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Thursday, 29 December 2011

Me and my DSLR - A not-so-secret love affair

May 1991:
I have begun working as a journalist at a magazine. I know by now that my calling is not business studies, & my degree which I got with honours will hardly ever be utilized. I am drawn towards not just writing, but all forms of art and literature, and what interests me most is a fusion of these. I love coordinating photo shoots. I know I have a good eye for detail. I don't just marvel at the model and her oomph, but more so at the locations where the shoots are taking place. I love best the shoots at Hindu Gymkhana and Chowkandi tombs. I pore over the films with an eye glass. Computers are still too young, too experimental. We send the x-ray like films of the magazine pages to the press after assembling them painstakingly for hours.

I meet a photographer, and she is brilliant. We embark on a series of pictorial features in which I am writing the script for her wondrous favourite of these is a feature I title "Hands that weave dreams"......we are in kaarkhanas of men who work on hand-embroidered wedding dresses.....she clicks at their hands, at their faces, at their half-burnt stubs of cigarettes, at their needles and threads, at their laugh-lines and their brow-frowns.....I love her art. "I have to learn this", I say to myself.

May 2003:
I am married. I have a daughter. I am on a hiatus from journalism for God alone Knows what reason. Complacency I suspect. I am not so happy inside. I miss writing. I have a computer now but do nothing much with it except emailing. I have a mediocre camera. I still get spellbound by good photographs. My clouded passion for photography goes into clicking my daughter endlessly, but photo rolls are not so cheap and just have 38 exposures to 1. I ignore the desire and go back to cooking aloo gosht and replenishing groceries and joining a "Committee" of ladies and making dresses that have gravitated towards embellishments like "laces" for some original style of pure cottons, plain solid colours and kolhapuri chappals is diminishing. I still read.

May 2009:
The computer has made a huge entry in my life. And writing has made a re-entry. I am so much happier. But it's taking me time to get back into the flow. I hate some of my initial write-ups. It takes me too much time to write even a small piece and I am relying too much on the thesaurus. I am reconnecting with journalism friends and luckily have a readership soon again. Its tedious to get back into the flow, but I feel alive. Photography is slowly creeping back into my life....I have an insignificant camera, but its a digital, so I am allowed countless mistakes, unlike life. But my photography doesn't have any zing to it. In spare time, I am online seeing photography of others and loving the good work, and my new aim in life is to get a camera that makes a certain "click" sound, and is huge, and manual, and looks all professional. I know it will be expensive. I have no clue what I will do with it. I don't know the word DSLR as yet.

December 2009:
I announce to my husband and daughter that I need no birthday/anniversary/eidi gift for 3 years. All I want is for them to save up and buy me "one of those cool cameras". I get a promise in return. Writing has gained momentum. Life is more than aloo gosht. I am happy.

February 2011:
I am in Tharparkar with an NGO on a work-related trip. Tharparkar has mesmerized me. I can't stop clicking with my tiny phone camera. I feel handicapped. My colleague, a professional photographer, clicks non-stop. We talk about photography and cameras and human expressions and what it means to be able to photograph.  He guides me about lenses and kinds of cameras and that magic word - DSLR. I have an awe-struck teenager's expression when he fits a HUGE lens over his camera. I want to capture the colours of the peacocks and the Thari women's colourful dresses and the desert sunsets and the camels. On return, I publish my tiny camera's pix alongwith my feature for women's day. The pictures get encouraging feedback. I know I can do this.
Round about the same time, I meet an intriguing woman from Russia, one of the best photographers I have witnessed. We become friends. Her work is a bit off-centre, at times dark, but has a profound effect on me. Her pictures of Benaras in India leave me more in love with this art.

May 2011:
I have to travel to Ethiopia in early June. I get my long-awaited gift. I am speechless and thankful. I cannot believe once I have it in my hands. It is a beauty. I touch it in disbelief. I play with it. I trace each part of it with my fingers to get familiar with it. I carry it around in the house to get used to the weight of it in my hands. I take pictures of inanimate objects jar of chillies, my window, my door knob. DSLR - those words are sweet! I know I will enjoy Ethiopia much more now.

July 2011:
Ethiopia was much more enjoyable thanks to my camera. But I know that I am not doing justice to this camera's capabilities. I am mostly on auto. My indoor pictures are still awful. I know nothing except that I want to learn this, but don't know how. I am checking out the internet for photography courses. They are not fitting into my schedule. They are either too basic or too advanced.
A friend has returned from a vacation in Europe. He puts up his pictures on Flickr. They are splendid! I enjoy his take on lights and shadows and human faces and window sills and doors and hands and feet. We talk about his work. I learn a lot. I still don't know how to put this knowledge into action.

December 2011:
I have just returned from a trip of sunny, splendid Senegal. I have tried and captured Africa's glory with my lens. I know I am getting better, but still not good enough. I want to support my write-ups with good photos and want to capture the wrinkles on my mother's face with enough aesthetic beauty that satisfies me. I am still not there.
Another friend has the same camera as me. And his work keeps getting better. He tells me about his investment in a new camera, a new lens, his equipment, and keeps repeating one mantra to me: "Get to know your machine".
I want to learn more from him. We meet up for coffee. The coffee house is a mad house, with people talking non-stop on tables too close for comfort. We yell across the table to hear each other. He has his laptop and a whole backpack full of stuff that helps his pictures get so magical. I get a full one hour plus class on a lot of details about my camera.....I never knew all this about it. The guru is telling me to remember 4 basic things: Aperture, Shutter Speed, White Balance and ISO. His eyes are glinting with excitement as he tries to teach someone who has just discovered that she knows nothing much about this stuff. He gives me an assignment to practice all this and show him my work in a months time. The coffee is cold. We gulp it down. I am excited.
I am home. I am telling my family about what all I learnt today.
My new year resolution has a new flavour this year.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Fall In Love With A Man Who Reads. And Hold On To Him

Like a man. Fall in love with a man. And hold on to man who reads. 

