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Last Updated: Monday, 23 May, 2005, 00:51 GMT 01:51 UK
'Non-believers' struggle with change

By Chiade O'Shea
Kalash Valley, northern Pakistan

Kalash women
The Kalash community dates to the time of Alexander the Great
"In the past we used to learn from elders and have no written history or learning," says Luke Rehmat, a member of the dwindling 3,000-strong Kalash community nestled in the mountains of the Hindu Kush in northern Pakistan.

"We want to preserve our culture, but it is also very necessary to get a good education for all, including women."

Until recently, the lifestyle of the Kalash had changed little since the community was established, according to their oral history, by settlers from Alexander the Great's armies in 377 BC.

But only a small number of the original population has resisted persistent efforts to convert them to Islam by neighbouring Muslim populations who historically labelled them Kafirs (non-believers).

The arrival of money affected the interactions between Kalash and with the outside world

Luke Rehmat's Christian and Muslim names are a testimony to those outside influences.

As transport and mass communications end the isolation of this tiny mountain population, the Kalash face new challenges to the survival of their way of life.

Tourism, trade and development projects are bringing rapid change to this fragile culture.

Rich faith

Often, the pace of change has been too fast to come with the whole community's understanding and consent.

Many fear that without urgent intervention the Kalash language, religion and lifestyle may be lost altogether.

The Kalash have a rich faith. They believe in a supreme creator God, Khodai, and worship other deities who protect different aspects of life.

As animists, nature plays a highly spiritual role in daily life. Sacrifices are offered and festivals held to give thanks for the abundant resources of their three lush valleys.

But now, change is under way. Already, the self-sufficient farmers are moving towards a cash-based economy.

Previously, wealth was measured in livestock and crops. Failed or successful harvests affected the whole community together.

Improving health

The arrival of money affected the interactions between Kalash and with the outside world.

While the notes and coins of Pakistani currency remain unfamiliar to many, other Kalash families have already sold land to developers.

One way to preserve the culture is to put the Kalash in a glass case....The other way is with education
Athanasios Lerounis
Greek Volunteers
An animosity is developing towards the non-Kalash who profit as their shops and hotels permanently change the agricultural landscape of their valleys.

Some change has been positive.

Health services are improving, although they remain basic. There are no qualified doctors in the three valleys.

When the mountain roads open with the spring thaw, a hospital can be reached in two hours by jeep.

In winter, and for those who cannot afford the transport, small clinics and dispensaries have opened to offer first aid, basic medication and for immunisations.

Trained female health visitors now work with traditional midwives to deliver babies and care for pregnant women.

Glass case?

The strongest influence the next generation faces may well be tourism.

Women still wear long, embroidered dresses tied with colourful hand-woven belts and topped with ornate headdresses.

Kalash girl
Kalash schools encourage education particularly among girls
These ancient costumes are so striking that they have become a major attraction for amateur photographers.

At the spring festival of Joshi, one of the holiest in the calendar, locals watched perplexed as dozens of Pakistani tourists took pictures of European women dressed up as Kalash.

"One way to preserve the culture is to put the Kalash in a glass case and have no one enter inside," says Athanasios Lerounis, who established the Greek Volunteers NGO in the Bumburat valley.

"The other way - and the Kalash taught me this - is with education."


While visiting the valleys in 1995, Mr Lerounis offered to raise funds to improve the Kalash standard of living. He was surprised to find what their main interest was.

Kalash headdress
Kalash braids and beads are a big tourist draw
"I looked around and thought 'doctor, hospital or medicines', but they asked me for a school, a minority school," he said.

At that time, the only available schools were government run, staffed exclusively by Muslim teachers and all children were taught Islamic studies.

Many parents feared their children losing their heritage and kept them out of classes.

"The teachers said to us, 'when you die, you will go to hell'," says Luke Rehmat, who is now the executive programme manager for the Kalash People's Development Network.

"Many students turned to Islam after matriculation because they didn't keep their culture," added Mr Rehmat.

In conjunction with the government, the Greek Volunteers have built five Kalash schools and two for the local Muslim children.

The employment of Kalash teachers has brought about a rapid surge in enrolments. In the village of Anish alone, 160 students cram into two classrooms.

Parents are now asking Mr Lerounis for more schools.

"They told me: 'We are uneducated, but we believe that only through the education of our children will we protect our ethnic and religious identity'," he said.

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