Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Playing God

After an exhausting nine-day trip in Afghanistan, I am in India. Although my body yearns for some downtime after the drubbing from the Afghan trip, I find no respite. Aliakberbhai, who was with me in Afghanistan seems fine; the man can work like a horse and still be able to operate on less than three hours of sleep a day.

Sabira and Hameed Pirbhai from London join us in Delhi for the five-hour trip to Sirsi where CAI has a 1,400 students school, girls and boys orphanages each and two housing projects for the poor. Sabira is here as a volunteer to offer her expertise in training the teachers of Sirsi School in effective methods of teaching. After a day of inspections of ongoing projects in the vicinity of Sirsi, Phendheri, Kunderkey and Naghau Sadaat, Aliakberbhai and I depart for New Delhi for a flight to Lucknow and on to Hallour. It’s six hours to ND airport, an hour’s flight to Lucknow and another five hours to Hallour. I am to do due diligence for yet another school in this poor community, CAI’s sixth in India.  

Thankfully, the road from Lucknow to Hallour, very close to the border with Nepal, is surprisingly very good, if noisy. My body aches for sleep and my eyelids feel so heavy, they shut close involuntarily every so often. But vaapi, slumber is elusive. Indians, generally, love to lean on their vehicle horns; be it a car, truck, motorbikes or even bicycles for that matter. Any major Indian city will drive me bananas with the hooting pollution. Drive through rural India and speeding trucks will come barging down, front or rear, bellowing modified horns of loudest decibels, jerking me through to my toenails.

Hallour is a typical midsize city in UP; drab, dirty, congested and yes, the mayhem of horns rule the traffic. The only nameless hotel in town is not rated, but I have no hesitation of giving it a zero star rating. I have apprehensions as soon as I enter the ‘room’ where masquerading mosquitos gleefully set upon every open skin of my body. So I wear a long sleeve hoodie and a pair of socks, never mind the ninety-degree heat and cook myself. The ‘bathroom’ has no hot water, no shower but a tired looking plastic bucket and a leaky container. The toilet is standard squat issue without a flush so bucketfuls of water must follow a dump and you hope it all disappears somewhere. We are supposed to sleep here two nights but I make a snap decision and inform Aliakberbhai we will complete all the work the next day and leave for more civilized Lucknow; I am having heart palpitations just looking at the dubious ‘bed’; it is a long, long night of praying I don’t get slaughtered by the ecstatic mosquitos.

I am in a hurry to get the project due diligence done real quick next morning. The land donated by the local community is very good and the need for a quality school, especially for girls, very urgent so I approve the project; work will begin immediately after Aashoora insha’Allah. A modern, quality school, CAI’s sixth in India, for 1,000 plus children, double storied, with scope to expand if all goes well, insha’Allah. If we are able to educate even 10% of these children to their full potential, it is worth the investment insha’Allah.

A six-hour drive back to Lucknow and a night stay at a three-star hotel does wonders to restore some of my vigor. I sleep in a mosquito / insect free air-conditioned room, poop in a sparkling white commode, use a toilet paper and take a hot bath in a glass enclosed free flowing shower; what blessings, yaar! It is back to Mumbai the next day.

On my return back to Mumbai from Sri Lanka a few days later, Wasi Mohammediyan and Basheer Razaee, CAI senior staff from Kabul arrive for a three day intensive course on US statutory compliance matters. They have been confined to Afghanistan and Iran all their lives so a visit to Mumbai is like travelling into extraterrestrial territory, both exhilarating and fearful. The crowds of Mumbai, the honking traffic, the noise, the smell, the perpetual movement of a city that never sleeps overwhelms them. But they seem to be falling in love with the spicy Indian food, especially one at the Bohri Muhalla in Dongri where we devour barbecue delicacies right off the grill.

After the training, I take them to see some of CAI’s India projects in Mumbai; our school, SGH orphanage, Al Zahra Boys Home in Mumbra and several houses for the very poor under construction at the Govendhi slums. It is here, in the slums, where both Wasi and Basheer seem shell-shocked at the extreme degrading poverty and squalor of the place that the enormity of what CAI does hits me, again. We have just inspected three poor sadaat homes under construction, walking in dim alleys, not wide enough for an overweight person to walk straight, where the sun never shines and open sewer takes six inches of the lane. They are impressed with the modern tiled home in midst of filth but are happy to be out of the slum proper. I can see them shudder as we pass piled up garbage where children openly defecate and then casually walk away, the mounds of shit immediately covered by swarms of flies.

Aliakbarbhai, as usual, is unaffected by all this; its not even a distraction for him. He is busy, attentively addressing poor people wants for houses, mostly women, beseeching Aliakbarbhai to add them to the ever-growing list of eligible applicants. I can only envy him, his patience. This scene is repeated everywhere we go, throngs of people in need, begging, wanting, demanding...  I can take it so much before loosing patience. CAI has funds for 81 homes for this particular area; the needs and demands are in the thousands. Aliakberbhai extracts himself from the milling crowds after promising more homes when funding is possible.

This is the most frustrating and difficult role I play within CAI, playing God, literally. The need for worldwide humanitarian work in immense, our resources limited. Who am I to decide who gets what? Sure, I can do all the due diligence I want, implement all the safeguards and transparency possible. However, I am human after all. Feed a computer credible data and it will spit out a plausible result. What about a heart? Emotions? Perceptions? How do I handle these? I feel terrible when it is I that has to decline a distraught widow and her children shelter just because she is born non-sadaat. When she is more deserving than an equally deserving sadaat. How can I play God? These choices despair and leave me in a dour mood for days afterwards.

