In the settlement of Moach Goth on the outskirts of Karachi lives a heroine. To meet her you must drive out towards the provincial border of Sindh and Balochistan. En route to Moach Goth, you are shown the flyover that collapsed, the factory that burned, and an entrance to Lyari, the ghetto whose gang wars and body-counts are in the papers every day.
It was a momentous time to be in Pakistan, ten days after general elections and the first transition in the nation’s history from one elected government to another. The talk was of tabdeeli, change, and dhandhli, rigging. The talk was of whether things were getting better, or whether they were going to get worse before they got better. The day before repolling in a constituency in southern Karachi, Zahra Shahid Hussain, a much-admired professor, activist and vice-president of the political party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, had been shot dead at the gates of her house by two men on a motorcycle. The next morning Samina Baig, a 22-year-old, became the first Pakistani woman to scale Everest.
To enter Moach Goth is to begin to understand another climb, that made by Humaira Bachal. When she and her family came here, they had just cleared their debts. It was probably some time in 1995, but they are not sure. The settlement was small, nothing like now. A fishing village had been here for a long time, but now it was transforming into a squatter’s colony in the fast-expanding conurbation of Karachi. When they arrived, as they remember it, there were about a hundred mud and straw huts. There were jungles of thorny acacia. The gangs had not yet formed, and in any case no vehicles really came to the village, so you didn’t need to flash your headlights in code to enter anybody’s turf after dark.
Now, between the Sindhis, Balochis, Kutchhis, Brohis, Mohajirs, Punjabis and Bengalis, there are 160,000, perhaps 180,000, people in Moach Goth. The sand blows through its unpaved streets. The cement water tower that stands tall over the population worked for two months, then ran dry, so now they must buy water from private contractors. Electricity lines have been installed, but there are power cuts for nine hours a day. Sewage pipes were laid twice; each time they burst in the rains.
Two of the three government schools in Moach Goth are ghost schools, abandoned by their teachers and administrators and occupied instead by junkies or criminals; there are an estimated 30,000 such schools in Pakistan. The single working school left in Moach Goth barely functions. Boys are usually pulled out at 12 by their families and put to work in factories or on construction sites; girls are rarely permitted to study at all. Government figures state that 40% of Pakistani girls have had a primary education, but other official sources put female literacy in Pakistan at 26%. According to independent sources, if you exclude those who can form only their signature, the figure tumbles to 12%.
So when Humaira Bachal matriculated—the equivalent of taking her GCSEs—it was about the most improbable thing a girl from Moach Goth could do. And then she built perhaps the most improbable school in the world. She is 26 now, and she started it when she was 13.