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A Pashtun Girl Story | Cattle herder

Cattle herder: A day in the life of a Pashtun girl

I have never seen a Pashtun woman waking up late. That's true. She wakes up early in the morning. Soon after the Azaan. Even the little girls in villages wake up early. Always before sunrise. Here I want to describe a girl's day.

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A ten-year-old village girl's day looks somewhat like this:

Wakes up well before sunrise. If she doesn't, her mother is going to give her an earful.

She will lazily go and fill up a lota (a jar-type utensil) with water and wash her face. Yawn and sit to sip some tea. If she feels like it, she will also take a few bites of last night's bread too.

The cows, sheep and goats have already been milked by her grandma, her mother, an aunt or an older sister so the animals are stamping in the stable asking to be released.

The sun is starting to rise. Cough cough goes the grandfather. 'bachay thayarega (get ready my child) it's getting late". Yes it's usually the grandfather or the grandmother she will spend the day with: in the mountains herding the cattle.

In the meanwhile her older sister who grew too big to herd the cattle is busy in the kitchen making her lunch box. There she is. She calls the little girl over and hands her the lunch box. Nghan bread with some landobaal (curry) in tin box. Both wrapped in a flower-patterned kerchief.

'Bring me my stick' says grandpa. She runs over to her his bed and pull out the huge walking stick from the mazari fourposter kaat (bed).

They are both ready. Off they go!

The cattle have now been freed. Four or five people make sure they don't stray into the rooms, the kitchen, etc. Through the main door the animlas file out. Outside a brother is waiting to guide the herd onto the right path. He joins them too.

She is so little but she has already mastered the sounds older people make to control the animals. Tsk Tsk. Uggghh. Don't Go!! Khiya! She says them all in a cute way but some of them sound out of place. The Tsk Tsk Tsk don't suit her. She shouldn't be learning this. Make her sound much older than she is.

The brother does the running around while he is with them. He won't be for long. He helps them bring the herd to a point beyond the crops. Now no danger of the cattle straying into fields of other people. Besides it's also getting late. He will wish them happiness for the day while he returns home. What for you wonder? Well, he has got to go to school!

Yes that's the way it is. There is no school for girls in the village anyway. Life is what it is. On the way they'll pass the school. The only school in the village. A boys' school but some girls also go to it. The school-going girls catch her attention for a few seconds before she notices a goat straying off the main path. She runs nimbly to bring it back. Her little head shawl slides off onto her little shoulders sort of flying behind her as she runs.

'That is one naughty one' her grandfather comments on the frolicking he-goat.
'Are we going to sell it or keep it grandfather? I say we keep him. We can have him for big Eid. He is so fat'. She responds.
'Yes we can keep him for Eid or that one there' says her grandpa.

Silence. Pitter patter of goat and sheep feet. Flying tails of cows and bulls whisking off flies.

Half an hour later they are all climbing the big mountain. Pastures beyond.

From the top of the mountain she looks back over to the village below. It seems so peaceful. The school can be seen from there. Green flag of Pakistan fluttering in the air. Her brother must be in class now. The unwalled school looks like a pantomime of children moving around and a teacher standing in front of a group. All so far away.

Stones under hooves of cows' feet make cracking sounds. The two of them go on. School and village now out of sight. The animals are now free to eat. They spread over the grassy terrain. Her grandfather sends her onto the top of a hillock. A strategic position. The cattle shouldn't go beyond it or they'll be lost.

The sights and sounds of nature. Birds, wild animals. Little ones scurrying in and out of their holes in rocks and bushes. She knows all of their names. Wild fruit are a joy. The boys maybe in school but she is learning about life. Knowledge to calm the heart. God's school.

Wild fruit. Berries. Gurguray (black currant) but ouch! those thorny bushes too. She is not wearing running shoes. No Jaguars. No Caterpillars. Open slippers. Cheap. Her mother bought them for her from an Afghan hawker who visits the village off and on. Amazing she climbs up and down the rocks in those.

