Monday, 29 June 2015

Mother Karachi and the Mother

by Hussain Bux Mallah

Rent Me by Benny Lin/Flickr

Karachi is often called the mother of the poor and the indigent – she will feed and nurture those that reach her. Upon entering the city you are welcomed by billboards announcing ‘To Let’ almost inviting you to come and stay. Though it is quite another matter that you can’t find any public toilets in case of need!

I met Jumman first in 2012 when our team interviewed him as part of a longitudinal study on food security. He reminisced fondly about the time when mother Karachi had been kind to him. He had arrived a few years before, got a job through a relative, got married and regularly sent money home to his wife and his natural mother in their village in Shaheed Benazirabad. But then his fortune turned,
he lost his job and not wanting to face hunger and misery, his wife left him and went her father’s home, while he slept in the scrap dealer workshop where he worked. When I saw him again in 2013 his situation had improved, his natural mother had joined him, along with her other children, in the care of mother Karachi.

When we looked for him again in December 2014 we could not find him, and were told that the entire family had returned to the village. It was sad news for those of us who had faith in mother Karachi’s generosity. We overcame our sadness and resolved to find Jumman even if we had to travel far and wide. Find him we did, living in a ramshackle hut, where his mother Hoori recounted her own Karachi story: “We were well off, and lived in Sanghar town where I learnt to speak Urdu in addition to my mother tongue Sindhi. But I was not pretty like my sisters who found rich husbands. My mother married me off to an illiterate man in the village. My sisters have a good life in Karachi, but they said they could only help me if I went and lived near them in Karachi. So I went there. I was very happy there and enjoyed eating nice foods like ice cream, but….”

Toilets are a rarity in many villages. For privacy men relieve themselves as far away as possible from the houses behind bushes or in ditches. Women, however, usually have a common area covered with bushes alongside their cluster of houses. In many villages women go out in groups and take on the shared responsibility of keeping their ‘public toilet’ useable. It is not common under these conditions for men or women to use soap or any antiseptic – rubbing their hands with wet soil and rinsing with water in the fields is about as far as they go. More than 43 million people defecate in the open in Pakistan. “Access to toilets remains the unmentionable, often shameful secret,” according to Miriam de Figueroa, the Deputy Representative of UNICEF in Pakistan.

Jumman’s mother Hoori kept answering our questions with a joke and a smile, and although it was serious business we also smiled with her. “We had rented a one room home. The toilet was very close to my cot where I used to sit to eat. We had to buy drinking water and there was no water in the water lines to clean the toilet properly. Drains were always full of sewage. I kept falling ill and would often vomit because of all the filth. I told my son that we had to leave this wretched toilet and go back to our open fields.”