The southern-most source of dignity

I become an armchair traveller when I am not roaming around Pakistan and the rest of the world, though I realise that wanderlust cannot be satisfied through the eyes of the others. Reading about all the possible travel destination only stokes the fire because every now and then one comes across a place that makes one want to pack some basic things in a rucksack and pick up the passport and run.

I am in love with silence. I have left Lahore for Islamabad simply because, after years of squirming and screaming with my hands on my ears, I can no longer live with the noise of rickshaws in Lahore. And, still, I keep looking for the most peaceful, quietest place to visit. In Pakistan, I have found the area between Sost and the Sino-Pakistan border at Khunjerab Pass to be the most quiet and peaceful — especially the roofless shelters of the shepherds in the Khunjerab National Park. While looking for the most peaceful places to visit around the globe, I came across the name of Villa Las Estrellas (Spanish for "the village of stars"). I started reading about it at different sites and gathered some interesting facts. Part of the Chilean Antarctic Territory, Villa Las Estrellas is the only permanent settlement on the frozen continent which has families and children living like a community. The village houses an oceanographic research centre, a primary school, a post office, a bank and a landing strip for small planes. The primary school has three internet-capable computers which are linked to the national educational network.

When I looked at the total number of people living there (varying from 80 in winter to 120 in summer) and the fact that there is a primary school providing education up to the 8th grade, I was thrilled. There are two teachers (husband and wife) teaching the approximately ten to fifteen students. The school, named F-50, the southern-most school in the world, is administered under Chile’s Ministry of Education and is linked with the broader academic portal Enlaces. According to the administrators of the academic network, the school in the Chilean Antarctic Territory has a symbolic value: "this educational facility [F-50] represents the efforts of the Ministry along with other institutions, to involve all schools and colleges, no matter how remote or isolated they are, in an effort to improve the quality and equity of education." The Enlaces network provides three computers with internet and educational database access to every school in Chile which has 100 or less students.

Because I was fascinated by the fact that Chile has the determination to operate the southern-most school on the planet, I started talking about this among my friends. Things became even more interesting when a friend, who happens to be an officer in the Pakistan Navy, remarked: "You know Chile is a poor country. It buys used naval ships from Pakistan, after we decommission them." I was stunned. Perhaps, therein was the key. While our schools do not even have proper rooms and running water, we buy the most advanced war equipment from the highly industrialised nations of the world and we are the only nuclear Muslim nation in the world. Whereas, other nations buy our used equipment but try to provide digital literacy to even the remotest learning environment. The school named F-50 in Antarctica is not run by the Chilean Air Force or the Chilean Army which has some of its staff members inhabiting Villa Las Estrellas. It is being run by the ordinary civilian ministry of education and it has the internet and the scholarly databases, which are not luxuries now but basic necessities of any learning community. And this school is open to anyone living in the village.

That is perhaps we need too. A restoration of civilian dignity. A departure of Pinochet-style interference in civilian affairs. Performing institutions and, again, some sense of human dignity.

During all my travels outside of Pakistan, this is something I have realised often. The Pakistani passport is not an asset. It is a liability. Carrying this passport is like wearing a badge on one’s chest announcing "strip search me for I come from the land where security institutions have produced the most insecure people."

Those who make do with our discarded defence assets have found the real sources of dignity in the comity of nations. Please, let us have some dignity too.

Published in The News on Sunday

dated December 20, 2009