Because the way he looks at life is different! He is a man who dares to dream, and is a man who has remnants of idealism left in him which the world has not been able to rob him of. His thoughts revolve not just around the stock market, the corporate ladder and the rate of the dollar. Rather, he dares to think also of ideas, philosophy, art and history. He has sensitivity. 

Sensitivity! Love a man who reads, and hold on to him, because he is sensitive. The hundreds of characters that he has witnessed in books have made him understand the black and the white and the grey of human nature. He has emoted with those characters, and lived with them through works of fiction. Thus, he has lived many lives in this one life of his. He will understand the millions of shades in you because he has experienced many a woman and many an emotion through the books he has read. He uses his imagination.

Imagination! Love a man who reads, and hold on to him, because he is imaginative. Because he knows of million ways to love and does not get stuck in mundanities, but rather knows how to re-invent the mundane. Thus, everyday you may visit a new parallel universe with him. You can travel to medieval times with him or visit the life of a courtesan in the Mughal era with him. Or you may catapult into the future with him. And you both make conversation about your voyages together.

Conversation! Love a man who reads, and hold on to him, because then your conversation would be about more than facile chitchat and your life with him will be more than a superficial soiree. You will talk about more than dinner menu, the grocery list, the payment of bills and politics and the plight of the property market. Because you will have so much more to talk about. And even when you do talk about the mundane, you will link it to a dialogue, a quote, a stimulating part of a book.

Read a book to him while his head is in your lap. Read to each other in the park or on the beach or at a hilly resort. Read out together to your children. Or read your own books, the two of you, while you sit side by side on a couch snuggling under a single quilt, sharing excitedly every now and then what your book is saying to you......a thought.....a feel.....or a single word that the author has used so beautifully that it fills your senses and you want to share it with each other, knowing the other will understand your joy. And in moments you read together, you find moments of union.

But watch out! Do not fall for a man who fakes the love of reading, and impresses you with forcibly memorized couplets of Faiz or lines of Shakespeare. Rather, gauge by the way his fingers touch a book. And look into his eyes and see whether they sparkle or stay listless when you read out something from a book to him.

Hold on to a man whose bedside has books, some finished and others scanned through. A man who highlights or circles words in a book. A man who likes to sit in the open air on a Sunday morning and read. A man about whom you know that if he disappears for hours at a stretch, it is in the sanctuary of a library.

Hold on to him because life will never be boring with such a man, even though it may be challenging. For such a man will continue to evolve, and grow, and will help you grow in the process. Such a man may be a challenge, so do not go for him if you want a life that is complacent and predictable. But go for him if you have ever asked God for a life less ordinary.

Love a man and hold on to man who looks at you with admiring eyes and longing love not just when you are looking hot, but also when you have a James Joyce book in your hands, and when you animatedly discuss Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" with him. Who gifts you a faded book a 100 years old of Keats' Odes, and who reads a poem of Neruda to you in moments that are tender. Who loves your beautiful mind and knows your value because you are a reader too. Don't let him go, for such a man is a gift and a joy.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Sex Workers in Heera Mandi are learning to say no to unsafe sex & protecting themselves from HIV & STDs

Can Pakistanis afford to be politically indifferent? - Column in Pak Tea House

Why do we like horror movies and the supernatural?

Ramblings on the morning after Halloween
By Farahnaz Zahidi Moazzam

This tiny blog starts with the disclaimer that it has nothing to do with Halloween…’s an uncanny co-incidence that my mood to ramble about something non-heavy, non-issue-based and non-“I will change the world with my write-ups” clashes with the mother of all festivals that celebrate the eerie, the unexplained, the supernatural, the haunted.

The blood-curdling shriek of a dying woman in a dark alley, the meow of a black cat, a door creaking open after centuries, a walk in the cemetery, looking back numerous times with the feeling that someone is behind you, the handsome but deathly pale face of a Dracula with fangs dripping with blood, a case of possession by the devil……How interesting is all this!

Like everyone else, I LOVE horror films and stories about the unexplained. Stuff I don’t understand. The other realm. The unseen. The other world. My favourite Micheal Jackson video had to be “Thriller”. I loved Jack Nicholson in “Werewolf” and “The Exorcist” was something I had to grow up to be 30 plus to be able to watch because the hype about it being scary was so huge, but watching it was one of my aims in life…..something that would make me challenge my limits of endurance of scariness. “X-Files” was the show that I could never get enough of. I loved Nicole Kidman in “The Others” and Bruce Willis in “The Sixth Sense”. Add to it the realism of “The Blair Witch Project” and without showing a single gory scene, that movie made waves.

As it is, I am a hemophobic (please read hemo-phobic meaning “one who has a fear of blood), so what I don’t have patience for are very bloody, gory, grotesque images. Perhaps because there is a certain idealism and imagination I associate with horror movies. Gory stuff makes it all too real, and reality often has a way of smacking the fun out of stuff. What is fun are innuendos of horror…..suggestive and brainy and macabre and deathly stuff. Macabre…..I love that word, which incidentally is a derivative of the Arabic word “Maqbara” meaning “tomb”!