Why do I share this with you? As stated earlier, many times, I seek no sympathy. I declare I am bountifully blessed to serve in this role, would not trade for anything material in this world. This narration is for you to understand and appreciate how we at CAI spend your money. It is not the case of sitting in an air-conditioned office and directing funds to far flung projects; rather, to be physically there, in the midst of bewildering challenges, to feel the need and pain of being poor and destitute. I pray these Blogs accomplish that insha’Allah.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

I Feel Like Weeping For Joy

I am in Mumbai, in the middle of my current trip, taking me to four countries and several worldwide cities and villages. To Dubai and Mumbai and New Delhi and Kabul and Yawkawlang and Sacheck and Punjab and Lego and Oozmuk and Nilli and Dayaroos, back to Kabul, on to New Delhi again and Sirsi and Phandheri and Nawghawa Sadaat and Kuderky and New Delhi yet again, and Lucknow and Hallour and Lucknow again and Mumbai again. I leave today for Colombo and Nurelliya, return to Colombo and Mumbai again, then return to Sanford via Dubai and Chicago mid October insha’Allah. Quite a mouthful, no?

The following is a short narrative on the Afghanistan trip only; hope you enjoy it:

I am in Afghanistan; Aliakberbhai Ratansi of AICT Mumbai or RK (because he has an uncanny resemblance to the late Raj Kapoor of Bollywood, grey eyes and all) and Sohail Abdullah (SA) a CAI Trustee from New York join me this time around. This is my 27th trip to this badbakth country in the last 7 years and much has changed since then, but yet again, a lot remains the same. Kabul has greatly improved of course (except for occasional bombs that explode and kill or maim the innocent), thanks to massive foreign aid money; airport services are prompt, the streets are nicely paved and power cuts are not as frequent. The local CAI team receives us at the airport and we are whisked away to the comfort, superb Afghan hospitality and relative security of Wasi’s home, CAI’s Country Manager in Afghanistan. While RK and I are seasoned visitors here, SA is a rookie, full of awe and tons of bewildering questions.

Rural and remote Afghanistan, where the bulk of CAI operations are in progress or operational, is where the world changes back to the Stone Age, literally. SA sits next to the pilot, his IPhone constantly capturing the sights and sounds as we are transported to Yawkawlang in a teeny-weeny Kodiak single propelled aircraft. SA’s greatest concern is for the healthy looking American pilot to survive a medical emergency, such as a heart attack.

SA will share a wonderful photo-blog of the trip with you shortly so I will spare you the intricate details of this tough adventure. I will, however, tell you this:

I feel like crying for joy and hugging a sparklingly white commode when I see one at the Golden Tulip Hotel room in Lucknow. I have delicately, carefully squatted and balanced over a hole-in-the-ground toilet, clutching a lotta in one hand and a torch in another, bearing the humiliation of mosquitos and flies feasting on my exposed behind the last 12 days. I feel like weeping with joy when I get to use a bathroom toilet tissue after having to finger my bum the last 12 days. I feel weepy when I finally get to sleep in a soft comfy mattress inside a centrally air-conditioned room, not having to squat tormenting flies away or wistfully watch a sated mosquito full of my blood elude my attempt at its murder. I feel emotional when I take a hot shower with abundant water, not having to worry about pneumonia should I have to use frigid water in an emergency. I get relief when I blow my nose instead of rudely picking it publicly, since the thin Afghan mountain air made all secretion into a hard crust that was very uncomfortable to keep for long and bled my nose every time I cleaned them. I am delighted I can smell my old self and not the revolting odor of not having washed for days on end. I close my eyes in ecstasy when I take a sip of real hot chai after being deprived the last 12 days. I feel like crying for joy when...

These joys are short lived, of course, when my thoughts return to the misery and hopelessness of the people CAI help left behind. My discomfort and hardships are transitory; these people I am so fortunate to help a bit will be without all the fancies I take so much for granted.

In Afghanistan this trip, CAI commissioned the following:

1.   A water distribution system in Yawkawlang that benefits over 3,000 people which will provide clean, potable water for the next 25 years at US$27 each.
2.   Monitoring of operational Sacheck Medical Click – a wonderful modern custom built clinic that can rival any in a Western country.
3.   The opening of a 400 student elementary school, CAI’s 15th in Punjab.
4.   The due diligence of another elementary school, CAI’s 17th (16th already under construction in Kajraan) in Lego.
5.   Monitoring of the operational Oozmuk Medical Clinic and commission the construction of a tailor made modern all-purpose clinic. The current one operates from mud brick – straw house that freezes in the winter and is highly inefficient.
6.   Commission of one water-well benefiting 120 people costing US$1,400.
7.   Monitoring of operational Dayaroos Medical Clinic. Construction of a modern facility for this unit awaits funding.
8.   Participating in the wedding celebration of 100 poor couples sponsored by CAI donors at Nilli.
9.   Distribution of five each milk and ewe producing sheep to poor widows in Nilli.
10. Monitoring of the new SGH 60 girls orphanage / 300 girls school project under construction in Kabul.