Gilgit - Baltistan

[Interview] Inspiration to Action: The story of Shimshal Trust and Pam Henson

imageInspired and moved by experiences gained during their six-months stay in Shimshal Valley, a small group of volunteer teachers from New Zealand established the Shimshal Trust in 2002, the year when the scenic and beautiful Shimshal valley came in vehicular contact with the rest of the world, for the first time. Primary aim of the Trust was to provide scholarships to students, and a small number of teachers, with the goal of supporting development through education.  The seven members of the the Trust were Matt Grant, Liz Thomas, Jo Washbourn, Julie Brunton, Kim Penny, Tama Pugsley and Pam Henson.

Pam Henson, later, wrote two books, 1) Shimshal, and 2) Women of Shimshal, narrating her experiences of living and teaching in the valley and her interactions with the women folk.

This post comprises of an interview exclusively conducted by PAMIR TIMES with Pam Henson, in which we have tried to get insights about her experiences, as a writer, traveler, teacher and social activist.

What motivated you and your friends to establish Shimshal Trust for the benefit of people living in a very remote mountain village of Pakistan?

Some members of the Trust
Some members of the Trust

The small group of people that visited Shimshal with me in 2002 was asked by a group of locals to do some good work for the village and my friend Matt Grant agreed to it, though I thought it would be demanding in terms of time.

However, on our return we formed the Trust and since then we have raised modest sums of money each year, distributing it in the form of scholarships for the young people and sometimes the teachers of the village.

Originally, I went to Shimshal with an English friend as an adventurer; to live there and be a volunteer teacher. Shimshal people seem to have a really great interest in education, and I have always felt truly welcome there. I felt that the subsistence based living there made it difficult for many families to offer education to their children and I wanted to help. Since then, I have visited Shimshal five times!

I am deeply distressed with the disparity in wealth between nations and this is my small attempt to cure a little part of that. I am also involved with the Green Party in New Zealand, so like many of my friends, I try to act on my beliefs at a local level and on a wider scale.

It would not work unless I was interested, had fun doing what I do and liked the people I work with both in the Trust and in Shimshal. I am no saint, and my work for the Trust helps me feel there’s some purpose in my life apart from looking after number one!!

We have limited our activities to shimshal because of our relationship with the village. All the Trust members, except one, have been to Shimshal. Also we don’t raise enough money to be more helpful, at a larger scale.

How many students and teachers have benefited from the Trust awarded scholarships?

79 students including 38 women have received scholarships from Shimshal Trust since 2004. As a matter of policy we favor women, but not many women apply for scholarships.

Shehnaz, after getting medical treatment at the AKUH, is able to walk  without stick due to help provided by the Shimshal Nature Trust
Shehnaz, after getting medical treatment at the AKUH, is able to walk without stick due to help provided by the Shimshal Trust

We have also awarded scholarships to 8 teachers; three teachers used the scholarship money for non-educational courses, but we decided that any course that helps people into jobs is OK with us. We get very few applications from teachers because they cannot afford to take time off work. So we recently increased the amount available for teachers so that they can provide for their families while training.

Two young women did short Montessori training courses, which is really good because up to then people in Shimshal did not know much about early childhood education.

Hussn Bibi has been influential in this respect because she visited New Zealand to study for a year, and attended some Early childhood centers as a volunteer. This was before the Trust was properly set up.

As well as helping students with money for university and school, we fund special projects such as a small school we helped build and a craft centre for village women so that they have the opportunity to work outside the home.

Our trust is also promoting friendship and awareness about Pakistan and its culture New Zealand.

What is the amount of scholarships the Trust has already disbursed and how do you distribute the money?

We have given out roughly $10,000 NZ a year, so about $90,000. But we have also raised more than $10,000 NZ to help a couple of young people with disabilities to have medical operations and treatment. There is a Pakistani community in Wellington that has been big help in this respect.

There has been some discussion about whether to award a large amount of money to a small number of students, or a small amount to a large number of students. We have received differing advice from the people, so for the time being we are continuing to give smaller amounts to a larger number of students. In general we award $500 (rising to $600 in 2009) to students and $1000 (rising to $1200 in 2009) to teachers.

How do you raise funds for the trust?

We raised the seed money by giving presentations to audience in New Zealand. We returned to Shimshal in 2002 with the Trust’s founders, Matt Grant, Tama Pugsley and Catharina Breukers, taking books and sports gear for the schools, and craft equipment for the women.

A fund-raising stall in New Zealand
A fund-raising stall in New Zealand

We hold fund raising events usually keeping to a theme related to Pakistan such as food or films and the publication of books, with the proceeds going entirely to the Trust. We are supported by the Pakistan Association here in Wellington, and by the new High Commission for Pakistan, opened in 2006.

Over this period, the Trust has raised money through slide show presentations, dinners, soliciting donations, automatic payments, selling greetings cards and artifacts, selling the two books written on Shimshal, and applying to other organizations for funds.

Are you happy with what you have contributed and what is the future plan of the Trust?

Celebrating "Shimshal Evening" in New Zealand
Celebrating “Shimshal Evening” in New Zealand

I feel happy that we have made a small difference, but it is more a gesture rather than a serious aid project. We are a bit ignorant of development and aid theory and practice, but we have learned a lot.

For those of us on the Trust Board and the donors who support us it is worthwhile and a small way of sharing our relative wealth.  We meet a lot of people who really support what we do and are interested in Pakistan. That spread of knowledge is another aim of our Trust.

We will keep it going as long as we can. One problem will be that some of us are retiring from work and leaving the big city where it is relatively easy to raise money.

You have written a book named “The Women of Shimshal”. How do you see the success of Samina Baig of Shimshal on becoming the first Pakistani women to scale Mount Everest?

 Samina is an amazing young woman. Her achievement is a real testament to her own courage and determination and also to the culture of the village which has allowed her to fulfill her dreams.

Shimshal is a good place for young women to grow up, because the dominant patriarchal system is relaxed and tolerant enough to encourage women to develop the strengths of the Shimshali.

Do you have a message for the youth of Shimshal and Gilgit-Baltistan?

Continue your thirst for knowledge and your tolerance for people who are different in their beliefs. Hold fast to your own beliefs, and nurture them. Take an interest in the governance of your village, region and country. Try to make a difference to the people around you.,

Lynette Willoughby

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One Comment

  1. I Salute all the team for the magnificent effort doing for the GB people, GOD Bless you all.

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