Move ahead of the movie/tv zone…..wintery nights, chilghozaas, coffee , and huddled in a razaai with my elder sisters, cousins or friends, the things we all loved to talk about are anybody’s guess. Jinns, ghosts, ghouls, pichchal pairees (which are legendary witches who supposedly have feet backwards), bhoots, haunted houses, going under certain trees at sunset or not. I now do the same at times with nieces and nephews and my daughter…..and I derive narcissistic fun out of telling them stories that make them have goose bumps.

If I ever write an autobiography, an entire chapter at least will be devoted to the innumerable episodes ofRooh Bulana” (summoning a ghost) under a glass on a piece of paper. Each one of us who had a finger on the glass would swear that they were not moving the glass. It still scares the living daylights out of me when I recall a few of the times when we actually got some answers that made sense.

Naani’s haveli-like house in Hyderabad had horror legends associated with it. It was a house the family had gotten as part of claims post-partition, and originally was built by Hindus, which is why it had beautiful and different architecture and finishing. The whole family, to date, believes that they had all heard at least a few times the sound of ghungroos in the night or the tinkling sound of a temple bell early morning. It still is an eerie but an enjoyable thought.

Coming back to horror films, why do we exactly enjoy this stuff? Did Aristotle get it right that all this provides catharsis or a purging of emotions? That facing extreme horror in an unreal situation like a piece of fiction, whether written or seen in a theatre or on screen, helps us release our pent up emotions?

Maybe, but to me, Noël Carroll makes more sense. His co-existentialist theory, in a nutshell, points in the direction that it all boils down to the big “C” – Curiousity! We have this burning, aching curiousity about what we perceive to be impossible, which makes it to so interesting.

Basically, we humans seek and crave excitement. It is the excitement, the thrill, the break from the mundane that makes horrific story-telling in all its forms so attractive. It triggers our imagination. It makes us push our boundaries, and through these stories or movies or legends, we reach out to the realm that is beyond our senses. At the end of the day, it provides what every rewarding (and often dangerous) thing provides – a high!

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

You are a woman. You are in the fifth decade of your life. And you have come of age. Get ready for transition — menopause

Simple Tests Can Safeguard a woman from contracting Cervical Cancer

Female Circumcision & Genital Mutilation - Done in Pakistan but Never Talked About

Sexually Transmitted Diseases or Genetic Disorders for future offspring - Should there be Pre-marital Screening to protect ourselves?

My mother's dementia & what that has meant to me.....In Dawn. Com

In Heera Mandi, A School Changes Lives

Sunday, 17 July 2011

My Mother Has Forgotten A Lot, But Not All

My mom.....well.....what should I say but say that she forgets. And that she is not quite the person she used to be.
It started in her early 50s....maybe earlier......but that is my earliest memory of it.
She would keep her keys and forget where she kept them every day, besides other stuff.

Sometimes when I forget stuff expectedly as a result of juggling too many things in my mind perhaps, my daughter gives me a worried and intense look. She fears for me that I may have inherited the condition from my mother and my grandmother. Me and my siblings all secretly fear it for ourselves, we confess to each other in our "blood meetings" (where we hang out, once every six months at least, sans spouses or anyone else). 

It's funny how we don't really fear inheriting my dad's heart condition or my mother's arthritis. What we fear most is inheriting her forgetfulness, which basically became full-blown and stared at us in the face after we lost our father and her companion of more than 5 decades. It accelerated at an unbelievable pace after my father left us. It seemed my mother had held back letting her memory slide downhill. She did not recognize life without him I guess. He was her friend, guide, confidante, the love of her life, the pivot of her existence. Two people, almost antonyms of each other, had one of the most beautiful companionships I have witnessed in my life. Once he was gone, she perhaps felt letting go of her memory was the best option......this would leave her in the long-gone past......retrograde amnesia. The present or recent past she was not so interested in.

Does she have simple dementia, as she is now 70 plus? Is it an effect of "mini-strokes" as her geriatric doctor suspects? Or is it Alzheimer's? And if it is Alzheimer's, is it SDAT (Senile Dementia - Alzheimer's Type). I don't really know the exact answer, because by the time it was discovered, the doctors felt there was hardly anything that could be done about it, and so invasive testing was avoided.

Causes could have been one or more of many. Psychological trauma, inheritance, nutritional deficiencies.  Psychogenic amnesia or psychogenic fugue, if it is that, often occurs due to a traumatic situation that individuals wish to consciously or unconsciously avoid. 

Fancy terms don't really matter to us. All we know is that it has not been easy. It has not been easy to see my vivacious, extroverted, friendly mother stare at an object for hours. It has been one of the toughest things to see my mother struggling for words that define simple objects……my mother who remembered Urdu and Farsi (Persian) poetry with a passion and would quote the greats often. Whenever I write well, if I do, I know it is because she emphasized so much on my reading habits and writing style. Ammi had the most beautiful handwriting. Today, when for any emergent documentation she has to sign, it takes her 10 minutes for a single signature. She labours over it and I feel helpless seeing that. When my beautiful mother who had an elegant wardrobe and was known for her sense of style cannot recall when she last changed her clothes. When she who organized dinners for and cooked for scores of people forgets whether she has had breakfast an hour back or not. My sister, who lives abroad and comes every few months, shared that she fears that the next time she comes, ammi may not remember her name.

Luckily, the dementia has not been able to take away the most important things. Like the way my mom’s face lights up when she sees her children and grandchildren. Like her insistence on saying her prayers on time, even though she has forgotten the exact Arabic verses. Like her basic nature of always staying thankful and saying “Shukar Allah ka (Thanks to Allah)” whenever someone asks her how she is. Like her sense of humour and her unexpected witty jokes which are always on spot and still make us laugh. Like how she still knows, without my saying, that I am upset or unwell. Like how her inherent calmness and sweetness of nature still remains intact, untouched, unaltered.

