NAWA | MENA

By: Samreen Khan | Storycollector |Pakistan

Between the Dunes

Amongst uneven sand dunes, picture a group of women balancing 3 to 4 water pots each on their heads and in their arms. This is usual activity for hundreds of women living in the Thar Desert, south-eastern Pakistan’s Sindh province – a drought-prone region. Thar is an infertile land of harsh weather, erratic sand mounds, a scattered population, extreme temperatures, and feeble socio-economic conditions. Women are responsible for collecting water despite long distances, sometimes up to 10 kilometers. One woman in the group, named Rashma and 22 years old, is visibly tired as her pace slows down.

Rashma has been married for seven years, and is now in her sixth pregnancy after multiple miscarriages. She is hoping and praying that this time, her pregnancy will bring the joy of parenthood to her family. Maybe this time, her child will stay alive. However, her physical conditions are not good, not even satisfactory. She was married at the age of 16, then became pregnant immediately afterwards because her family, in-laws and community pressure newly married couples, asking them for the “Good News”. This is custom in most eastern societies. Rashma has become used to getting pregnant almost every year now, despite extreme poverty and acute water shortages. Water for agriculture, livestock, or human needs are all insufficient. Extreme climate shift has caused long and uneven weather patterns in this already extremely dry region.

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Rashma, like most Thari women, has began to travel even further away in search of water, as nearby pounds and wells are becoming dry. Covering miles every, this has had an impact on her health and pregnancy. She feels that the drought has had a greater impact on the life of women in her community. Their lives revolve around water – they establish huts and small settlements where water ponds are situated nearby and they migrate in search of water for their animals and themselves. Their health and wealth purely depends on water. Due to multiple deliveries, malnutrition, and poverty, Rashma looks around 10 years older than her actual age.

The quality of the available water is bad, bitter, muddy and inappropriate for human consumption. Rashma observes that two of her three children died due to the bitterness of water and malnutrition, in addition to being born prematurely. Women and children are suffering directly because of climate change, as the rising number of mortality rates, anemic girls and women, malnutrition, birth of underweight and stunted kids, anemic mothers have resulted in the high levels of mother and infant deaths—the highest under five years mortality rate in all of Pakistan.

Rashma still hopes that her life will improve once the drought is over. She prays and performs different rituals in order to appease the ultimate divine power of nature. She does not know that the climate can improve with actions, not just prayers.


By: Sally Souraya| Storycollector | Lebanon

Clown Me In – Activism and Self-care in a red nose!

To start a conversation about self-care with a group of clowns is an easy pie. Neither an introduction to the topic nor prompting questions are needed. The conversation emerges naturally from what they do in their daily practice and interweaves between self-care and activism. The story of ‘Clown Me In’ group flows from one red nose to another in a very well-articulated narrative of activism and humour. Where environment and social justice are at the heart of what this group does in Lebanon, all of ‘Clown Me In’ activism roads seem to lead to a wide definition of what self-care is. Self-care is an inspiration that supports their activism to get to the right cause in the right way. While ‘laughing’ might be a short ‘cliché’ answer to the daily life of these clowns, a more in-depth interpretations of these themes is explored with four women from the group: Sabine, Dima, Sara, and Layal.

When there is a protest, there are clowns
Over the last years, ‘Clown Me In’ has been constantly brainstorming holding an urgency to act. From ideas to actions, their key word is “Let’s do it!”. As clown activists, their energy has no limits and their sense of responsibility to act is never held back from responding over again to what is “happening”, or more precisely “not happening”, regarding the irresponsible disposal of garbage in Lebanon. Facing an ongoing battle against the trash crisis, ‘Clown Me In’ joined forces with other movements to call for solutions to social and environmental injustices. With humour being their weapon, they created video series and organised several ‘Clown Attacks’ as street interventions. They were present in all the protests against the crisis. When there is a protest, there are clowns. This became an equivalent of ‘when there is a will, there’s way’. Clowning was the way to tell the truth with a good dose of humour, transforming the energy of protests from drama to laughter and positive support.

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Everyone wins!
For clowning to take such direction, there is a recipe of both activism and self-care that the clowns follow. It is not only about getting their laughter out, but also their anger. Sabine shares the experience of the group and how anger has been the main ingredient that led them to raise awareness on environment: “We got really really angry about what is happening in the garbage crisis, especially with the loss of people’s interest in actually doing something about it. We instantly started coming up with ideas to clown around it. That’s our tool and it’s a fun one, meaning everyone wins! We win because we do something fun and turn disastrous situations into something funny. We see them from a different angle, we take our anger to a more fun and positive path. Whoever is watching us would then get the message easier. Laughter is the best tool to get the message across”. The ‘fun-win equation’ is not the only privilege clowns get. Being a clown gives them also freedom and protection, Sabine explains: “We also definitely get away with so many things others don’t! When we go to demonstrations we are the only ones who can approach anyone and everyone and say whatever we like to say! Standing for ourselves or approaching police men as a clown is definitely easier because they think “Hey she’s a clown. It’s ok! There is no harm!”.

