On one Saturday afternoon 17th November 2012, lying on the sofa in my parents apartment in Karachi, I heard a knock on the door, the knock intensity and pattern didn’t match any regular visitors, so I was sure that it must be somebody new. My mother was near the door and also realizing the same unusual knock she cautiously opened the door a little bit and asked “Who is it?” she got a reply in a mature feminine voice “We are here for polio drops, please bring all children up to five years”, my mother replied, “We don’t have any such children”, the woman responded in a surprised tone “You don’t have any children?”. Then my mother clarified, “No, no, I have three children but all aged well above 5 years”, the conversation ended and my mother closed the door.
This is not the story I wanted to tell here, but this knock made me recall another similar event from my childhood nearly 15 years back, which is my personal story related to polio activities on ground. I was not in anyway connected to the polio eradication activities going on ground, until recently in September 2012 after attending the Group Study Exchange program from Rotary International and then spending some time in communication with d’Arcy Lunn from The End of Polio campaign. I am still not an on-the-ground worker, merely an arm chair advocacy supporter in my spare time. So to the story when I was 15 years old:
I heard a knock on the door, there was polio team outside, after they were finished from my home, the team turned to my neighbours who were a Pashtun speaking family from Quetta and living in Karachi for business reasons. My mother knew that the lady living next door does not understand Urdu language, so she kept the door open in anticipation of helping the neighbours.
We have been living with our Pashtun neighbours for several years and both families had developed very friendly relations. The friendship was a natural phenomenon with our culture of hospitality and even the language barriers could not stop this from happening. Usually the communication between my mother and the neighbour was enabled by gestures and some common words in both languages, but it was difficult to communicate and sometimes quite funny to watch! So, I am in a fix here (now), my mother speaks Urdu, the neighbours speaks Pashtun, the polio team members also spoke Urdu and I am now translating all the communication in English!
Going on with the story, my mother watched the polio team knock on the door of neighbours, a child opened the door, to whom the polio team asked to call some elder. The neighbour lady came to the door but stood beside it and asked who was this at the door? On hearing the feminine voice, she came out and faced the polio team. Obviously she did not understand what the polio team members said as she only understood Pashtun and the polio team spoke Urdu. So, my mother intervened and using gestures and common words, she made her understand that you need to bring all out all your children up to five years of age, (there were three of them) to have this medicine against the disease (polio).
The most important aspect of the communication was very astonishing for me, realized now in 2012, my mother pointed out towards her own children, me and my siblings that they also had this medicine and it is actually good for their health. After a few more gestures, both my mother and the neighbour lady smiled at each other and then my mother gave the green signal to the polio team for giving drops to the children. The team executed the oral vaccination and I remember the excitement around the scene as every child got the drops. After completing their job, the team marked the apartments on the wall beside the doors in their own shorthand and away they went down the stairs to the other apartments.
A simple analysis (if readers cannot comprehend with my story telling skills!) reveals that personal relations are a very good means of conveying a message and even language barriers cannot stop persuasion for a common cause, as my mother successfully and unknowingly demonstrated.
We have moved to a different apartment now and the neighbours also moved to another block, but both families are still friends and we often visit each other. My story ends here, sorry for my poor story telling.
Ashar Ahmed, Karachi, Pakistan
Editor’s note: wonderful story telling in a second language if you don’t mind! A beautiful story of the present, past and into the future. We all play our part in the global eradication of polio!