We are fortunate that her memory loss has not been very bad. It could’ve been worse. She has good days and bad days. And over time, we have somewhat learnt how to handle it.

But do people remember the important stuff? Or is their forgetfulness more serious than my mother’s dementia?
Have they forgotten that one does not choose to have amnesia or dementia, just like one does not choose to have other illnesses like heart disease or cancer or a hemorrhage? Why is then the acceptability of other illnesses more than neurological or mental illness, may it be Alzheimer’s or Schizophrenia or dementia or chronic depression? Perhaps because these illnesses alter behaviour. And alternate behaviour threatens us because we do not understand it. And when we do not understand something or find it different, we marginalize it.

My mother may have dementia but she remembers and knows enough to know when someone is warm to her and when not. She knows when people talk in front of her about her as if she is not there…..When they just exchange pleasantries with her but do not have the time, patience or inclination to sit with her and make conversation. When their faces have weird reactions when she says something a little off centre simply because her brain has weakened just like someone’s heart or lungs may weaken. 

This is not just true for her. This is generally true for how we treat elderly people. We marginalize them instead of including them in everyday activities and get-togethers. Add to it dementia and people have even lesser understanding unless someone close to them has had it. They also do not know what the caretakers and the family are going through.

The mind is as much a part of our body as is any other… is time we took time to understand the illnesses of the mind. Only understanding can develop empathy.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Confession of a hard-core, biased Karachiite - I love my city, no matter what! That doesn't mean I'm not hating what's happening to it

I love Karachi. Period!
I was born here. This, to me, is home. This is where I belong.
Karachi is where the heart is.

To someone visiting Karachi for the first time, it would seem like a gigantic, unruly, chaotic, overgrown, terribly overpopulated metropolis with anger and impatience in it's people's traffic sense and a visible cloud of pollution over it when you land at Jinnah International. The pollution chokes you, literally, in certain areas. The load-shedding and electrical breakdowns are legendary. The compartmentalization and social disparity in Karachi is horrendous.........we divide people into burgers and bun kababs, for God's sake! We talk of people in terms of this side of the bridge and that side. People here are so busy and their lives are (no jokes ) so fast-paced that you gotta take appointments even to say hello! It's a combination of a myriad of ghettos. And the ghettos are very guarded!! It has too many cultures in one city.....or rather, it has a culture all it's own. It hardly ever rains in Karachi. The weather is often despicable. Half of the population has allergic rhinitis, allergic asthma (me included), and paan stains on walls and roads
are a norm.

And yet, Karachi is where the heart is. And if I could make a million emoticons of the heart right now, I would.

This huge, gigantic city welcomes everyone from all over the country and provides livelihood to millions. The multi-ethnicity culture gives a Karachiite so much exposure that he or she can usually speak Urdu, a bit of Gujrati, understand some Sindhi, laugh at jokes in Punjabi, have had friends from many religious backgrounds, and fit with ease in the hoity toity crowd as well as the average fellow-Karachiite. A Karachiite's life is crazily fast-paced, yes, but the advantage is we are least pushed about peering into the neighbour's house to check who their daughter is seeing........we are more worried about our own lives.....whether this "we" is a maid or a bus driver or a corporate executive or a teacher. We are a little more streetsmart, a little more savvy, a little more resilient, and a little less laid-back than our counterparts from other cities.

My city boasts of Frere Hall, Empress Market, Mohatta Palace, the Baaradari, and the whole heritage museum.....mile upon mile....which we call Saddar. My city is the home of Waheed's dhaaga kabab, Burns Road ki Rabri, Noorani ki Karahi and BBQ Tonite. My city has amazing cafes and the most upscale eateries, a great night life, and it throbs with art and culture. My city has beaches and parks and bridges that are our pride. We go crabbing here and love scuba-diving here. We get the freshest seafood and our city has the best evening breeze in the entire world. And on a positive note that may border on irrational here, Karachi is the home of the best paans in the world (can anyone beat Ami's Raja Saab?)!

All's ALMOST perfect in Karachi. To Karachiites, it's the best place on earth. We take pride in it with arrogant defiance.

But every now and then, a part of me wants to run away. Escape.
Just go somewhere else and shut my eyes and pretend Karachi is like it was when I was growing up........when I could cycle alone on the street and go for a walk every night, me and my mother alone, after dinner. When I could have smaller walls and no alarm systems in my home. When my school had no bomb threats. When I didn't have to pray for my loved ones every few weeks when fresh surges of violence erupt that they make it home safe. When I could give lift to someone in my car and help someone I didn't know without fear of being mugged.

When I did not have to read a headline on the 8th of July, 2011, that today is the fourth consecutive day of senseless violence and 80 people so far have lost their lives. 80 people.....mere statistics for me, but 80 homes in my city shattered and bleeding and in darkness. And this is not stopping any times soon, they say. It's like a terminal illness. Dormant for a while, and raising it's head again and again.

Karachi - How I love you, only I know.
But there are times I want to leave you. Give up on you. Run away.
I don't.......but I do fantasize about doing so. I confess, my beloved, I confess.

Monday, 4 July 2011

My Sojourn to Ethiopia - Day 7

As I sit down to write down my blog for that last, eventful day in Ethiopia, I am getting all “EMO”. Emo, short for emotional, is a term my daughter Iqra has introduced me to, and my friend and mentor Zofeen has labeled me with – an apt label, and one I quite like :). Emo because of nostalgia. I miss those wonderful days. Writing this travelogue makes me re-visit all those days, one at a time.

