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Rhythms Of Life


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Sustainability / SELF-RELIANCE

A high mountain valley of the Karakoram-Himalaya Ranges in northern Pakistan.

Rhythms of life
Farida Azhar-Hewitt visits Halima,
a woman living in a high mountain valley
of the Karakoram-Himalaya Ranges in northern
Pakistan. Even in this isolated area age-old
traditions of sustainability are changing.

Halima has seven children and lives with her husband in a small village on the River Basha. Women here plant and weed, help with the harvest, clean and mill grain, pick and process fruit and nuts, as well as care for children and look after the household.

However, this is a society in transition. The need for cash to pay for a greater variety of goods from the outside world is changing life for Halima and others.

The pattern of frugal consumption, careful conservation and minimal waste – living with respect for the limits and integrity of local ecosystems – is under increasing threat. The effect on women has been the most obvious. They are being relegated to a hidden and private domain where their work is not diminished, but their power and voices are.

This society needs both men and women to survive. But as men are lured into the towns and cities, the high pastures are being neglected, or wastefully used and abandoned. This leaves women with more work but fewer resources because ancient taboos bar them from the pastures. Yet they are still expected to maintain the subsistence economy and the traditional way of life for their families.

Halima walks behind the thorny rake being dragged by a dzo, a cross between a yak and cow which is peculiar to the Himalayan valleys. Her daughters pick and toss rocks and stones, heaved to the surface by winter frost. Their father, Hamid, follows with measured tread and scatters the seed from a leather pouch with a practised hand. The irrigation channels are cleaned out, as meltwater from the glaciers starts to flow in them. Sandy loam is piled in the animal sheds, along with wheat straw, and also on the ground in the room below the latrines. It will help convert human and animal waste into manure. This composted night soil and manure is placed on their fields. It is the only fertilizer.

The months from June to September are the busiest. Livestock is led into the high pastures and remains in the care of young men who take turns minding the animals in return for in-kind payment. The shepherds bring down the curds, soft cheese and buttermilk which they process in the pastures – wrapped in leaves or birch bark – and take up provisions such as flour, salt, matches, tea.

Meanwhile, Halima and her daughters do the weeding, irrigating and the other tasks involved in farming and running the household. Many men are leaving for the plains to get cash, working as porters for expeditions or joining the army. Women are the main farmers, using techniques and technology that have not changed much over the centuries.

Halima pounding grain and Hamid sheep-shearing: a traditional subsistence life under threat. Autumn
After harvest, the cleared fields are used as playgrounds. Children play tag or fly homemade paper kites. The animals start coming down from the high pastures and Jamal, the oldest son at 12, is given a man’s job to bring down his herd.

Halima and her mother-in-law work on the roof to clean, dry and store seed for next season’s planting. Red and green chilies are strung on thread and hung around windows to dry in the sun. Apricot and walnut trees, which supply the villagers with fruit and nuts as well as firewood and fodder for the animals, are carefully tended.

After the buckwheat has been milled, all the animals are brought down from the high pastures and the bounty of summer prepared for storage. The family moves into the katza – their below-ground winter home.

The cupboards are filled with dried apricots, mulberries, spinach and cabbage. In the storeroom bags made from the hides of mountain goats are filled with flour – barley, bean, wheat and buckwheat. Small loaves of unleavened bread are the mainstay of the village diet, along with Tibetan-style buttery salt tea.

This is the time for storytelling, songs and crafts. Halima also prepares the goat and dzo hair and sheep’s wool to weave. When the snow is deep and they can’t go outside Hamid and the other men weave. Sturdy charra to cover the floor, the colours of the earth; qar, a warm woollen blanket; soft bal-gosse for adults and children to wear as baggy trousers and loose-fitting tunics. Halima unravels old sweaters, winding the wool into balls on the outstretched arms of patient children and knits them into new ones for the family.

Farida Azhar-Hewitt (c/o [email protected]) is a geographer
at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

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New Internationalist issue 329 magazine cover This article is from the November 2000 issue of New Internationalist.
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