By Sadia Khalid
The Wakhis settlements are located on the border areas of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. As it is a semi-pastoral society dependent on livestock and agriculture, the members of this community had historically been in search of highlands and meadows, owing to scarce resources at hand to survive. Historians also claim that ancestral traces of Wakhi community link to Iran and Wakhan corridor.
The first migration of Wakhis took place in the 19th Century. It is said that the first group of refugees set their foot in Chitral in 1886. The next group migrated in 1919 from central Asia to Chitral. The causes of the migration were said to be famine and war. However, the major migration of the community did not occur till 1937 because Wakhis were compelled to join the army in Afghanistan. The Pamiri border was closed by the Soviet Union in 1935, and China closed its border in 1953, which forced the Wakhis to settle in Upper Chitral, Ghizer, and Upper Hunza. Subsequently, the formation of Wakhi Tajik Cultural Association in Pakistan (1984) after the collapse of the Soviet Union; the construction of Karakuram Highway and ease in border crossing between China and Pakistan, coupled with the construction of Kulma Pass-Tajikistan made it easier for Wakhis to reconnect with their community once again across different borders. Nowadays, the majority population of Wakhis resides in Brohgil, Upper Yarkhun in Chitral-KPK, and Ishkoman-Ghizer and Gojal-Gilgit (Upper Hunza) in Gilgit Baltistan.
Wakhis are an indigenous ethnic and religious minority settled on the highlands of Karakoram and Hindukush ranges in Pakistan for centuries struggling hard to have a distinct identity, preserve their language and culture, and balance cultural heritage with modern ways of life to survive. They are also called Khik or Pamiri. It is estimated that there are almost 40,000 people who are native speakers of Wakhi language, and around 10,000 Wakhis are settled in the remote mountainous region of Tajikistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China.
The language is quite similar to the Pamiri languages spoken in Afghanistan. It is an ancient language belonging to a mixed group of Indo-European and Pamiri languages. Its spoken and written dialects are unique compared to Shina, Burushaski, Balti and other languages. The future of the language seems dark as it has no written form and is said to be the only spoken language in the country without a written form. It has also been acknowledged as endangered by UNESCO. It is much needed for its native speakers to preserve their language in the form of literature and other literary activities. Currently, the Wakhi Cultural Association, in collaboration with Lok Virsa Pakistan and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, is working on language preservation.
Wakhis belong to the Shia Ismaili faith. Most people practice agriculture ( Dehqani) and livestock ( Maldari). The houses built by Wakhis are called “Wakhi Khanas,” and they denote their communities as Qarya or Qaum instead of villages. They used to live as joint families. The head of the family is called “Kalani Khana.” They have potent rules to run their houses as their head-male is responsible for farming and weaving wool, whereas women are responsible for house chores and taking care of their cattle.
Ancient Persian traditions heavily influence Wakhi culture. They celebrate different social, cultural and religious festivals with whole preparations and carnival-like “Pathik,” “Kit Dit” ( Spring festivals), “Chineer” (harvesting festival), “Tagham” (seed plantation festival), “Kuch” (streams cleaning festival), and “Wingastuai” (bird festival) and Nauroz festival. The community living in remote villages like Shimshal, Ishkoman and Broghil Valley are facing financial constraints, which is becoming a hurdle in celebrating all these festivals with full enthusiasm each year.
The Wakhi people are not only rich in their language and culture, but also their folk music serves as a “soul soothing” experience in the wild terrains. Rubab, Dadang, Qufuz and Surnai profoundly impact their traditional music and folklore. Bulbulik, the first-ever music school in Gojal was established to preserve the poetry, folklore and music of Wakhi culture to save it from extinction.
The Wakhis are fond of music, old traditions and living with a simple lifestyle. Their traditional food includes salt added tea made from yak milk, or butter with oven-baked bread, malida ( dessert made of bread crumbs, , gral (meat with sesame seeds), shulbuth (creamy chicken with apricot oil) and moch (chicken barley soup). Mostly, they use yak milk to make dairy products like cream, yogurt and butter.
