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O, Nkabom*

Tuesday 28th September 2010

Mehwish Zuberi, from Pakistan.

*CAUTION! A plethora of stuffy sentimentalism/gooey-ness, use of analogies that might not make any sense and raw emotion is contained within the following document. Remember, you have been forewarned.


My legs feel cramped as I sit huddled in the inhumanly tiny Pakistan International Airline airplane seat. I look around and the sight of these familiar faces gives me a heady feeling. Familiar not in the sense of having known them for a number of years or something. No. Familiar along the lines of facial expressions, hand gestures, dressing and most significantly language. Hearing everybody chatter in Urdu, my native tongue, makes the past ten days all the more unreal. Did that really just happen? Was I really a part of such a diverse group that the only person who could identify the sounds I made when I spoke my mother tongue as words was a girl who belonged to the cultural haven that is India? Did I really walk, talk, eat, breathe, laugh, sing, dance, live with a cluster of people, who by now are spread in every corner of the world, from Canada to Australia, from the Bahamas to Malaysia? Is the same heart I departed with from the Islamabad airport, only ten days ago fluttering from a heady concoction of excitement and anxiety about to return with me to the same airport only this time heavy with such overwhelming emotions that it starts sinking at the mere thought of Nkabom being over, thus inducing a warm buzzing in my lacrimal glands and the waterworks we commonly refer to as tears start flowing? Did that really just happen?

To say that Nkabom changed my life would be quite an understatement. Having to choose where to begin to support this assertion would be tantamount to having to choose which blade of grass is greenest in one of the lush fields we passed through on our way to Nyungwe. Little had I known that this conference in a little land-locked country in East Africa that was aimed at peace building and conflict resolution would both resolve and arouse conflicts in the rainforest of thoughts and emotions that is my head. The difference was that these were direly needed conflicts in a region that has for far too long been suppressed into peaceful non-questioning. Maybe it was the African air that jolted in me that much needed spark. Maybe it was one or all of the long sessions that apart from focusing on universal issues, wars, human rights, peace building, leadership training and various areas collectively dealt with discovering ourselves. Well, for me at least. Coming from a society that has conditioned me along with most of my peers into not questioning, following the shepherd like a flock of sheep, discouraging experimenting, making mistakes and learning from mistakes, Nkabom was a whirlpool in the seemingly calm ocean that I was on the inside. I came not knowing why it is that the consumption of alcohol is forbidden in my religion only to have my agnostic Malaysian friend very casually explain it to me one evening by the swimming pool while we were all in the ice-breaking process. To me that was one of the many moments of enlightenment that I was to encounter during my stay in Rwanda as an Nkabomer. I learned that to follow something without questioning it is a dangerous thing to do, like swallowing a clear liquid. You do not know what it will do to your system, short term and long term. I learned that questioning your faith does not necessarily mean losing it. Sometimes it means strengthening it, like it did in my case. My agnostic friend very beautifully summed it up, ” I know for a fact that challenges around you only make you stronger like how I made you a more faithful Muslim.”

I have always been open about my consideration of hypothetical situations as silly. “What would you do?” What would I do? How the hell am I supposed to know in advance what I will do? Kamila Shamsie asserts, “You can only know how you feel in the here and now, and not how you will feel years, months and even days down the line.” Tested and proven. I had no had no clue what I would do if I were to be plunged into a cold, seemingly bottomless swimming pool for the first time in my life. Would I struggle, frantically kick my legs, look for the bottom? Would I simply give up and let my self be conquered by the overpowering pool of the water?

