Saving the Pagans of Pakistan

This month’s small charity making a big difference is the Hindu Kush Conservation Association

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Few individuals have made as big a difference to the survival of a threatened culture as Maureen Lines, the founder of the Hindu Kush Conservation Association and its Pakistani sister organisation, the Kalash Environmental Protection Society.

Born in London in 1937, Lines has worked for more than 25 years in three remote valleys of north-west Pakistan that are the home of the Kalash people – the last pagans of the Hindu Kush. Their ancestors, were the inspiration for the fierce tribesmen of Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King. There is some evidence, not least the decidedly Balkan appearance of many Kalash people, that they are the descendants of Alexander the Great’s armies.

There are only between 4,000 and 5,000 Kalash left, and they are loath to reveal the details of their ancient religion, with its rites of fertility, multiple gods and mountain-top fairies. Until recently they were sheltered from both conversion and modernity by the remoteness of their valleys on the border with Afghanistan. However, as communications have improved, even in the Chitral area of the North West Frontier Province, the Kalash have become both a tourist draw and a provocation to those who abhor the presence of unbelievers in Pakistan.

Many Pakistani men come from the distant Punjab to see the fabled beauty of the uncovered Kalash women and to buy the wine that the Kalash are allowed to make and drink. Other visitors are less benign. Muslim settlers have poured into the valleys, bringing with them mosques, missionaries and a money economy. Already the Kalash are a minority in the largest of the three valleys.

Accustomed to the barter system, prone to disputes over property and easy prey to con-men from the cities, Kalash families often find themselves in financial trouble. Some solve this by marrying a daughter to a Muslim husband. However, when a Kalash woman converts to Islam and marries, her new in-laws may require that her family converts too.

When Lines fell in love with the valleys in the early 1980s she encountered appalling infant mortality and many easily cured diseases. She qualified as an emergency medical technician in the US and came back to live in Pakistan as a kind of barefoot doctor. She introduced latrines to the valleys and began to teach basic hygiene. Then, seeing that many Kalash women suffered from eye and lung diseases from cooking over open fires inside, she brought in the first stoves. She also opened dispensaries providing aspirin and antibiotics that have saved children who would otherwise have died of fever. Over 20 years she has raised money for inoculations, water pipes and even bridges. She has driven sick people to the military hospital in Chitral or the larger one in distant Peshawar.

Lines, now a Pakistani citizen, lives in the valleys half the year and in Peshawar the rest of the time. It’s from the provincial capital that she lobbies Pakistani officials and foreign diplomats on behalf of the Kalash. Most recently she has used her contacts in local media and government to fight for the removal of officials who take bribes to allow illegal logging. She has also battled moonshine distillers, procurers, bigoted mullahs and corrupt contractors (her NGOs have never paid a bribe). Unsurprisingly, she has faced lawsuits and death threats.

All the projects run by Lines and her team are on a small scale and based on years of experience of living among the Kalash. It’s just as well, given that the valleys are littered with the detritus of failed projects by large NGOs, such as the road, built along the wrong side of a river, that was washed away by floods.

Unlike some of the large aid agencies, Lines is convinced that basic sanitation and education should come before electricity and improved roads, and she is well aware of the dangers of making the Kalash economically dependent on charity.