Review of Leslie Noyes Mass' Back to Pakistan: A Fifty-Year Journey

back-pakistan-140Back to Pakistan: A Fifty-Year Journey
by Leslie Noyes Mass (Pakistan 1962–64)
Rowman and Littlefield Publishers
212 pages (paperback)

Reviewed by  David Day (Kenya 1965–66; India 1967–68)

IN THIS ACCOUNT of her initial Peace Corps assignment in rural western Pakistan from 1962 to 1964, and a return visit forty-seven years later, in 2009, Leslie Mass gives us tightly-focused access to the lives of women and a range of attempts to educate them in arguably one of the world’s most dangerous countries. It’s a glimpse not often seen in terrorism-haunted media coverage of this troublesome, strategically important Muslim nation.

As part of her titular “journey,” we are taken — with the aid of numerous excerpts from letters written to George (a close friend and later, husband), and verbatim transcripts from tape recordings of conversations — from the dusty alleys of small villages to the snow-capped peaks of the Karakoram mountains; from cramped, mud-walled rural social centers and countless hours spent with rural women under stifling sun gathering straw for making drawstring basket purses, to high-level meetings and seminars with Pakistani education officials; from endless challenges of life under the gaze of men, to attempts she makes to cope with her dupatta and shalwar-kameez; from misguided community-development ideas to the satisfactions of tackling social problems by involving those most likely to be affected.

Like so many Peace Corps Volunteers in the early days of the Peace Corps, Mass arrives in Pakistan fresh out of college with her liberal arts degree, full of energy, acting, as she says, “on her dreams,” with the vague, generic goal of creating hands-on learning programs for teachers, children and parents in a variety of school settings. Posted eventually to Dhamke, a small village in western Pakistan, it doesn’t take long for frustration to set in, a dark veil of depression so familiar to many former Volunteers; no place to live, no coworker to assist her, and villagers who can’t quite figure out what to do with a young American suddenly plunked down — an alien in their midst.

As a single woman, she realizes she has zero credibility in the eyes of village men. “I was mad at the Peace Corps,” she writes, “for botching up my assignment. But I was determined to figure out a way to work in this village.” In an early letter to George she confides that:

. . . the women are behind the purdah wall and I don’t know what they want — and I really don’t know how to reach them, much less how to get started. I feel completely at a loss and out of my depth. It’s hard to be a woman — much less a change agent — in this culture.

Clearly, the near-universal stages of rites de passages are operating  here, phenomena common to PCVs, anthropologists and others attempting to adjust to exotic locales. Her initial euphoria  gives way to dismay and disillusionment, mixed, especially in Mass’ case, with a strong dose of culture shock. Fortunately, as she acquires more conversational ability in Urdu and Punjabi, she transitions to an accommodation stage and takes some solace in her formative friendships with local women and the occasional visits of two other Americans.  In a moment of candor, after a series of meet-and-greet visits to the households of local women and their many children, Mass is touched when they let her cradle their babies, inquire  about her husband, her children, her brothers and even about her underwear!

Occasionally, my underwear would disappear from my courtyard clothesline, and I suspected that my questioners knew more about its construction and style than I did. I sometimes wondered of any of my bras and panties were under the shalwar kameez of my hostesses or hidden in one of their tin trunks.

Such honesty and reflection  become a marvelous feature of Mass’ memoir, qualities the reader encounters throughout the journey, as the author periodically holds up a mirror to her quest to find what she feels is her “real work” among local Pakistani women.

As she agonizes over how to find a more effective niche in which to contribute to the education of children, Mass piles up statistics about their education. And they are uniformly abysmal. At the time of her first visit in 1962, for example, Pakistan’s literacy rate was under 13 percent. She tells us that “In the entire country, only 42 percent of the children were enrolled in any kind of primary education, fewer than ten thousand students were enrolled in secondary schools, and the overwhelming majority of students, either primary or secondary, were male.”