Sights and sounds. Throwing stones around at straying cattle or sometimes nothing. Sometimes to see how far she can throw. She spends her time doing little things.

Hey but it does get lonely too. She will take a break from nature and sing. Oh she knows all the songs. The folk ones. The sad ones. Even the romantic ones. Also the ones that speak of woman's condition. The charbathas. The landai (tapay). Tapay belong to Pashtun women. They invented the genre to sing what was in their hearts long ago. They still do. She is one in the great anonymous line of lone Pashtun women singers and poets. She is great with language.
She know all the names of various plants. She could have been a botanist. She knows the names of many wild animals. If she doesn't she will ask her grandfather. He is happy to tell her and he will throw in a story or two about them too. She could have been a zoologist. An animal-rights activist. A vet. Is there a teacher-knight on horseback who will come and bring her the books while she is working? It's possible isn't it? No?

Tak. Tak. She hits the stone with her stick. Khee ma sa! she bellows angrily at a feisty goat that has strayed too far. The black goat stops right in her tracks and comes around.

'Son. Come let's eat' her grandfather shouts from a mile away.
'I am coming' she shouts back. Grandpa is athletic still. He refilled the earthen flasks with fresh water from a spring two miles away.

Lunch under a tree. She is hungry. Grandpa lays out the food. They eat in silence.

The cattle have eaten quite a bit now. It's hot. They are starting to rest in shades. Both go and gather them under a big tree. Grandpa and the animals take their siesta. She doesn't want to sleep. She will just sit under a tree further away and croon to herself or climb a tree for the heck of it or go exploring. She doesn't hunt to kill animals like boys but to find plants or nicely shaped stones. Round stones are the best. She searches for eatable plants. Mushrooms. Black currants. The heat doesn't bother her much.

She looks up at the sun. It's three hours after its zenith. She makes her way back. Grandpa has already said his prayers. It's time to give water to the cattle. They wake them up and start on the way back.

Top of the mountain again. The school is empty. The village still serene. Water pond at bottom of the high mountain shining in the sun. They climb down and the animals drink.

The two of them gather the cattle onto the main path and wind their way back home. Slowly. It's still hot. Grandpa looks tired. He is looking sternly ahead. She is watching the herd.

At home, her mother has guessed the time of their arrival. She has come out to greet them and help them herd the cattle through the crop fields. The cattle aren't that eager to stray. They seems to have eaten enough.

Afternoons are at home. The women of the house have been resting or making mazari platters and pots. Her five-year-old sister is asleep in an airborne bed tied with a rope to the roof. She goes over, kisses her and takes hold of the string tied to the cot and gently swing it. She isn't in the mood to sing a lullaby yet. She knows many however. The future of that girl sleeping is like hers. She doesn't think of that though. She never thinks of the future. She is happy. Life is what it is.

Just like the school boys, the afternoons and evenings belong to her. She is not expected to do anything else at home except for the odd errand around the house or to the shop. If she isn't playing with her younger sister who is woken up by the pestering flies, she will go out and play with other girls. Some of them have also spent the day in the mountains. They talk about where they went, what they saw, which animal gave birth, which is pregnant. She learns about procreation early on.

Sometimes they'll play with the boys but often they don't like hanging out with them. The boys get too aggressive with each other and at times with them too. The girls aren't interested in cricket or bird shooting. They have their own games. Juggling pebbles is their favorite. On their excursions in the wild, they'll find good round pebbles and play with them.

In the evening, our girl eats with the other women of the family. She acts like a grown-up. She absords the latest news. She savors the after-dinner discussion. She listens and learns. She learns to appreciate, to think, to discuss, to argue: to be a complete woman.

And then she goes to sleep. Often sleeps well. Always gets up early.

Note: Life of a Pashtun woman described in this song (with subtitles). Beautiful voice of Gulzar Alam and great lyrics by Zaitoon Banu and Samar Minallah. Courtesy Aurat Foundation.

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