What can I say about visiting the Kalash, without sounding a little sentimental? I lived in the village of Balanguru, in the valley of Rumbur, for three months at the end of 1996 and I have been returning with Wild Frontiers clients ever since. But due to the pandemic, it has been five years since my last visit. As a result, returning this time with my wife, Anna, seemed more special than ever.
Back in 1996, I’d lived with Saifullah and his family. The chief spokesperson for the Kalash, Saifullah is an educated man of great energy and principles and he has fought for the rights of the Kalash for decades. He wasn’t actually there to meet me. He’d been summoned to Chitral to give evidence in yet another court case he is fighting on his community’s behalf, this time regarding a land dispute. Three of his sons, Yasir, Shakil and Jamil, plus his wife, Waslim Gul and daughter, Gulistan came rushing out to greet us as we arrived in the village. Embracing and kissing each other’s hands in the traditional Kalash welcome, we were ushered into their small home and given lunch.
For those that don’t know, the Kalash are the last of the pagan tribes to inhabit the Hindu Kush. As I mentioned in a previous blog, when the British demarked the border with Afghanistan back in 1895, the Kalash found themselves on the British side of the frontier – just – and therefore protected from the Amir’s armies. As such, they have survived from that day to this and are now a protected minority through Pakistan law.
After lunch, we went for a walk through the village with Shakil. At every home we were welcomed inside and, in another homecoming tradition, had shoomans – a multi-coloured woven belt – draped around our necks. We met many people I have known for years. Maidan Bibi and Jamrut Gul, two women I have known since childhood, proudly showed off their new babies and joked with Anna about married life. In Kalashagrum, another little settlement sitting high above the river, we met Shakil’s aunty, Mayram Bibi. She made us tea on the veranda of her home. Then Gulanie saw us and insisted we dropped into her home where we met another old friend Zara Bibi who had recently married into the family. Here we drank mulberry moonshine. And later that evening when Saifullah returned we sat in the garden and had a delicious dinner, drank Kalash wine and laughed about old times.
It's strange to think that doing that journey more than three decades ago, through Nuristan in the footsteps of the Man Who Would Be King, would lead me to these valleys and that the people that live here would have such a profound impact on my life. Without them, I doubt Wild Frontiers would have come into being and things could have been very different.
But as Saifullah explained the following morning, this relationship and the benefits that come from it is not just a one-way street. While the Kalash do benefit financially from the tourism Wild Frontiers brings to the valley, there is something even more important that comes from the relationship. Saifullah explained that many in Pakistan look down on the Kalash, and because they are not Muslim and live in such a location, consider them inferior.
‘But you coming here, year after year, and all the tourists you bring,’ Saifullah said, ‘make the Kalash realise they are special, that their culture is special and that makes them proud. This is one of the reasons our culture is still strong.’
Sadly, we only had time to stay one night and having visited the Kalash primary school and said our goodbyes, we drove out of the valley again. But the wonderful thing about leaving the Kalash and all my friends there, is the certain knowledge I have that I will be back.