In the end, I belonged to the first category. It was initially one of the scariest instances of my life. I held on to whatever support I could grasp. But after the first ten minutes of paranoia (I thought I would drown, yeah) I was able to float by myself. That is, until I remembered i had the swimming capability of a camel and I began screaming my head off. Point is, one can never know what one will do or feel until one does it or feels it. Lord knows, one day I might just end up being the Michale Phelps of Pakistan. It seems highly improbably, but can one really dismiss the thread-like possibility? I hear it from a lot of my friends that they discovered themselves when they traveled to another country, another part of the world. My American host mother feels that way about Germany. Another friend says that about Spain. I highly doubt many Germans or Spaniards would agree that their respective countries hlped them discover their inner-self. It is not about the place you are going to, the language and culture you are surrounded by or even the landscape that is so very different from the one you grew up running barefoot around in. It’s about the change. Change of company, change of norms, change of the legal law, change of “standards of morality”. Morality. Now that is a funny concept. You would think that the countries of right and wrong would have clearly demarcated land boundaries. But apparently, there does exist a No man’s land between them, frequently visited by those freed of the bars of their respective cultural expectations. Those ten days I spent with Nkabom were spent not only in Rwanda, but also in my personal No man’s land. It was a time of firsts. My first living in the moment. My first letting myself be. My first dancing like there is no tomorrow. Let me explain at this point that the year before last, I lived as an exchange student in New Jersey, America for ten months. Quite enough time you would say to discover myself and live as ME. But perhaps I was too young to realize the potential of the freedom I had been awarded, to realize my potential of being ME. Or perhaps I constantly governed my thoughts, my actions and myself on the basis of the answers I would have to give once I went back to my native country. Funnily, once I did return, my regrets revolved around all that I had let slip by. It is peculiar how regrets work. You regret the things you do, you regret the things you don’t do. I returned to Pakistan, to my colorless life that comprised of school, school and more school. Being an avid Twilighter, I tried to see the following Stephenie Meyer quote in light of my personal circumstances. She says, “When life offers you a dream so far beyond any of your expectations, it is not reasonable to grieve when it comes to an end.” But depression can be stubborn. It deprives you of all reasoning virtue. My extracurricular activities were limited to a dreary extent. I had given up and succumbed to my preordained destiny as a Pakistani girl of growing up an educated woman, sacrificing all hopes of a professional career for my husband acquired through an arranged marriage and birthing/rearing his toddlers for the rest of my life. Countless were the times I cursed my having been born a female and evermore so countless were the times I cursed my having been born a female in a strictly male-dominated society that would not let me be.

Nkabom was the first glimmer of hope that I had felt in a year that lasted more than a decade in my mind. I later wrote to my friend, “I feel like my life has once again been given a purpose.” For so long, I had been constantly reminded by the world and by myself that my capabilities are limited, that I have to conform to society’s expectations, that I should learn to live, love and be grateful for whatever life I had. And at times it was easier to accept than to fight. Everytime I struggled against the wires of the cage that held my wings in place, it seemed to tighten its hold on me all the more. It was easier to give in, and so I did. But Nkabom stirred in me a longing I had long forgotten. A longing to mark my mark in this world. A longing to touch lives. A longing for my name to never die.

When people ask me, “What was the highlight of your Nkabom experience?” I cannot help but laugh. It is like having to choose one hair from a herd of a thousand Himalayan goats to prepare one thread that is to be woven to make into the perfect Pashmina shawl. From the anticipation that built up through email updates from the Nkabom  team and corresponding with the other Nkabomers on Facebook to packing and counting down each day in my mind’s calender, and then putting on a brave face for my utterly fretful mother and concerned father and boarding that first flight to Dubai, to meeting an array of strangers on the airports and losing my passport, my tickets and eventually my luggage, it was all a whirlpool of excitement. Arriving in one piece to Sportsview hotel in Kigali in one piece was miracle in itself and then meeting the people I would be living, laughing, breathing with for the upcoming nine days and trying to remember names and countries with the faces, sneaking a glance at the id card whenever needed, trying to get used to the four flights of stairs to get to my room, potatoes for breakfast, potatoes for lunch, potatoes for dinner, these were all the fundamentals of my Nakbom experience. The sessions instilled in me knowledge worth far more than that of Qarun’s treasures (and only the keys to his treasure were carried on 70 camels, mind you) One of the most unforgettable experiences was how a bunch of straws and some tape taught me about team work, time management, effective communication and being a visionary.

