On the other side of the barbed wire

Sukhmani Sethi

What lay on the other side of the border eluded many of us. It was the first time we were going to cross onto the other side; the first time witness whether a superficial segregation of barbed wire and an iron gate had actually segregated us as people. It was the first time we were going to set foot in Pakistan!

Broad roads, green trees, and a ride in a zipping car is what followed. It was the first day at the conference and we were already late. Talk about first impressions! Representatives from 20 different organizations had gathered from all states and regions of Pakistan to understand how they could work together as a team to better the educational system for their children. ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) was the tool we came with to help them achieve this goal.
There was a fair amount of apprehension. Who were these people who had volunteered to conduct ASER? Would they agree with what we would share? And most importantly would they be as enthusiastic as we are about the work? I think it was the first round of introductions and the lunch break that settled our nerves and set into motion a wonderful camaraderie. There were groups which had come from far ends of Pakistan to be a part of this effort. Tough terrains like Baluchistan, Peshawar had sent representatives, men and women alike.
The friendships grew stronger during the next few days. A lot of time was spent discussing and debating the nuts and bolts of ASER. We shared each other’s strengths and weaknesses in the hope that this platform would enable us to get past the latter and imbibe the former.
ASER prides itself on its bottom up approach; so the sessions discussing theoretical details were put to practice with a day of fieldwork. The team of 50 all split up in groups of 6 and visited various villages. It was in the ‘pind’ that I got the sense of being the ‘other’ for the first time. So far it was all about how similar we were in the way we spoke, looked, ate and behaved. But in the village all that somehow got sidetracked and what took its place were our identities. Who we were, where we came from, what religion we followed and why we were there. General queries, but unnerving when you know you cannot claim kinship on any of those grounds.
It is in these situations that you realize what powerful forces children can be. All queries and apprehension were set to rest when they were put to focus. We had not gone to their homes with solution to eradicate poverty or solve local problems. We had gone to see, share and assess how well their children were learning, or whether they were learning at all. We spoke about ASER, our aim, how we meant to use this tool to better the lives and future of our children. And when you really think of it, it translates as: Our children, our future.
We left the villages with many fond memories. There were friends who had promised to teach one another; a boy who worked at a shoe factory wondered aloud whether he would earn more if he educated himself; people once satisfied with our intentions, asked us to come home so that they could serve us food. It became a cause they identified with. A fire had been rekindled. Of that we were sure.
The next day went by in a haze. There were suggestions and observations from the field that were discussed. What would the next step be? How would we manage such a survey? Who would take what responsibility? By when would this start? By when would we be ready? These were some of the many questions raised and answered.
Before we knew it, it was time to cross to the other side; except the ‘other’ had changed drastically in meaning. We were at the Pakistani side viewing the Indian side – now the other side. It makes you wonder whether the ‘other’ is a social construct, because here we were at the ‘other’ side and feeling no different. Had a superficial segregation of barbed wire and Iron Gate actually segregated us as people? I would like to believe, no.