November 2001

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Vol. I Number 5

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Partnership Walk Canada volunteers visit overseas projects



Volunteers meet Sost village leaders near marker of the 1983 CIDA/AKF partnership in building the irrigation tunnel



Assembly is over and a class of boisterous fifth graders has finally settled down. No two days are ever the same here  in this Gilgit primary school nestled against a backdrop of mountains. Yesterday they were indoors learning English  and today they are outdoors writing an exam. Today, there are also seven volunteers from Aga Khan Foundation  Canada who have come to spend some time with them, to see for themselves the results of their fundraising efforts by visiting projects in India and Pakistan.


One of the visitors, Karim Mamdani, shares that he “felt a sense of exhilaration” as he gazed in wonder at the massive Welcome Our Hazir Imam sign cut deep into the mountain slope as they approached Gilgit by helicopter. Mamdani was accompanied by fellow Walk volunteers, Zahir Lalani, also from Toronto, Nazmudin Rayani from Victoria, Karim Kassam, Shehni Dossa and Badrudin Moosa from Vancouver and AKFC Manager of Resource Development Nasir Virani, who organized the two-week trip with the cooperation of staff at AKF India and AKF Pakistan.


The team visited some 20 Aga Khan Development Network projects. Virani says that on this visit they learned not only about the work of the Foundation, but also about how the beneficiaries view themselves. Had there been a shift in their attitudes over the years, primarily with respect to women, that would indicate the impact of the Foundation’s presence? His answer was overwhelmingly yes. They also observed, says Dossa, that “the moment is always the focus.”  


The volunteers saw first-hand how the Foundation’s objectives—improving the quality of life of disadvantaged communities regardless of race, religion or political affiliation were met in the local communities they visited.  




In Ghulkin, Pakistan, says Moosa, “Their confidence was so gratifying to see.” The villagers are eager to save money and are involved in a savings scheme as part of the project. Savings of Rp. 10 million or about C$170,000 (C$1 is equal to about 59 rupees) held by just over 300 local village development members, including women, have made it possible to provide loans for business, education, farming and livestock.  This fiscally responsible approach has paid off.


Arab Shah, an astute 36-year-old carpet merchant, explained how this micro-credit program has helped him. Shah trades in carpets between China and Lahore, Pakistan.  He has repaid almost Rp. 80,000 from a loan of Rp. 100,000 to upgrade his business. He added that he had also purchased a new home as a result of his recent prosperity. His four children, all under the age of ten, now attend English-medium schools. When they grow up, he says, he will ensure they do not spend seven months a year on the road, like he does.  


“Once they feel empowered to make their own choices,” observes Rayani, “their entrepreneurial spirit is unleashed. Now that they are in charge, they are striving to get better schools, better teachers, better hospitals, and more.”  




Through discussion and detailed logistics, the villagers of Sost, also in Northern Pakistan, convinced AKF and other non-governmental organizations that they were capable of achieving their goals of a water catchments facility. The Foundation heard the concerns of the villagers and in 1983, through a grant of Rp. 200,000 and AKRSP technical assistance, helped the villagers build tunnels and irrigation channels to harness melted snow from the mountains.


Today, three kilometers of irrigation channels meander through lush vegetation. The villagers have more than doubled the land value, and with improved agricultural and livestock farming, diet and nutrition, the villagers enjoy better health.


In Jonpur, a typical Gujarati village with paradoxes of its own, very basic facilities like toilets and running water exist side by side with satellite dishes. The village of 1,350 has about 350 Ismailis.


Water is a major problem in Gujarat. When it rains, it comes down in torrents, but then runs off to the sea. During the rest of the year, the villagers extract water from the ground using wells, which are now very deep because the water table is sinking, creating a vacuum that is filled by seawater. This ruins the water supply and crops. A local solution, known as the ‘check dam’ was initiated by AKRSP. These crude dams are constructed in the path of the water to stop it long enough for some of it to seep into the ground and restore part of the water table. This raises the level of the wells and halts the invasion of the sea. Villagers build many of these along the water’s path for the high volume run-off during the monsoons.


“So much has been done,” says Lalani, and there is so much still to do. I have never said so many shukhar.” It was clear that their travels around India and Pakistan instilled in these volunteers a sense of renewed purpose with respect to their volunteer work. Their commitment to help raise the funds that support the efforts they had witnessed was reinforced.


Kassam candidly confesses, “At some level I thought I was better because I was educated in North America and could therefore go in and make a difference as, naturally, I knew better. This experience taught me that I don’t know better than them. It was humbling to see the conditions in which people live and the difference that hope can make in people’s lives.”


The projects that these Walk volunteers saw are supported in part by the funds raised by AKFC and matched by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Now  entering its 17th year, the Walk has raised over $14 million to date that have gone directly to over 48 projects supported by AKFC.  (Source: The Ismaili Canada – March 2001 issue)