Despite the presence of violence across most parts of Pakistan, the country is dotted with pockets of peace. While not remarkable in itself, the level of pastoral quiet and simplicity can take an outsider by surprise. Indeed, when Acumen Pakistan Fellow Jamshaid Cheema invites me to visit his village, I’m unprepared for the kind of gentle openness and calm I encounter.
Though it’s just a two-and-a-half hour drive to Gujranwala, the place Jamshaid was born and the village he still calls home is a world away from Lahore with its crowded streets, bustling markets, noise and people everywhere. Here, painted houses stand in a neat row along a narrow dirt road. Two schoolboys walk hand in hand. Old men in turbans drive donkey carts overflowing with cut mustard greens. One man sits facing another, shaving his neighbor’s beard in an open patch of grass. We pass eight elders sitting in a circle, sharing a hookah, exchanging gossip and wisdom with one another as younger men listen. I am at once relaxed and feeling nostalgic for my childhood.
The village is home to four mosques, each representing a different Islamic sect. Knowing the sectarian violence impairing the soul of Karachi, I ask about tolerance. “There have been skirmishes for sure,” Jamshaid responds. “A few years ago, the mosques competed with who played the loudest calls to prayer. It was exhausting. The village leaders finally stepped in to stop the noise. You see, they are committed to the people here. That is why this community feels so alive — the leaders care about the future.”
We visit a small red schoolhouse with a playground tucked behind a red metal gate. Some children play outside, others sit at desks listening to young teachers standing at blackboards. One little boy sits alone studying his math equations, dressed in blue pants, lace-up shoes and a collared cotton shirt. Already he looks the part of an engineer.
What separates this school from the 40 percent of government-funded “ghost schools” — those lacking teachers, books and, ultimately, children — across Pakistan? Community leadership. The local council raises funds yearly for this school to hire teachers and buy books. They ensure the upkeep of the school. Though Jamshaid’s father, Riaz, sent his own children to private school, he has sat on this council for many years. Now the son is following in his footsteps. “It is up to us to keep the community alive,” Jamshaid repeats.
It is not systems, but leadership that makes change possible.
At Jamshaid’s family’s home, a lovely stucco house with painted green and heavy gold curtains covering large windows, I share my surprise about the sense of peace and security here. His father Riaz offers a further explanation. “Gujranwala is peaceful because we have the best food in Pakistan,” he smiles. I’m not sure I buy it. Nonetheless, I’m humbled by the effort the family has put into making an entirely vegetarian feast for me. Jamshaid’s aunt insists I eat all three desserts offered, each one sweeter than the next, and I’m reminded of my own six great aunts whose most generous gifts to us were their home cooking.
Jamshaid’s father, his face leathered but handsome, his eyes twinkling like those of his son, leans forward. He continues, “We have no violence in the village. The children are free to walk down the streets and the adults, whether family or not, are equally free to correct them if they misbehave. In this, we all feel free.”
He is a leader here. I know his son’s own values, those of respect and integrity and service, were at least partially shaped by him. I ask Riaz where he got his values. He answers that his parents taught them — and he reads the Koran daily.
This relationship, too, makes me think of my own relatives. They were farmers from Austria — people of great faith with little formal education. They were committed to family, hard work, a sense of duty. Good manners and serving their community were paramount. As my mind wanders to the men we passed talking around the hookah, I’m transported to the big tree outside my grandparents’ house where the men in our family would sit together on a garden bench, much like those here, and talk for hours. Like Jamshaid’s neighbors, they had a sense of community bound not only by tradition but by commitment to one another. It exists in Pakistan and in America, too. In both places, it needs renewal.
I know that external forces can quickly reverse communal peace, yet I am intrigued by the leadership that has allowed possibility and security to flourish here. The community is alive because its residents feel a sense of agency, of control over their lives. The community is alive because its leadership invests in the future rather than personal, petty desires. Individuals feel alive because they can walk down streets without fear, send their children to adequate schools, pursue their own religions. Human development is inextricably tied to freedom.
Freedom ultimately is dignity. And dignity, not income, is the opposite of poverty.
In every country, there are places of opportunity and places of desperation. Jamshaid’s village in Gujranwala reminds me that violence and fear are not inevitable. We would do well to understand not only why destruction and war take root, but how peace can persist.