I started writing this basically for myself, trying to experience an iota of what my favourite travelogue-writers and “earlier” bloggers experienced when they wrote memoirs – writers like the Mughal kings who each wrote a “Tuzk”, like Ghalib whose letters are forever fresh, like our own Mustansar Hussain Tarar whose travelogues have given me the inspiration to travel Pakistan from Karachi to Azad Kashmir by road. And then the women travel writers like Freya Stark and the more recent Elizabeth Gibert who stole my heart with “Eat, Pray, Love”!

I have enjoyed this journey of writing this. Many of you have accompanied me on this journey. Thank you for reading it through, from the beginning till the end, and for the encouragement you have given an amateur traveloguer.

Thanks to Women’s Edition, in a few months, I hope and pray another travel-blog will soon be written by me. Another country. Another experience. InshAllah :).

17th June:

Debbie and Charlotte have warned us the day before that the last day will be back-to-back, full of lots of activities on the agenda. And the day begins with our visit to the office of Pathfinder International, an organization said to be a global leader in reproductive health.

Ethiopia: second largest country in sub-Saharan Africa with a growing population that is currently at 82 million people—more than half of whom are under the age of 25. 84% of Ethiopians live in rural areas where access to modern health care is often limited and harmful traditional practices, such as early marriage and female circumcision, are prevalent. Organizations like Pathfinder are fighting the odds with programs like the Integrated Family Health Program, HIV and AIDS care, Family and Reproductive health support, Fistula repair services, Family Planning services and many others.

So much work being done. But never enough. Work in the development sector always has a catch phrase: It’s never enough, yet you gotta do what you gotta do.

With Dr Adnew as our guide, we head St Paul’s Hospital, to visit the Cervical Cancer Prevention Unit working under Pathfinder. St Pauls is a typical general hospital. People queuing up, waiting for their turn to be seen by the messiahs. Nothing fancy. The typical smell of disinfectants. Clean, surprisingly. An old building. Flooring that has been smoothened out by the thousands of feet that have tread on it, as they entered the premises in search of healing.

Going around in labyrinth like hallways, we reach our destination….a tiny 3 room unit with the simple most equipment, and an old steel bed for patients. A very welcoming and warm-faced woman is there in a white lab coat, waiting for us. Haragewoine Garedew, Senior Nurse Professional, answers our curious and excited questions gently, as we stand around her, 15 of us cramped in a tiny room….a room that smells of disinfectants, is highly non-fancy, and yet to me seemed to be emanating some kind of symbolic light. This is the room where early detection of the earliest signs of cervical cancer of so many women has taken place, and has in turned saved their lives.

Cervical Cancer is one of those rare forms of cancer the cause of which can be contracting (refer to blog about Day 3 on this site). Early detection is key, because by the time the patient starts showing signs, it has already progressed considerably.

Pap Smears can detect it, but Pap Smears are expensive. And people in Ethiopia or Pakistan are generally not only unaware but also poor. At St Paul’s, they are using a far less expensive method to screen women for signs of cervical cancer. The method is one of direct visualization with acetic acid and has gained popularity and proven itself as an adequate alternative to PAP smears in developing countries. In visual inspection with acetic acid (VIA), 5% acetic acid is applied to the cervix with a large cotton swab and left for 30-60 seconds, after which the cervix is visually examined with the naked eye and a lamp. Pre-cancerous lesions, with a higher ratio of intracellular proteins, turn white when combined with acetic acid. Normal cervices without any precancerous lesions, do not change colour. It is low-cost, requires fewer visits to the physician and the efficacy is about 5 years. Women with pre-cancerous lesions are treated with cryotherapy. Women suspected with cervical cancer are referred for advanced care. Haragewoine and her team are performing this test on 10 women or more on an average at this unit in St Paul’s…….Potentially, saving ten lives a day!

My mind, expectedly, applies the knowledge I am gaining to my own country, my home, Pakistan. As it can be sexually transmitted, my observation and gut instinct leads me to the thought that the incidence of Cervical cancer in Pakistan is much more than we like to believe. The taboos linked with screening for STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) and the lack of awareness even among educated, urban women that a simple Pap Smear test can be a life saver….yes, Pakistan needs more awareness on this issue, like most developing countries.

On return from St Paul’s, we join a group of Ethiopian female journalists for a meeting and a lunch. They have what I sense in all African female journalists I have met – an inner strength and an inherent defiance that comes from having fought many battles.

Our last session together is interesting. We talk excitedly about the upcoming session in the Fall season. Suggestions are taken about which countries would be value-adding experience, and some of these are short-listed. Debbie and Charlotte gently remind us that we have to be “intrepid women” to be able to enjoy Women’s Edition and all it has to offer. We also discuss the work we all plan to do and issues we need to advocate through our writing or any other form of media in the months to come.

Habasha 2000. We are told that this is the name of the traditional restaurant where our farewell dinner will be held. Dressed to kill, all of us start gathering in the hotel lobby. We shriek excitedly upon seeing each other looking nice in formal clothes, and compliment each other. Kounila, Rose, Tetee and Montessori look beautiful in traditional Ethiopian clothes they have bought on their shopping sprees in Addis. We click away endlessly from our cameras, and have to be reminded that we must leave for the restaurant for the grand finale.

The restaurant is indeed a tour into traditional, cultural Ethiopia. The perfect ending. Great company. Amazing food. A cultural show that was a treat. Rich Ethiopian coffee. Laughter. Conversation. Nostalgia. Anticipation for the next conference. Hugs. Good byes. Promises to email each other the photographs, and stay in touch. And hugs and good byes again.

