As floods hit, Pakistan’s Kalasha people fear for their way of life
CHITRAL: For Akram Hussain, unprecedented monsoon floods that drenched his Hindu Kush mountain valley this year were a danger to more than just homes and crops. His 4,000-strong Kalasha people, who live in three remote valleys in north-west Pakistan, preserve an ancient way of life, including animist beliefs at odds with Pakistan’s dominant Islamic state religion. That has led to threats by the Taleban, who call them kafirs, or non-believers. Outsiders, looking for arable land, also have increasingly moved into their high mountain valleys. Now, worsening extreme weather linked to climate change is making efforts to preserve the old ways even harder, the Kalasha say. “Our culture and language were already under threat and now these floods have devastated half our valley,” Hussain said.
Torrential rainfall in July in the district - an area that usually falls outside Pakistan’s monsoon belt - sent floodwater pouring down steep mountainsides, damaging infrastructure in the valleys of Bumburet and Rumbur. Birir, the third valley inhabited by the Kalasha, was spared. The floods damaged tourist hotels, shops and houses near the nullah (mountain stream) on the valley floor and swept away crops of ripe maize and orchards full of fruit trees. “This winter is going to be very difficult for us,” Hussain said. Around the world, extreme weather and rising seas linked to climate change are presenting a growing threat not just to lives and homes but to cultures, from nomads in the drought-hit Sahel to Pacific Islanders who fear the loss of their entire nations.
Descendants of Alexander the great?
For Pakistan’s Kalasha, struggling to preserve their culture is nothing new. They are the last survivors of the people of Kafiristan, who were mostly converted to Islam in the nineteenth century. Their neighbors across the mountains, in the Afghan province of Nuristan, are the Taleban, who hold sway in parts of that country. Among the Kalasha, prayers are offered during festivities that commemorate the changing seasons. Their elaborate rites demand the sacrifice of dozens of goats, which is becoming increasingly expensive, particularly as crops are destroyed by extreme weather. “When the livestock comes down for the winter what are we going to feed them? If our livestock goes, our culture goes,” Hussain said. In Bumburet Valley, the Kalasha Cultural Centre, built by the Greek government in 2004, houses an impressive museum of Kalash artifacts, including colorful embroidered clothes, musical instruments, jewelry and wooden sculptures.
Greek interest in the Kalasha stems from the belief that they are descendants of the army of Alexander the Great which marched through these mountains centuries ago. The centre was spared by the floods, thanks to a strong stone wall built around its perimeters. For the most part, the effects of climate change simply compound other problems the Kalasha have faced recently as migrants move into their valleys. “Some of these migrants are brainwashing the Kalash people. There have been several conversions to Islam this year alone,” Hussain said. The winter ahead - when the valleys are cut off from the rest of the country by snow - will be long and hard this year, the Kalasha warn.
In the village of Krakal, Shahida, a young Kalash woman explains: “We live on goat’s milk, cheese and beans during the winter months. Now with our crops washed away by the floods and no fodder for our livestock we are very worried.” The sturdy traditional construction of the Kalash homes helped them to survive the 7.5-magnitude earthquake that struck the Hindu Kush on 26 October, although some have cracks that must be repaired before winter. Most Kalash homes were also spared by the summer floods as they are built higher up on the mountainsides. But some tourist hotels and other buildings were washed away. — Reuters