Finding hope in a tent city - Acumen

Finding hope in a tent city

By Acumen on December 07, 2005

Acumen Fund CEO Jacqueline Novogratz has been visiting earthquake-affected areas of Pakistan, and documenting her travels in a journal. Excerpts of each day’s entry will be posted.

December 6 – Balakot

Maryam 2.jpgWe make our way down from the mountains again into terraced land surrounded by rolling hills. This part of Pakistan is so much poorer than Kashmir. Many of the people are Afghan refugees, living in tented villages for more than two decades now. The thought that some of the new “refugees” from the earthquake might spend the rest of their lives in tents took my breath away.

We finally reach the tent city. All of the men are out working so only women and children remain in the twenty or so tents that house a total of about 50 people. We all sit inside of one of the distributed tents. Twenty or so women pile in with me, as do about a dozen children who gather closest around. The women are polite but angry. They are cold, they tell me, and don’t have enough quilts and blankets. The tents aren’t winterized and their children are getting sick. Life is hard, they say.

All of them are the wives of tenant-farmers, men who cultivated the crops of other men while living on their land. These farmers are not eligible for payment from the government – that will go to the actual landowners. The farmers will have to hope for the beneficence of the landowners to rebuild the houses and allow them to live there once again.

It all seems too unfair. Tenant farmers caught in a cycle of poverty and dependency with no way out, even after losing every blanket and piece of cloth they’ve ever owned. How much better to build a small home of your own after years and years of collecting stones? The Frontier is so different from Kashmir, where people own land. Here, people own nothing and expect little. What is needed is demand on the one hand, and entrepreneurial management on the other.

I notice two little girls playing with what looks like pieces of fabric on a small mound of dirt. As I get closer, I realize that they have constructed a miniature house. It has a strong roof and strong walls, they tell me, to keep them safe. “Who is it for?,” I ask.

The older of the two points to a group of cloth dolls. For each doll, she wrapped fabric around a small stick, creating a tiny head, and then dressed the body with colorful fabric and a veil for propriety. She has cut out little faces from magazines and pasted them on the little heads. The level of creativity and humor is stunning.

Her name is Maryam, and she is nine years old. I ask if she wants to become a businesswoman and if she would consider selling me one of her dolls. She replies that she would gladly give me the dolls as a gift. I wouldn’t consider that. We negotiate for a while about why it would be a good idea to let me pay her for one or two dolls if she was o.k. in letting them go. Finally, she agrees with a smile. I give both her and her sister 100 rupee notes and a pen each as well, reminding Maryam that she is an artist. The social worker thinks I’ve given too much – about $3.50, an amount it would take the father days to earn. The girls are thrilled. They look at the crisp notes and run into the house. I think they are hiding the money. Instead, Maryam runs back out with a bag to make this truly a professional transaction. I ask her to choose those she doesn’t like as much. I don’t know if the tactic worked, because I receive the gorgeous blonde and brunette, leaving fifteen or twenty family members behind.

I will never forget Maryam. Inside this nine-year-old child is all the creativity, intelligence, drive to get things done and sense of the possible in the world. The kind of leadership the world needs is one that unleashes the hidden talents that exist across this planet in the Maryams of the world, that exist in every tent village and hamlet on earth. This child has so little and yet she created a magic world for herself and could teach adults a thing or too. Had she been born someplace else, Maryam could be anything she wanted to be. What will happen to her here? She – and all the children – need to be given the opportunity they deserve to follow their own dreams.

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