Back in my room, I pack frantically. There is a knock on the door. I know who it is. Shai, all pragmatic and practical on the surface, is already missing Addis, the team and me. We relish our last few cups of tea in Addis Ababa, in the chilly weather on my tenth floor balcony. Once the good bye is over, I am enjoying that last bit of time on my own in Ethiopia. Ethiopia – what a beautiful country. And how much it has taught me. Will I visit it again, ever? I wonder. I hope.

Wanna poke or chat on FB?? My story in Dawn - 3rd July 2011

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

My Sojourn to Ethiopia - Day 6

16th June:

Early morning, after breakfast, we all board the bus and are ready to roll for the day. We have to go to Bioeconomy Africa, we are told. It’s about an hour’s drive and we are moving towards the outskirts of Addis.

On way, I am noticing the scenes whizzing past. A rainy day, slippery muddy roads, slums which have tiny houses with makeshift curtains of old pieces of cloth used as doors for a semblance of privacy and roofs of tin sheets. Men and women, in equal numbers, walking around busily on the streets. And children. So many children! The numbers of abandoned, orphaned and vulnerable children in Ethiopia are alarming. A ticking time-bomb. A by-product of poverty. A collateral damage of what this country has gone through and still is going through. In any catastrophe, sadly, the children are the most vulnerable group and suffer the most, may it be a bad marriage, a drought or a war.

My thoughts come to a halt with the bus. We are in a hilly suburb and the bus is entering a small compound. Happy children chirp around. The energy in any educational institute always energizes me! This is the Yeho Science and Technical Academy. The school is built as a multi-story building. Our conference session is on the 4th, may be 5th floor….I lose count while climbing. The building also serves as the office for Bioeconomy Africa. The vision of this organization is “to see peaceful, green, prosperous and eco-friendly trading African nations.”

As we sit around the conference table, Selamawit introduces herself. Impressive and amiable, she is the Executive Director here. After we are introduced to the many feats of this NGO, our focus for the day is the plight of the fuel-wood carrier women in Ethiopia.

In Addis Ababa, some 60% of the residents live below the poverty line, we are told (and I wonder, inwardly, what would be the statistics for Karachi if we take away the posh localities in which we smugly live, with feelings sometimes bordering on apathy). In Addis alone, there are some 15,000 fuel wood carrier women, ages anywhere between 10 to 60 plus. But their general life expectancy, due to the health hazards of their work, is around 37 years on an average!! That is because they develop spinal complications due to carrying 50 to 60 kg or wood every day. Their day starts at 5 am and includes a lot of trekking, to and from the forest. Often, forest border guards rape them, as they are picking wood without legal permission, and use the rape as a bribe. They may acquire HIV or other STDs. And if they carry their babies along with them in the absence of someone to babysit them, many a times animals in the forest eat the babies alive!

Saddened beyond belief at their plight, we are all a bit gloomy, till we are taken to Bioeconomy Africa’s project where they have helped better the lives of around 450 of such women. The Gurara Women’s Association. Here, we meet many of these women farming vegetables – weeding, ploughing, planting happily. 
They also have some cattle and chickens. They are now able to sustain themselves as well as their families, and are freed from the torturous routine of being a fuel-wood carrier.

With a few others of my group, I talk to Ehet Wolde Mariam, who is the Chairperson for these women, and has been a widow for 14 years. In a black and white dress, Ehet is inspiring! She shares her life’s story – her tumultuous past life as a fuel-wood carrier, her thankfulness at this new and better life and her dreams for her daughters that they may be empowered women with better lives – Ehet shares her past, present and future with us.

This meeting has made us all happier. Once back at the Bioeconomy office, an amazing feast awaits us. But before we enter, in true Ethiopian tradition, we walk over freshly cut fragrant grass that has been laid in our path to welcome us. Once in the dining hall, we are made to smell burning incense, another welcoming gesture. I love the idea! Others in my group have allergies triggered by the fumes.

The traditional coffee ceremony, as is the custom, is preceded by popcorn being passed around. The lunch is sumptuous and has many courses. We eat, talk and enjoy it thoroughly. The lunch ends with the strong, rejuvenating coffee.

Once back in the hotel, we have our session with Charlotte and Debbie, an important “critique” or feedback session in which a chosen sample from the work of each one of us is displayed in front of the entire team for positive criticism, suggestions and encouragement. I personally think it is a brilliant idea. My head is overflowing with ideas of all I want to write about, observing closely the work of my brilliant colleagues. While all year round, we do share our work on an e-group, having the writer or creator of that piece in front of you, explaining the background and willing to take feedback is a different experience – a very value-adding one.

As it is the second last day and we know the last day will be very hectic, we all exchange tiny gift tokens. It is lovely to get gifts from each other’s country – Scarves Kounila got from Cambodia, wooden necklaces Rose got from Nigeria, jewelry boxes Shai got from India, small and cute purses Rina got from Philippines, to name a few. I love the wallets Montessori got from Nepal the best. I give them all Hashmi kajal, a trademark kohl Pakistani women put in their eyes. Girls will be girls, I think to myself, enjoying how they all immediately open their kajal wrappers and start applying it in their eyes with tips from me.

We all know that this is our last chance to shop for souvenirs. Into the bus after a cup of tea we all are. I find the tit bits I need in the first shop only – a few items of silver jewelry and some wooden handicraft pieces. 
After that shop, me, Kounila and Shifa head back to the hotel in a cab. Interestingly, we feel safe in a cab at night in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia, according a latest study by TrustLaw, is not one of the 5 most dangerous countries of the world for women. Afghanistan, Congo, Pakistan, India and Somalia are.