This reviewer remembers similar deficits in his village in rural north India in the mid-nineteen sixties. The bias in favor of educating male children stems in part from the villagers’ perception that sons will remain in their natal villages and assist in agricultural chores, while girls marry out and are thus lost as  productive units to their natal villages. Rules of purdah — so deeply entrenched in India, Pakistan and much of the Middle East, traditionally militate against women entering the teaching profession. Mass, somewhat immodestly, writes “I wanted to change all this.”

And slowly, painfully, Mass sets about to do just that. But the work proves too slow; she describes the setting up of small women’s social centers for instructions in cooking hygiene, better food-storage techniques, literacy and even a smattering of lessons on modest interior decorating! She arranges to shift to a small nearby city. And here, as a project to turn village women into wage earners begins to show promise (those draw-string purses mentioned above) this nascent cottage industry that might have imparted to the women a degree of financial self-sufficiency, fails for want of straw.

At the end of her stay as a PCV, Mass, characteristically reflective, admits she learned a lot.

The village women were content with things as they were. Those who had met at the social center had learned to use the sewing machine. They had been exposed to a different way of doing household tasks…many young boys and their sisters had learned the English and Urdu alphabet and could now read and write a bit in both languages.

I had made a stab at social change and had grown up a bit in the process. I was disappointed that I was not able to start a cottage industry or a real school for girls and suspected that I had not made much difference in peoples’ life.

Then, almost fifty years later, retired from the directorship of Ohio  Wesleyan’s Early Childhood  Center, long married  — to George, and with a coterie of highly-trained colleagues (including some former Peace Corps Volunteers who had served in Pakistan), Leslie Mass gets a rare second chance to achieve her goal. The remainder of her book describes in often exhaustive detail (thanks again to her tape-recordings and journals), numerous meetings this group of experienced educators has with officials of The Citizens Foundation (TCF), Pakistan’s largest non-governmental organization focused on education. Other sessions are held with a wide range of community development leaders.

The journey the women make from the States to Abu Dhabi, then on to Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad brings the author face-to-face with changes that have overtaken Pakistan in the years since her first stint. Some of these are pleasant, some disquieting. Understandably she is keen on seeing what change has done to the two villages she once called “home,” Dhamke and Sheikhupura. She is “stunned,” and can  recognize almost nothing on her whirlwind tour — “nothing looks familiar,” she exclaims, ” and I am dazed.” While she is heartened to see great advances in the attention paid to early childhood education — improved classrooms, broadened curricula, more trained teachers — she is saddened by the deaths of old village friends and the poor health of an especially dear friend. She puts it this way:

More than anything else, Jerry’s ill health marks the end of that era for me. It is time to put the past behind me and concentrate on the present and future of Pakistan.

A few sentences later, she admits that “. . . it is extraordinary now, to think that at age twenty-one I could be dropped among these people and be expected to find something productive to do.” Mass’ melancholy is lightened by the realization that, after all, the people of Dhamke remember her days among them; grateful, too, that after so many years absence, she has come back, despite images of Pakistan as a dangerous place full of terrorists. Reading this, I wondered how it would be for me to return to the two sites in which I served in Kenya and then in India. We share in such an experience vicariously in Mass’ dexterous, emotionally-laden reunion.

Back in Karachi, however, the author and her team, with their Pakistani colleagues, arrange a rigorous agenda of planning sessions and seminars focused on teaching elements of what they call an “inquiry-based curriculum” for instruction in science, especially for women. Throughout their stay, the women must deal with the new realities of constant security checks in government buildings, in airports and hotels. Their visit, after all, follows the beheading of Wall Street Journalist Daniel Pearl, and the death of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto following an assassination attempt.

The author is particularly distressed to find that such a simple act as going out for a late-afternoon run in a park in one particular ellte cantonment is — even in an urban area in 2009 — rendered difficult by the necessity of being veiled and under the ubiquitous gaze and rudeness of men who feel she should be wearing the even more cumbersome burqah. Realizing the current fraught issue of the veil in America and other countries, Mass commiserates with her Pakistani women colleagues who uniformly report the security they feel when wearing the veil in public. It’s now, of course, a fashion item.

