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new internationalist
issue 178 - December 1987


Ameena's dream home

Compared to people living on the wastelands around Lahore, Ameena lives in a dream home. Their houses consist of just four poles supporting an old piece of cloth which acts as a roof. But Ameena's house has two rooms and running water.

Walking along the narrow lane to her house, the smell of urine and the intermittent stench of drains were overwhelming. And there were no street lights to help me avoid the 20-foot-deep holes down to the sewers which gaped open in my path.

[image, unknown] As so often, I was amazed to find that a small door in a wall, with one tiny window beside it, was actually a house. As I approached, a small crowd of women and children peered at me with avid interest, then excitement as my interpreter led me towards the door. We entered the house and I found myself in a small room about three metres square. It was dark, damp and humid, with bare brick walls and a couple of small tables piled high with objects covered neatly with a cloth. I found out later that this was also where the men in the house slept.

To my right was another door, which led through to the main room, about four metres square, where the women and children slept. Here the walls were painted light blue darkened by patches of black mould. There was one tiny window with a dirty flowered rag hangingas a curtain and two beds with covers of the same materiaL Between the beds were two hard-backed chairs, with cushions of a different flowery pattern that clashed loudly with the rest, and behind these was a narrow table also piled high with the family's possessions. Behind the door were two smaller tables where a sewing machine was kept.

There was only a very small space to stand in the middle of the room and the whole place smelt stale and musty - not surprising in two rooms crammed to the brim with 10 people's belongings and just one little window letting in the nauseous smells from the narrow lane outside. The floor was bare and in need of repair and there were ants crawling everywhere - I found them in my clothes and crawling across my face throughout my visit.

One woman was standing waiting to greet me: Ameena. She was wearing a cotton print shalwar kameez, with the long dupatta carelessly draped over her breast. Her hair was long and greying, swept into an endless plait down her back, and she wore an armful of red plastic bangles. So expressionless did she seem at first that I hesitated to approach her - it was only later that she smiled.

We sat in a circle - Ameena, the Interpreter and I - directly under the electric fan which gave some relief from the rising humidity of the city. An older woman (whose presence, I guessed, was necessary for Ameena's confidence) lounged across one of the beds as we talked about Ameena's family, her eight children, her experience of birth control, her abortion, the pressures she felt from her in-laws who lived directly above her. After a while she relaxed and talked quite openly and I was amazed by her willingness to confide in me, a total stranger, a foreigner, who just entered her home and gave hardly any explanation of why I wanted - on tape - the information she so trustingly provided.

As we were leaving I took the opportunity to have another look round the room and I noticed, high up on the wall, a large shelf neatly displaying a handsome collection of brass plates, tankards and pots. I stood gazing up at them, feeling puzzled and confused - then melancholy as I wondered why anyone would bother with ornaments like these when they had to be displayed so high as to be practically out of view.

I left Ameena's house feeling discouraged and irritable - that feeling one gets when understanding seems rather distant or unobtainable. I had been pleased with my interview with Ameena. But the brass ornaments had spoiled my feeling of achievement because they made me realize how little I understood.

As I drove home I passed again the wasteland where families live, each under a sheet tied to four poles, their lives scattered and exposed. I stopped the car and looked across the scene: gaunt women in tattered shalwar kameez, carrying pails of water on their heads or crouching down trying to scrub clothes clean; naked children running loose and playing in the dirt; starving dogs roaming from tent to tent. No ornaments; just raw survival. I pictured Ameena sitting in her house with a firm roof above her and firm walls supporting it; a window; running water. And I began to realize, just a little, what two rooms can mean to someone like Ameena, and why her collection of brass was so proudly displayed above the limited space of her family's life.

Maria del Nevo was a member of the NI co-operative who now lives and works in Pakistan.

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New Internationalist issue 178 magazine cover This article is from the December 1987 issue of New Internationalist.
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