Real blessings!
In counting her blessings, Dima always sees clowning on top of the list: “It is one of the things in my life that I am most grateful for”. Dima considers clowning as a way of living as well as a support system for clowns themselves and the community. The feeling of being supported and supportive is what made a difference for Dima. As a Syrian woman living in Lebanon, sometimes Dima faces rejection, not directly against her as a person but as part of the whole racist narrative used in Lebanon against Syrians and refugees in particular. Belonging to ‘Clown Me In’ made her feel more connected and integrated in the Lebanese community, Dima describes that feeling: “While in the eyes of some people I might be seen as an intruder, clowning made me feel that I am part of the community, I am part of this cause and I am here, no matter what nationality I have, standing with Lebanese people asking for a change that matters to everyone”. Taking part in the protests as a clown helped Dima to feel safer around the police. This felt like a complete change in Dima’s experience and perspective on security, especially for a person who has been through accumulated trauma, fear, and insecurities associated with the war in Syria.

With a lot of transparency, Dima elaborates on how her journey with clowning has been all about self-care, which she believes it is about being able to deal with her weaknesses in a fun and constructive way: “I used to not feel very comfortable around people. I was insecure and victimizing myself. Clowning made me learn how to look into myself more and understand what I feel. I started to look at how I can show my weakness through my clown character and make fun of it myself as well as also making other people laugh about it. I learned to get rid of the sad feelings that put me down and learnt how to react to and deal with my issues in a better way”. Dima continues with a strong determined voice: “I want to be a better person. By clowning, I can achieve that. Being a clown helped me already to overcome a lot of issues, which I would not have been able to overcome otherwise”.

Two birds in one stone
Sara’s definition of self-care is rooted in what seems to be the basics: “Self-care is about enjoying what I am doing”. Indeed, what is better than clowning to enjoy! Sara’s simple statement is not about stating the obvious, it is actually an important call to abandon sophistication when it comes to self-care and to concentrate on what a person does and simply enjoy it. Sara emjoys what she does as a clown with the confidence and satisfaction she gets out of that. This is where clowning played a bigger role in her life: “Clowning helped me deal with my shyness and low self-confidence. Being able to learn how to laugh at myself has been great therapy. Clowning taught me to embrace who I am, with all the things I had considered to be flows in the past I see them now as gifts! Now, I see them as characteristics that make me stand out amongst the crowd. I am more myself now. I am more comfortable and happier with being who I am and loving myself along the way. Akhh! I can talk about this forever!!!”. While Sara has definitely a lot more to say on self-care, she summarises her clowning experience as being both a lesson and a gift. Sara sees clowning as two birds in one stone: “I have always believed in using art as a tool for social and political change. Being able to do both art and activism at the same time through clowning is indeed two birds in one stone”. “This is what I have always dreamt of”, Sara expresses how proud she feels. She describes how she lives such a responsibility with joy, love and confidence: “People believe in us and what we do. We also believe in ourselves and we love what we do”.

To see opportunity where others see chaos
With deep reflections, Layal speaks about self-care as a promise she made to herself. It is what connects the dots in her journey as a person and as a clown: “The child in us is aching…I promised myself never to dismiss my inner child without hearing carefully its requests and try to always find a middle ground between its needs and the way I see things socially and philosophically”. Layal considers that the definition of self-care as a physical, psychological, social, and spiritual practice should expand to a very important layer, which is about seeing oneself as part of the whole world, nature and the environment: “Taking good care of ones’ home and self with a filthy street would not help much in not letting filth come in”. Layal continues to explain her view and how it is reflected in her life: “This is exactly the same dialogue I used to deal with myself, which also led me to clowning. That is how my clown copes. She sees no difference between me and the others… As if no ‘self’ barrier has ever existed”. Layal’s thoughts on clowning and self-care are not just poetic but also grounded in her experience in environmental justice. With a firm opinion, she says: “What you call activism, I would like to call common sense”. For Layal, the ‘common-sense’ starts at home: “Protesting against human failure to be responsible towards nature has led me to start first with my family as they reflect clearly the whole country, if not to say the whole world”. She thinks: “People are lazy. We have to find the real motivation that can push them forward”. For most people who would question if what they do as individuals will even matter or make any difference, Layal’s answer is: “The whole world is waiting for you to change in order to follow your lead. The more we are, the more visible our work is! It always takes a few to start the change …. So how about you be of the pioneers and see opportunity where others see chaos”.

If the positive energy of Sabine, Dima, Sara, Layal and the rest of ‘Clown Me In’ could be transcribed, this story would speak even louder than the words featured here. This summary of their thoughts tells how clowning is a self-care process that transcends the barriers and obstacles that environmental activism faceS. It proves that making a change is possible and that the ‘self’ is at the best place to start and sustain it with fun and humour.