On return, after visiting Kounila’s room for a bit, I head up to mine. That evening, the lashing torrential rain in Addis is a treat for me. I am enjoying it from the balcony, fully aware that I will not enjoy this in Karachi except the July monsoons. The feeling has begin to gnaw at me inside that this amazing week is about to come to an end.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

My Sojourn To Ethiopia - Day 5

It is nearly ten days ago that I experienced the 15th of June, 2011, in Ethiopia.

Eva Merriam’s quote somehow comes to my mind as I sit down to write about my 5th day in Ethiopia: “I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, ‘Mother, what was war?’”

Today, as I open the tv at noon, I again see 2 incidents of bombing in the last 24 hours in Pakistan, one at Multan and the other at Dera Ismail Khan.

Simultaneously, reading a story in the Human Rights Watch page on the internet, these are some of the statements I am seeing: Ethiopia is the largest recipient of western development assistance in Africa. Ethiopia is a de facto one-party state masquerading as a democracy. It’s a country where half of the population lives below the poverty line and many are dependent on food aid. (

Yet, Ethiopia, in many ways, is a success story in how it is battling its poverty and inherent problems. As I begin writing this blog for Day 5, I consciously nurture a hope inside me: One day, and that day is not far, when my Pakistan gets a break from all this chaos, there shall be a new dawn. Often out of chaos comes order. I wait for that to happen. I wait for my Pakistan to be a success story too. InshaAllah.

15th June:

Early in the morning, frantic knocks on the door by Kounila wake me up. I am hoping it’s a dream. But it’s not!! She is my wake-up call, at the marching orders of our leader for the day, Brenda, to wake up all the sleepy heads. I look at the time and decide I have about 7 more minutes I can stay huddled in the 4 blanket-layer that saved me from hypothermia on that cold night in Fiche.

A hurried get-ready session is fun, but I am missing my lazy-paced mornings back home in Karachi. Being a freelancer allows me these relaxations. In Karachi, my mornings will begin late, with my first cup of tea, and the second cup of tea and breakfast will follow much later, interspersed with flicking between tv channels and Facebooking, before I finally get down to writing.

After breakfast, we head off to the lodge where our other team members are staying. It is raining again. We are all humming along, enjoying the weather and the pristine landscape of Fiche.

The lodge, once we reach there, has a spectacular view. We overlook a gorge. A bit of downhill trekking on perilously muddy and slippery paths, and we see an old stone bridge (near the monastery of Debra Libanos), at the head of a gorge that cleaves its way through the plateau towards the distant Abai (Blue Nile) river. It is also called the “Portugese Bridge” and many believe it was built as early as the 16th century. The bridge is an impressive testimony to the masonry skills of that time.

Those moments we spent near that bridge seemed to stand still in time. 
Beautiful silence. A treat for city-dwellers like me, who often do not have time to listen to even their own thoughts. Whose lives are a cacophony of sounds, sounds and more sounds. Amidst untouched nature, it was a detox moment for all of us.

We head back to Addis Ababa, and reach there in time that allows us half an hour before the next conference session begins. I swiftly inform my family via Skype that I am alive and kicking, as we had no way of staying in touch while we were in Fiche.

Me and Shai head for the dining area and excitedly order a “Green Thai Curry with Tofu and Steamed Rice”. They get us chicken instead, which I cannot eat! Shai also sacrifices eating the chicken for me. We both head for the conference. Tired, hungry, grouchy and crabby, me and Shai feel better after Charlotte graciously arranges that the mid-conference tea and snack break be pre-poned. After a couple of cups of tea and delicious little croissants and tuna sandwiches, our brains start to work again.

The session is very interesting: “Numbers in the Newsroom”. Debbie is the ace mathematician who is totally into it, and is having obvious fun giving us small math quizzes and tests, that help us practice how we can use data and statistics in a more audience-friendly way in our reports and features. That session taught us a whole lot.

I have announced to my friends that I am not going to any market or shopping. I need some “Me-Time” (which, I confess, is second to oxygen to me). Once I am more in my senses, me and Shai head to the restaurant and hungrily devour and finish a huge vegi pizza between the two of us, and head back to my room’s balcony for cup upon cup of tea in all varieties – Addis tea, flavoured tea, Pakistani Tapal tea. We discuss the varying yet similar dynamics of India and Pakistan – in our media, art, culture, family values, social norms, social taboos. We now know each other’s kids by heart. She narrates anecdotes of Bollywood happenings. I tell her all about how Pakistani women are improvising the shalwar kameez these days. We give each other lists of stuff I need from India and she needs from Pakistan.

Friendship – one of the greatest joys in life. No two ways about it. 

Friday, 24 June 2011

My Sojourn to Ethiopia - Day 4

14th June:

Fiche (pronounced Fee Che, not with a ‘sh’ but a ‘ch’)…..that is where we are gonna spend the night, we are told. It is a high altitude area in Ethiopia, and even colder than Addis Ababa. I stuff my shawl and sweater and sweat shirt and whatever woollies I have in a tiny bag bursting at the seams. We set off by bus, early morning.
I have taken a seat next to Shai, knowing that the 3 hour journey will be spent chatting away feverishly. On way, the pouring rain reminds us that we all need umbrellas. The bus is stopped in a small neighbourhood. 

