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Johar Ali











8 December 2002


The narrator has a senior position with the Pakistan Water and Power Development Authority in Lahore but works voluntarily for the Shimshal Nature Trust (SNT) in his free time. The central part of his testimony is a detailed and articulate account of Shimshal’s strengths as a community – its traditional values and social institutions, in particular “the voluntary service system that safeguarded their geographical boundaries as well as strengthened their social set-up, agricultural and other livelihood bases” and the way this underpins development activities today.

He stresses the importance of Shimshal’s geographical location: “Shimshal was, and until today is, an isolated community having no external exposure and external assistance. It was only the inter-communal linkages that enabled the community not only to survive but to flourish in the course of time.” Moreover, for much of its history Shimshal suffered invasions from nomadic groups trying to capture parts of its territory. There was no regular army to defend it, but the community “liberated the areas time and again” and this was only possible because of the “strong unity and cooperation among the people”. Philanthropic and voluntary activities were “the foundation stone” of the society’s development and gave rise to a concept of wealth as something essentially communal, “not only possession of excess resources but it is good health, physical strength, skills and good ideas as well, which they [people] offer and share with the community”.

The testimony contains useful and clear descriptions of the roles and duties of key officials under the Mir in the former Hunza state, and those of different groups within the community: for example on journeys (seasonal migration) the young were responsible for various practical tasks including assisting the old by sharing their loads. “Such practices were virtually institutionalised, but informally” and have been successfully “transformed” into modern formalised institutions – from the economic planning board to girl guides. “Modernisation doesn’t mean that your culture ceases to have importance, it means carrying your culture with you while development [takes place], and adapting your culture.”

The narrator is optimistic about the future. He believes that with the SNT’s guidance the community can develop its tourist potential in a controlled way and he is encouraged by the fact that many educated people either come back to work locally or continue to support their families/community. “One example of attachment of people to their village is that they never think to build property in other cities, their ultimate destination is the village and they try to strengthen their bases in the village and try to improve their living standards in the village. Instead of getting lost/absorbed in the crowds of the city they want to return to the village and live a peaceful life in the village by improving their conditions.”

detailed breakdown

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Section 1-2  Personal details. One of the first villagers to receive formal education: up to class 6 in Shimshal, classes 7 & 8 in Gulmit, 2 years in Gilgit – secondary school certificate, then Karachi – higher secondary school certificate; Lahore – degree in electrical engineering.
Section 3  Has worked as a power engineer with Pakistan Water and Power Development Authority since 1987. Very successful career. Now at head office but works for SNT during his vacations: “Being away from the community I cannot join them in their works in the village so I thought that I must do something for the community…”
Section 4  Community spirit and tradition of voluntary service in Shimshal – traces this to Shimshal’s geographical isolation and to having had to defend itself against hostile neighbouring (nomadic) groups: “The community retained their control over their land for centuries and that happened only because of its unity and spirit of voluntary service”
Section 5  Philanthropic and voluntary activities as the basis of “the entire development activities of our society”. Shimshal’s definition of wealth: the skills, expertise, physical strength and good ideas that people contribute for the community’s benefit.
Section 6  Traditional social institutions: division of labour by working groups based on clan, family and age. Institutions under the Mir: roles of numberdar, arbob, yarpa and chorbov (administrative, managerial, etc); Khalifa and Qazi (religious); professional groups. “The community would treat them as an institution not an individual.”
Section 7-8  Agriculture and livestock herding – the two main occupations. “From the job/profession point of view there was no discrimination; instead they would praise their skills and would give them due respect.” Role of younger age groups on journeys, including sharing the loads of old/infirm community members. Modern institutions and their evolution: “…the transformation took place very smoothly… probably for the reason that we were practising all these things under the informal system and our informal system was very similar to these institutions, so we only needed adjustment…”
Section 9-11  Co-operation between different institutions/volunteer groups. Inspiration/reward for contributing skills, strength, wealth etc was recognition/praise from community (eg in songs) + the knowledge that everyone benefited: “…in short the wealth one person possessed was considered common wealth”. This cultural heritage is in decline “but we still own it… [People] don’t use the term ‘mine’ but ‘ours’”. Effects of land redistribution under the Hunza state – higher valleys esp. Shimshal came off well because of extensive territory + self-sufficiency. Shimshal prosperous compared with other areas, but the whole region was “in poverty” compared to today.
Section 11  More on Hunza history – narrator refutes that Shimshal was a prison for the Mir’s political opponents.
Section 12  Interaction with other areas in the past – only with other Wakhi-speaking people (strong relationship, intermarriage etc). With the construction of the Karakoram Highway other areas benefited; Shimshal remained isolated. “Although the community is self-sufficient even today, due to lack of communication it has not been able to fully integrate into the national life.” Road link to village soon to be fully operative: future looks good – huge territory full of scenic beauty, great potential for tourism.
Section 13-14  His views on globalisation: “no place is confined to a certain community or people”, but as owners of the land they must make wise decisions. Traditional management of land – sustainable practices endorsed by SNT. SNT’s objectives: to record and promote traditional practices, eg voluntary work, community participation etc; prepare the community for change, give guidance, monitor changes as a result of tourism, positive and negative.
Section 14-16  Traditional livelihoods – agriculture + livestock herding (territory of 2,700 sq km); hunting. Traditional regulations re hunting (eg banned during breeding season), songs/drama, distribution of game in the community. Government tried to ban hunting but failed because of poor communication with the community. “But when SNT made the community realise their obligation towards their environment and reminded them of the songs that reflected their connection with the wildlife the community responded…and without any use of force… [or] incentives the community banned hunting completely.”
Section 16  Traditional roles of women, including domestic management, participation in agricultural tasks, livestock management. “Pamir where the major share of our economy comes from is totally managed by women.” Because of male migration for employment, women have now taken on major burden of agricultural work; also largely responsible for the education of children at home.
Section 17  Education of girls/women – hindrances including lack of local schools, fears about sending girls out of village, lack of safe hostel facilities etc. Among “our sisters and daughters” who do move to the cities and get an education several come back to the village and are important role models.
Section 18-20  Proportion of people receiving education in Shimshal quite high despite geographical isolation – mainly because of Aga Khan education network. Early formal education in Shimshal and the narrator’s experiences. Others in his generation who were able to continue their studies/ get good jobs.
Section 21  Migration to the cities in search of education or employment: “This is a healthy activity …after completion of their education the student tries to go back to his area for service (employment), if he does not see any opportunity [there]… he stays in the city, seeks employment…He takes the students from his family to the city and educates them and also supports his parents and brothers and sisters in the village.”
Section 22  Reason many people return to the village: strong attachment to the landscape and society, more peaceful environment, less materialism.