through a place called Haji Shah.
My first stop was the Barakat school in People’s Colony where we had kicked off the pilot last October. I had barely greeted the familiar chowkidaar (guard) at the gate, when I saw a slender man in white shalwar qameez, a large smile on his face, walking very briskly towards me – Abdul Rehman! He greeted me with a nod of the head and continued to beam: “Saba! Kaisa hai aap?” (Saba, how are you?). I had grown to ignore the way he mixed up the genders when he spoke Urdu. Closely behind him was an equally excited Shazia. We exchanged hugs and continued to her office, where, despite my repeated instructions that no elaborate lunches should be served like last time, there were signs of one in the making.
Over lunch, Shazia shared some bad news. The devastating floods in the north had swept away her grandparents’ and extended family’s homes in Kohat, which meant they were all seeking refuge in her small house in Attock. Also, the owner of the building the school was housed in had passed away in the Air Blue crash in Islamabad on July 28th. It seemed like everyone knew someone who had been directly affected by these two recent tragedies in the country.
Lunch concluded with peaches and guavas freshly picked from the school garden, and soon it was time for the assembly that preceded the evening school. As they congregated in the verandah, I greeted the girls – mostly familiar faces, but some new ones – with smiles and bear hugs. Soon, I was standing in line with them, attempting to sing along to a hauntingly beautiful song in Dari, the dialect of Persian spoken in Afghanistan. This brought stolen glances and giggles from the girls, and the song later turned out to the Turkmen version of the Afghan national anthem. There had been a long-standing controversy over the selection of the language for the anthem after the Taliban left the country. Under their rule, there was no anthem as music was forbidden.
This was followed by the Pakistani national anthem; I was relieved to realize I remembered all the words. As assembly concluded, Shazia and the other teachers came forward for a routine that consisted of checking that the girls had cut their nails, were wearing clean clothes etc. I miserably failed the nails check, and the girls giggled some more as Shazia feigned an annoyed tone and asked me to cut my nails by tomorrow.
During the embroidery class, I took out 3 finished handbags from a large white carrying bag I had been lugging everywhere. The girls had been learning embroidery and creating patterns for months, but they still hadn’t held the finished product because the bag making workshops were in Karachi – some 1000 miles away. As the bags came out, eyebrows shot up, and there were gasps and squeals of excitement. The girls jumped up from their seats and huddled in circles to hold the bags, open them, look them over, and gasp and squeal some more.”They are so beautiful, Madam!” they exclaimed.
“Would you buy them?” asked Shazia. There was silence for a few seconds. “Yes!” replied Fareeba, a 14-year old who was the cheekiest of the lot, with a twinkle in her eye. “If they are free.” The girls giggled.
At the end of the class, like every other class I had been present for, there was a line of girls who wanted to talk to me about joining BLISS. They were all already coming to school for regular classes. We had decided to admit a few new girls in September, but to fill these spots, I wanted to personally seek out girls from families who were not currently sending their children to school. Tomorrow I would go around a Turkmen neighborhood to meet families with Abdul Rehman and 2 of the teachers.
I hugged each of the girls as I said goodbye, and Fareeba waited until I was done, then inquired: “Madam, aren’t you tired from so much hugging?”
My next stop was Barakat’s second school in Dar-es-Salam, where the other half of the BLISS girls were enrolled. They were older than the girls in People’s Colony, and some had complained to the teachers about their monthly pay being too little. There were two sisters, Hamida and Habiba, who had said they were going to drop out if the pay was not increased. I had explained to the teachers that not withstanding our financial limitations, this compensation money was already a lot more than the monthly cost most NGOs bore to educate a girl in middle school. I now spoke to the 2 girls for half an hour, doing some quick Math on the board to show that they actually would not make more money if they decided to weave carpets instead of coming to school. I explained the myriad of benefits that coming to school and getting an education would bring to them and their future families. I stopped when I thought I had exhausted all lines of argument for their staying in school, and hoped one of them would strike a chord.
At this school, Shaakera, a 30-something Turkmen woman, was waiting to speak to me at the end of class. Her husband had gone missing in Afghanistan, and she was caring for her children all by herself. In her hand was an extremely beautiful embroidery sample that she had made. She had heard about BLISS and while she couldn’t attend school because she had infants to look after, she wanted to use her skills to earn an income while staying at home. Money in the hands of women. My weak point. With only 30 or so girls enrolled in BLISS, there was more than enough embroidery work to go around. I asked the teacher to keep Shaakera’s name on file and get in touch with her when we had need for more embroidery samples.