Attending Rwanda’s beloved Paul Kagame’s Presidential inauguration was awe inspiring. I noticed with mouth gaping surprise that his name spelled out in bleachers was comprised of actual people in color coded shirts! The spirit, the fervor, the passion! It gave me hope for my own distress-ridden country direly in need of revolution. This was followed by a number of sessions that began with Rwanda’s history that led to the genocide of 1994, and eventually to peace and stability, along the way taught us the what,  why and how of conflict and conflict resolution. It was one of the most heart-wrenching experiences of my life to visit the Kigali memorial for the genocide. The smiling photographs of the Tutsi’s who in all probability were entirely unaware of the torture, machetes, bombs, bullets and bloodshed that they were fated to endure were far more overwhelming to me than the display of the skulls and bones of the victims. The hike in Nyungwe  National Park was a memorable four hours, for my scoliosis stricken back at least. Being a girl who would choose an arranged marriage to a bearded mullah whom I have never met before in my life over any activity that involves physical exertion, hiking was definitely a first for me. The definite highlight of it was the canopy walk. Living in my tiny closed world where trekking through jungles is not an activity I indulge in very often, I had no idea what a canopy walk was. I learned the hard way. But after the wobbly walk at a height of one hundred and fifty meters (or so our tour guide boasted as I clung desperately to him) and fervently calling out to Allah for protection and for everybody’s amusement, when my feet finally touched solid ground, I felt absolutely invincible. I felt like I could be Pakistan’s Kagame. I felt like I had conquered a number of my fears. The intensity of that euphoria did not last very long, but the essence will remain in a corner of my heart forever. It is that essence that has given me a new found faith in myself.

Other delightful events that occurred would include the British High Commission dinner where I made a number of new friends. And then there was the model CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting)  that put us the shoes of the leaders of the world, in the minds of decision makers and in the seats many of us shall be sitting in years from now. One visit that outshines most others was the visit to a village in Bugesera where victims and perpetrators of the genocide now live in harmony. Chills after chills ran down my spine as I saw a woman who had lost her all  during the genocide stand there and hug two of the perpetrators. A friend later questioned the genuineness of that acceptance. Can one really ever forgive one’s enemy who had inflicted such scars? When I think about it, having to live and exhibit a good conduct on a daily basis with somebody who had inflicted brutalities on you and your loved ones in the past must be an act of unimaginable bravery. That visit instilled in me hope for humanity. This world isn’t so bad after all.

The Rwandan President very graciously accepted our request to conference with him. Coming from a country who’s leaders demand full protocol that involves at least five bullet-proof cars, blocking the roads for hours and for all traffic to be held in order to sate their inflated ego if they ever feel like going for a ride, it was utterly fascinating for me to see a president casually standing, chatting and taking pictures with the youth from countries around the world. No wonder Rwanda has developed with such staggering a rate.

I may be getting unbearably sentimental here and I am sure some people must be wondering what i have overdosed on, but believe you me, Nkabom was a huge deal to me. I met the most outstanding bunch of people and became incredibly close to them in a merely ten days. These people became my confidants, my mentors, my friends for life. They encouraged me with a wink and a nod and a crooked smile to step out of my protective shell and breathe. Live. Be free. They beckoned me to step into the sunlight and to dream and to live that dream. Never in my life have I felt so energized, so motivated to do, be and have what I want. I have learned that the only thing getting in my way is ME. Being a staunch Muslim, I believe in the concept of fate. To add flavor to my faith, I now believe that I am fated to make my own fate. Thank you Nkabom. I am forever indebted.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Tuesday 28th September 2010 4:32 pm

    Hayeeee ! Hayeeee ! I like your thoughts and sincerity Mehwish.

  2. Awais permalink
    Friday 1st October 2010 4:44 pm

    I also read your last post, Mehwish. Such beauty and depth in your write-ups. I love this piece so much! Do you have a blog?

  3. Mehwish Zuberi permalink
    Sunday 3rd October 2010 8:03 am

    much thanks to you, Jean Paul and Awais. (a special haye hayee to tu, JP!) And no, im too lazy to have my own blog. :p

  4. Awais permalink
    Sunday 3rd October 2010 11:39 am

    That’s a shame. 🙂

  5. Sania Khan permalink
    Friday 21st October 2011 6:46 pm

    ‘who would choose an arranged marriage to a bearded mullah’ Are you from a very religious family? because that is not exactly how it is in Pakistan, all pakistani guys are not Mullahs… you seem to have an inferiority complex

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