I recently posted an article on Facebook about Dr. Ruth Pfau, a German missionary who has been working against leprosy in Pakistan for the past fifty years. She established the Marie Adelaide centre to treat leprosy in Karachi and made its eradication her life’s work. Her story was truly inspirational to me – she managed to eradicate leprosy almost completely from Pakistan by 1996. She also extended whole-hearted support whenever Pakistan was beset by tragedies, such as the earthquake and the floods that hit us with unforeseen ferocity in 2005 and 2010. As a young woman, she left her home, her family, and the man she loved, in Germany, to take on the menace of leprosy in Karachi.

There is something singular about people such as these. They are not like you and me. They seem to have no fear of loneliness. They see human suffering in a wholly different light from the rest of us – life beckons to them for their help and they are not afraid to stand up and be counted.

Whenever I read a story such as this, it forces me to think about my own life. My existence appears to be just that, pygmoid in comparison. I happened to say as much on Facebook. The resulting backlash from  Pakistanis such as myself, resident safely away from the everyday tyrannies of life in Pakistan was surprising. The general consensus seemed to suggest that Dr. Pfau found the prospect of fighting leprosy from a little room in a hospital in Pakistan so ‘exotic’, ‘new’ and ‘different’ that she has stayed there well into her eighties doing just that. No selflessness to be found in forsaking her family, her country, no sir. It is just an obscene need to ‘conquer the unfamiliar’ that drives her choices in life.

Well, today I came across another article detailing one man’s struggle to make sanitary napkins widely available to the poorest of women in India in an effort to improve their reproductive health. And he happened to hit the nail on the head as he explained his journey to where he finds himself today. He said, ‘Luckily I’m not educated. If you act like an illiterate man, your learning will never stop… Being uneducated, you have no fear of the future.’ His wife added to this idea saying, ‘If he had completed his education, he would be like any other guy, who works for someone else, who gets a daily wage.’

This is what I have been thinking about recently. The ‘brain drain’ everyone has been bemoaning in Pakistan since the eighties might be precisely because our Western education and sensibilities render us useless for anything more than ‘drawing room discussions.’ These discussions have now made their way onto national TV and Facebook. Everyone is an intellectual. Everyone has an opinion. And that opinion and the underlying intellect it is meant to affirm seems to be an end in itself. We are unable to shake ourselves into action the way Kailash Satyarthi of the Bachpan Bachao Andolan in India has, or the way Arunachalam Muruganantham, also in India has. Our imagination is trapped, fettered by our own daily struggles, our homes, our clothes, our children, our possessions. Practically, we are incapable of the vision that propelled Edhi to lay the world’s largest ambulance network in our very own Pakistan, though if you engage us in a philosophical discussion over it, we will have innumerable pearls of wisdom to contribute. We refuse to rise above ourselves as some people in Pakistan continue to do even today – Arshad Abdullah, Imran Khan, Shehzad Roy, Abrar-ul-Haq are our most recent well-known philanthropists. But there are many, many more that I have had the honour of coming to know, who work on a much smaller scale, endlessly, fearlessly and cheerfully. And these people are most definitely in a different league from the rest of us. As we catch seasonal sales, TV shows, value professional success as the ultimate good, build cosier nests for ourselves to retire to at the ends of our days, we cannot pretend there isn’t something at least a little special about them. Even if Dr. Pfau, Major Geoffrey Langlands and Norman Wray originally journeyed towards us because it was exotic and exciting, the reality of what they encountered was anything but. Yet they stayed. They made a difference. They continue to make a difference. And this is what sets them apart from us.

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