Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Convent School at Bahawalpur...

Fifty not-out by Chris Cork
The News, October 20, 2008

On October 15, 1958, eight women set out from the Dominican Convent in Sparkill, New York, to travel to Cholistan. They were nuns – Christian religious women who dedicate their lives to the service of others and to prayer. They came to this hot dusty and remote place to set up a small community which has lived in Bahawalpur ever since. This was a time before the mobile phone, before television, even, for many who lived there half a century ago, and before the Internet had even been dreamed of. It was also a time of greater innocence, when this was a less violent land, only eleven years old as a country and still finding its feet. Nobody in 1958 had heard of suicide bombers or the Taliban other than in the literal meaning of the word – student – if my rudimentary Urdu is correct. And nobody fretted much about security, their own or anybody else’s.

Today, security is at the forefront of the minds of many of us. Whether we really do live in a time that is genuinely less secure or whether we are suffering a collective anxiety brought on by a hyperactive media is a matter for debate. No matter the debate, the civil administration in Bahawalpur had decided to take no chances over the week that spans the celebration of fifty years of the Dominican community in Bahawalpur. There was a security cordon around the church, the convent, the priests’ house and the boys and girls schools attached to both. A cordon that had me stopped and thoroughly searched – no excuses for goras – and an electronic portal which beeped in recognition of my pewter visiting-card case; and Sorry Sir, no mobile phones allowed. We compromised by me turning it off.

One of the – many – unexpected things I found when I first came to live in Pakistan is just how many of the great and the good – and quite a few of the not so good – started their education in the convent school system. I had not expected to find convents here, or to see them so actively involved in providing education and, in some places, health services and care for special needs adults and children. As my contact and knowledge-base widened I met more and more people who spoke warmly of their years in convent schools, of the Sisters, some of whom terrified them but most of whom they clearly loved and respected, who were their teachers and mentors. The Dominican Convent School at Bahawalpur grew out of the work of those pioneering eight women and we were all gathered to celebrate and remember the work of the past and look forward to the future.

Great oaks from little acorns grow, goes the old proverb. A few of the original acorns are still alive and well and as many as could make it have trekked halfway around the world to be here for this week of festivities. I never expected to see Sister Suzanne again – she is eighty-five, frail but as alert as when I last saw her over a year ago. She had returned to live out her days in the relative comfort of the mother-house in Sparkill back in New York, but summoned the strength to make what must have been a prodigious journey for her. They sat quietly in the sunlit church listening to the Bishop of Multan say his piece, this grey-haired cohort of quiet and thoughtful women who have done so much to launch the education of so many here. For some it will be a last visit, for the younger nuns it is the start of a long journey.

Later in the week there will be the inauguration of a new auditorium, built with funds donated by the government of Punjab in a measure of just how much they value this resource. It will be formally opened on October 25 in a ceremony I will sadly miss as I am off to NWFP for ten days dodging the Taliban. So let’s give a discreet ripple of applause in appreciation of ‘fifty not-out’ for the nuns of Bahawalpur – some of whom frighten the living daylights out of me, so goodness knows what they do to their students!

The writer is a British social worker settled in Pakistan.

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