While a few volunteers go down to shop for umbrellas, Shai craves Ethiopian coffee and cajoles me into getting down. Montessori joins us. We are in an Ethiopian Dhaaba. This is my first taste of Ethiopian coffee… a tiny, terracotta coloured cup, I have a shot of the coffee. Strong beyond words. No milk. No sugar. For someone used to Tapal chaai and Everyday creamer, coffee is not generally my thing. I take pride in being a discerning and heavy tea-drinker. But after a few sips, the coffee grows on me. My batteries are re-charged!

Twisty, meandering roads like twisting and turning snakes. But we are all too smitten by the beautiful landscape to notice the roller-coaster effect of the drive! As far as the eye can see, the mountainous region has pastures that are a mix of green and brown. Cows and other cattle graze lazily. It is reminding me of a trip by road in England’s countryside.

But something is strange. Something is amiss. Something does not seem quite right. The roots of the few trees we spot are so exposed that the next downpour could pluck them out. There is land and rain but not enough plantations. And not enough soil. This is actually what deforestation and soil erosion at the hands of climate change and torrential rains looks like. Clear pastures with very few trees and not enough soil for agriculture. Ethiopia, apart from its other struggles, is also fighting this.

Our bus finally halts at Girar Jarso Woreda, some 112 km away from Addis Ababa. At its highest point, the altitude in this area is some 2195 m!! Mogues, a lean man with very short cropped hair, warm and dedicated, from LEM Ethiopia, an NGO, welcomes us and we get down. Some 25 to 30 village women are standing there in a very disciplined manner, wearing their cleanest and best clothes, all of them draped in white cloth over their normal clothes. We are told they have been waiting for us for a couple of hours.

Children passing by and a few villagers have halted to see what’s happening. I spot a few girl children tightly clutching books in their hands. They seem like a friendly people and it seems they are used to visitors, as they smile back radiantly when I smile at them, and some are kind enough to allow me to photograph them. They are uninhibited and pose readily. A photographer’s delight. I can sense that they are equally fascinated by us…..they observe me from head to toe when I go closer to take a snap, but they do not ogle. They are respectful, but, well, simply fascinated to see a somewhat different looking woman who is clearly not from the neighbourhood.

The faces of the women intrigue me – weather-beaten, hardened skins tell tales of a life of hard labour. But the expressions are not hard. Every once in a while, they smile, and their sparkling white teeth stand out against their dark complexions…..a lovely sight. Aster Birhenu, a stately and graceful woman, is the village women’s spokesperson and gives us a wonderful welcome, which we gather partly from the words of the translator and partly her clear warmth.

The whole team now has to trek towards the school we have to go observe. For city people who at most use the treadmill to ward off the guilt of being couch potatoes, the hike is not easy. The paths are muddy due to recent rain. Every now and then, one of us will take a “panting” break, and vow to be more regular in exercise on return home to build some stamina.

The secondary school is spread over sloping hills. Here, Mogues gives us a detailed talk about the holistic approach being applied to improve lives of people. The school is not just a secondary school for the local people. It is a centre for so much more. The children are taught life skills in addition to quality education like how to protect themselves against diseases, the health side-effects of early marriages, HIV prevention and awareness etc. Agricultural skills are taught here to village youngsters so that in spite of erosion, they can plant enough to sustain themselves and their families. We meet the pretty young girl called Bogalech (her name literally means ‘the brightest light’) who has a tiny one room health centre in the school premises. According to Mogues, she is a fireball of energy and dedication. She is a lady health worker, traveling on foot to villages on mountains in her catchment area to provide basic health facilities, especially to women and children.

On way back, we visit a couple of homes who in their backyards have small farming areas, where they are growing enough fruits and vegetables to eat themselves as well as sell some in the market, with the help of NGOs. One of the prominent village families leads us to their home to formally welcome us with the traditional coffee ceremony. Sitting in that small mud house, I notice the similarity between the humble homes I have witnessed in my ancestral village in Khairpur, Sindh. They have stacked up their numbered, brightly coloured plates and cups on niches in the mud-made walls as prized possessions. Articles of worship are stacked up too. Here it is the cross and symbols of Christianity. In Pakistan, I will notice the Quran and frames with “Allah” and “Muhammad” written in them. But the most startling similarity is also the most amusing – posters of Indian Bollywood stars Salman Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Madhuri Dixit on the walls J. I tease Shai about India’s biggest export, their film stars.

Tired and hungry, at about 4 pm we reach the hotel where we will stay for the night, and are shown our tiny one bed rooms where we leave our bags. The lunch is a feast. Traditional bread (or rather, pan cakes) called “Injera” make it to my plate for the first time. There is vegetarian variety as well, which they call “fasting food”, which I am happy to eat voraciously in the absence of halaal meat.

As the sun sets, we go to the lodge where some of our team members will stay as the hotel did not have enough rooms. In their central dining area, atop a hill, we all sit around a huge bonfire that is our savior on that freezing, rainy evening. We have an interesting discussion about Ethiopia and how they are fighting their obctacles, with Mogues, and Jason who is our spirited team member from USA but travels often to Ethiopia and knows a lot about it. After a traditional barbeque dinner made over the same bonfire, we head back to the hotel.

There is load shedding. No electricity. Tiny rooms. Cold weather. Slight homesickness. Soon there is a knock on my door, and then another. Kounila and Shai are in my room. They can’t seem to fall asleep, like me. We sit and chat for hours, with me and Shai educating Kounila about the intricacies of marriage and parenting, and giving her unsolicited advice, till the poor little girl starts to yawn. That night in that tiny room at the hill station Fiche in Ethiopia – that’s a night I doubt I will ever forget. And I say that in a good way J.