Pakistan: Remarkable women in remarkable places

Racing against the onset of monsoon season and the holy month of fasting, Ramadan, my female colleague Shazia and I challenged ourselves to travel 1,500 km across South Punjab to meet with seven borrowers in three days.

The mission was to complete an audit of sorts, known as a “borrower verification.”

What may seem like an awkward, laborious task is in fact most fellows’ favourite part of their fellowship — the chance to travel and meet borrowers in the flesh.

To meet Rani, we had to park our car under the sole tree on that lane and continue by foot into a tiny village divided by railroad tracks. Overseeing a bustling home with children, goats and neighbors casually popping in and out continuously, Rani shared with me the ambitious story of her seamstress/farming endeavors made possible through Kiva loans over the past five years.

“It takes two hands to applaud,” Rani emphasized, highlighting her need to supplement her husband’s income as a mason.

A candid family moment with Rani.

With the help of the loans, she was able to save enough money to transition her family from a ‘mud hut’ to a solid home made from bricks and cement. She was also able to send her five children to school. Clad in a pink ‘shalwar kameez’ (traditional South Asian outfit) in a highly organised pink bedroom, she shyly mentioned how she was also able to purchase the neatly stacked crockery (seen in the background of the picture above), which she uses only for special occasions.  Yes, it was clear pink is her favorite color.

After having spent nearly two hours ‘gup-shupping’  (chit-chatting), Rani started to receive one phone call after another. Clearly she was a busy lady who could not indulge in idle talk all day, and had things to do, unlike the rest of us. Laughingly, Rashida, (her neighbor and also a Kiva borrower) and I decided to continue taking pictures despite Rani being on the phone.

Call me maybe?

After spending less than a half hour with our next borrower due to a death in her family, we were told to rush to Multan to meet Robina, who had a court hearing the next morning.

Robina had been brutally assaulted by her neighbors earlier in the month, ironically — as she puts it — due to the success of her grocery store (helped by a Kiva loan). Robina’s face still showed bruising, although the incident did little to bruise her lively personality.

Me and Robina

Robina’s daughters and grandsons

A few years ago, Robina was widowed, casting her into a spell of worry about how to support her family. Having now taken out three loans through Kiva’s Field Partner Asasah, Robina was able to consistently purchase new products, contributing to her ever-growing clientele. With her savings, she had bought a freezer and managed to pay for her oldest daughter’s wedding expenses.

My first night ended with a lovely welcoming meal with Asasah staff, and a peaceful night under the stars of one of the oldest cities in the world — Multan.

Rising with the sun, the City of Gard, Garma, Gada o Goristan (Sand, Summer, Scroungers and Spirits) woke me bright and early, and at 6 a.m. we visited four of Multan’s most famous ‘mazars’ (shrines) and ‘masjids’ (mosques), beating the crowd.

The glory of the city is a pre-Mughal mausoleum built between 1320 and 1324, known as the Shah Rukn-e-Alam. Located on a hill overlooking the city, this masterpiece is considered the second largest dome in the world after the ‘Gol Gumbad’ in India.

Shah Rukn-e-Alam

One step inside and I am transported away by the mystical qualities of the shrine, the air heavy with silent prayers. Admiring the detailed interior preserved over centuries, I could not help but recognize a paradox: If we had invested the same time and devotion in our fellow humans for all these centuries, would we still be so desperate for the spiritual guidance we seek today?

Solitude in Multan

Ameera was the last borrower we met. A recent widow, she explained how her last loan covered the funeral costs for her late husband, who had passed a few months ago. She had taken out a loan to continue her livestock business buying and selling buffaloes and goats.

Ameera and her granddaughter

Risks like illness, death and natural disasters put people like Ameera in very vulnerable situations. Their incomes tend to barely cover their living expenses, so unexpected events can throw them right back into poverty. Ameera explained how — had she not had any savings to cover the hospital bills and funeral expenses — her family would have fallen deep in debt to local loan sharks for years to come.

Ameera’s grandson

My trip ended with a visit the Pakpattan shrine ‘Baba Farid.’ Hosting ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ this 13th century Sufi shrine is visited by millions each year. Unmanned metal detectors and lax personnel ‘guarded’ the shrine, which had been bombed during Ramadan in 2010, killing six and injuring dozens.

With the powerful voices of the local ‘qawalli’ group guiding my visit, I noticed the scars in the wall, yet the festive atmosphere that Thursday afternoon could do little to dampen people’s spirit.

Despite my exhaustion, girls will be girls, and I was informed that I must get my ‘mehndi’ (henna) done. Contradicting Pakpattan’s ultra-conservative society, talented men swiftly decorate women in a matter of minutes, through syringes filled with chemical-laced ‘mehndi’, leaving behind stunning pieces of art.


Heavily doused in culture, creed and Kiva, we drove back to Lahore, grateful for the rich experiences of the last few days.

Stay tuned for Ramadan adventures in Vehari and Faisalabad next week!

Anya Raza is a Kiva Fellow stationed at Asasah, a microfinance institution in Pakistan. You can lend to one of Asasah’s borrowers here, join the Pakistan lending team, and keep reading Anya’s posts to learn more about the organization and the many borrowers it helps fund. You can also follow Anya on Twitter at @anya_raza

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