Zunerah rose up at the brink of dawn when the sky was still dark and the night air cool. The straw mat she sleeps on doesn’t make for a very comfortable night’s sleep, but Zunerah hasn’t seen any better. She’s grateful for the roof to sleep under.In the shivering light of the lamp, she completes her attire, dresses into colorful clothes and bangles up to her shoulders. Quiet as to not wake her husband up, she collects plastic bottles and earthen pots from around the house. A sudden stroke of dizziness makes her lose her balance and she leans onto the wall for support. With a deep breath and resolute to eat something soon, she leaves her house.
The pots balanced one on her head and another on her waist, Zunerah began her journey of five miles to the well.Water had always been a scarcity in the region. Too far from the reach of any permanent water bodies, too dull for government and business to invest in, the land survived at the mercy of annual rain. When rain fell short, the area experienced drought conditions. Any short term water storages dried up sooner than they could be used and thousands of women like Zunerah undertook the journey of miles to collect water for the day.
Women from around the village joined her along the way. They varied in ages and sizes, yet united in hardships they endured. Old women and younger ones, hunched back and pregnant ones. Some walked solo while others brought alongside their animals.The drought affected animals too. Lives, human and beast alike, were lost, in numbers reported many.
Through the mud paths and barren roads, Zunerah trod on, ignoring the pangs of hunger.The scorching sun now shone brightly on the desert sand as life crawled into another day. Thermometers recorded a blazing 53°C. She couldn’t remember the last time she had had a complete meal. The region had reportedly entered its eighth year of drought. Food and water were scarce.
Her body was too weak after the blood loss, she realized.‘Loss’, she smiled… Zunerah had lost far more precious than blood. Her eyes brimmed with tears as the image of a newborn child crossed her mind. She could imagine his feel in her arms, the bow of his lips, the arch of his eyebrows, but even as she held him, she knew … A mother knows. She watched him, her eyes desperate for a twitch, a flicker, a sound, a sigh. Holding in both her scream and tears, she gave it to the lady, just like she had given another child not too long ago. At least they can play together…wherever it is that God is keeping all the dead children of the village.
Life in the region wasn’t a breeze. Loss and suffering etched upon every face the eye would find. Early marriage was the norm. Girls in their teens carried children both in their arms and in their bellies. Disease and malnutrition were epidemic in the region, with most deaths occurring during childbirth. Despite deteriorating health, women toiled tirelessly throughout the day; the water journey alone was miles on foot. Life at the domestic front wasn’t a walk through the garden either. Women lacked basic rights of life, such as education and health facilities. Quality of life lacked basic necessities such as clean water. Many would migrate away. Those that stayed lacked resources for that too.Poverty escalated frustration levels. The village was engulfed in a never-ending cloud of loss and depression.
With a shake of her head, Zunerah warded off her thoughts. The well was within sight now, a small crowd was gathered nearby, awaiting their turn. Zunerah made her way to the well, adjusting her pots as she went. Too occupied with the task at hand, she failed to register the growing darkness before her eyes, just as she felt her leg give away to a slow thud as her body hit the ground. Silence and darkness blanketed her in their soft arms as she lay, the ghost of her last smile etched on her face.
Zunerah is the story of thousands of women in Tharparkar. Of women like you and me.
In the southern region of Sindh, lies the area of Tharparkar, a name just as often sidelined in the folds of newspaper by political dramatics just as its location remains tucked away to the edges of the country.The area spreads over a vast 25,000 sq.km area and is home to 1.5 million people. Characterized by extreme desert temperatures and topography, the area has entered into its eighth year of consistent famine and drought. Newspaper report that as many as 1500 children under the age of 5 have died due to various diseases, according to a recent UN report, 30% of women and children in the region traveled over an hour to a water supply,93% of households do not have any food-buying powers, only 350 from a population of above a million makes it to universities, literacy rate is 20% ….so on and so forth.
Is life in Tharparkar reduced to numbers? Do numbers succeed in creating an impact? One life or a thousand? Man or beast? Does it matter? Drought and death are merciless masters. Tharparkar is crying, its pleas echoing. Millions of stories like Zunerah’s are hushed. It is time we be their voice. For it may very well have been us.
By: Maha Hameed Khan