Mass’ copious accounts of the visiting American team’s education sessions provides the reader with a virtual vademecum of how to  establish and maintain inquiry-based curricula useful in a variety of  settings. Such methods are all innovative in this experimental setting, but her Pakistani associates are ready and willing to listen and appear eager to adopt it. Along the way, we are taken on several side excursions — each with a specific educational goal — to the distant towns of Gilgit, Hunza and Murtazabad in Pakistan’s far north (near its border with China). In Murtazabad, for example, the women learn from their host and guide — a Pakistani educated In the USA  who had established a Stateside branch of The Citizens Foundation — about the problems of local schools funded with outside money. And the news is sobering. Their host is adamant:

When outside sources give money to the local officials, squabbling and corruption often prevent the school from being built or built well enough to meet the needs of the community. And there is usually no money left, or budgeted for sustainability of the school — money to run it over time.

Teachers are not trained, and the school soon falls into disrepair and eventually the village is right back where it
began — no school, poor quality of local education, and one or two people well off because they have pocketed the money.

The group’s discussions call to mind the schools (in the same general region), made famous by Greg Mortenson in his widely-read (and later criticized) book, Three Cups of Tea.

The educators’ group travels on, taking in a tour of the archaeological ruins of the ancient, formative cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro of the Indus civilization They also re-visit the village where another of the team had been a Peace Corps Volunteer, and are able to chat with members of the marginal local Christian community. Increasingly interested in this particular cohort, Mass makes “a mental note to find out how many Christian students are enrolled in TCF schools and to learn more about the connection between the TCF and the Christians in their respective communities.” While not persecuted, Christians seem to be relegated to menial roles as chowkidars (watchmen, gate-keepers) or ayyahs in most rural villages.

When it is finally time for the group of American women to leave, Mass is satisfied at the progress she sees among local Pakistani teachers and the ranks of college-student volunteers and their eagerness to learn and implement inquiry-based methods of teaching and learning. Ultimately, she insists, it will be educational models created by Pakistanis themselves, that succeed. The exemplary work done under the auspices of The Citizens Foundation and that of an increasing number of NGOs whose efforts she has encountered, give her hopes for the future and earn high praise in these pages. But these efforts are only part of what Mass calls the “unfinished business” of privileged people learning to give back.

This reviewer was hard-pressed to find something in Back to Pakistan that he didn’t like. There were times when I was tempted to pass over  the author’s near-ethnographic minutiae of meetings held and the descriptions of recruitment and behavior of TCF teachers. Unless we are ourselves planning a visit to the central office of TCF, is it really necessary for us to know about its floor-plan and office furniture? Or to have at hand verbatim transcriptions of quite so many interviews? It’s rather like learning that there are 525,600 minutes in a year. What do you do with that information?

This minor quibble aside, I was thoroughly impressed with the book’s organization. Both publisher and author are to be congratulated on wonderful photographs (from both of the author’s trips), a handy map of Pakistan and adjacent countries, a few well-crafted footnotes (placed at the end of the book), and a splendid index, a feature regrettably left out of many memoirs in publishing haste or sheer editorial neglect.  Finally, given the significance of Pakistan to the United States, one can only hope that those holding the purse strings for funding development projects in the region pay attention to the kinds of successes documented at the local level in Mass’  immaculate account. That we are able to see a bit of ourselves in the needs and aspirations of Mass’ many informants is evidence of the author’s attentiveness, her empathy and a fine listening ear.

Dr. Mass is also the author of In Beauty May She Walk: Hiking the Appalachian Trail at 60 and the former editor of The Thru-Hiker Companion for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

Reviewer David Howard Day’s most recent book, Ruffling the Peacock’s Feathers: Stories From Village India is based on his Peace Corps experience in Uttar Pradesh, north India (Xlibris, 2010). He has two previous books, A Treasure Hard to Attain: Images of Archaeology in Popular Film and The Life and Death of a Family Farm: Archaeology, History and Landscape Change. He has also published in Sierra Magazine and Ms. Magazine, and  lives in Rochester, NY.

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