Wakhis live under challenging circumstances on highlands, such as harsh winters and an abundance of food, but they still take their time out for outdoor activities and sports. Buzkashi (‘pulling of the goat’) and yak polo is the most famous sports. The kids also love to play tug-of-war while sitting on a donkey who are trained to be good players for Buzkashi and Yak Polo in their later life.
In remote hilly valleys like Shuijerab and Shimshal Pass, Wakhis travelled to highland pastures to take care of their livestock; primarily, women and children are responsible for this. The caravan is known as Kuch ( Wakhi word), and people have been doing this for centuries for survival.
The Wakhi’s religious, political, economic, social, and cultural values are changing with the intrusion of modern ideas for the past few years. Usually, their ancestors were more involved in agricultural and livestock-related activities. But now, the young blood is shifting to cities or changing their profession. They are more attracted to respectable jobs in the governmental and non-governmental sectors like medicine, education, technology, and banking than doing their small businesses.
Today, they face many issues like financial instability, lack of career development, business industry, jobs, low food quality, and lack of physical infrastructure for school and hospital buildings, especially in remote villages. For the last two years, the closure of the China-Pakistan border and Sost border market has increased the financial instability of local villages in the absence of jobs and business opportunities.
The people living in Broghil Valley-Chitral, Ghizer, Shimshal Pass and Upper Hunza face different challenges. Broghil Valley is a far-flung, poor and often ignored valley located in Upper Yarkhun Valley of Chitral and borders the Wakhan corridor. Most people are associated with animal farming which is not enough for financial stability. They struggle hard to make both ends meet. For many months, the school teachers protested due to the lack of facilities and salary increment issues, which turns the children’s futures to a dark tunnel.
Shimshal Valley is home to almost 250 households, most of which are Wakhis. People earn a their livelihood from livestock and agriculture or working as tourist guides, hotel cooks, porters or trekkers. Unfortunately, the people of this valley still strive hard to get better road accessibility to improve their tourism business, health facilities and easy access to schools from far-flung villages. The Wakhi community living in Gojal is more prosperous than the people of Broghil and Ghizer in terms of education and economic stability due to their flourishing tourism business with the construction of KKH and Attabad lake.
In an attempt to understand some of the problems, Wakhis are facing in terms of social and economic stability, some references from interviews with locals are as follows:
In an interview with a local older man in Gojal village, he complained about the local government policies regarding the closure of the Pak-China trade since COVID-19. He said in a depressing tone, “I was running a successful import-export business at Sost (trade center), but Covid ruined everything. Now, I am in debt and running a small shop in front of my house.”
Another young and talented software engineer from the village of Jamalabad, who worked in Islamabad, said, “I wanted to move into this community by opening a Wakhi cultural-themed café in Hunza. Still, I could not get any financial support from any bank or local NGO because I don’t have any financial guarantee. It was pretty depressing for the locals as they don’t have any loans or seed funding from regional business incubation hubs for such creative and innovative business plans. ”
Similarly, another young graduate from a Chinese University in medicine could not find a suitable job. With grief, he said, “Almost 26 NGOs are working in Gojal for our social and economic upliftment, but they could not provide decent jobs. However, many educated youngsters became tour guides due to societal pressures to support their families.”
An empowered girl of Gojal running her own tourism-related business in Gojal seemed a little upset and disheartened as many people criticized them as “Kafirs.” She said, “I am concerned about the health facilities and accessibility to medical clinics with horrible road conditions, especially in remote areas. The region lacks proper maternity health for women, child-care nurseries, appropriate hospitals, professional doctors, and medical equipment. We cannot even raise our voices, as people took our empowerment as a rebellious attitude. ”
To conclude, glorifying the beauty of Gilgit-Baltistan on mainstream and social media while ignoring these local communities’ political, economic, and social issues is not a wise approach by the government and social sectors. The people of Gilgit-Baltistan felt pride in higher literacy rates when compared to other parts of the country. Without developing a sustainable social and economic plan, the higher literacy rate won’t take them anywhere. These people need proper jobs, political participation, skilled vocational centers, business incubation hubs with funding, school buildings, and hospitals to change their lifestyles for a better future.