Inside Africa: Why the Indus is longer than the Nile (for some Pakistanis)

Published: July 12, 2011

Maybe home isn’t quite as bad as you think it is, and you may just need a Pakistani abroad to tell you that.

Pakistani expats are a strange breed. Their passports are as green as yours and mine but something still sets them apart: their perceptions. Their comparisons between Pakistan and their country of residence are more objective and less cutting.

Expats are essentially loners, travellers permanently stuck in places, who still attend functions thrown by the Pakistani embassy, but speak the local language more than Urdu. They’re not amusingly confused like American desis and they won’t bring you back gifts from airport duty shops like your Dubai cousins. The only thing they’re good for, in fact what they’re best at, is breaking stereotypes – countless of them, about themselves, about their neighbours, about different cultures and religions.

I was privy to a conversation comparing two third world countries from commentators who are my age: One was a Pakistani expat living in Kenya and the other a Pakistani who visited Tanzania.

“The airport, frankly, is terrible. It makes Jinnah International look like JFK.”

It’s the first in a long list of complaints by the expat. She has lived there, taken the malaria shots and put up enough anti-mosquito nets. She is less wide-eyed about Africa as the Pakistani traveller, whose entire trip started and ended with the Safari.

The traveller starts gushing about wild cheetahs. When this dies down, she goes back to commenting on the airports.

“Dirt tracks for runways in some places.”

But unlike Pakistan:

“There’s something really quaint about the whole thing – even if it’s just two terminals, it’ll be spotless.”

Cleanliness! Roads are clean, no paan spit, no garbage dumps – yes, safai is innate to east Africans. So are gorgeous wildlife, fantastic weather, and inspiring tribes like the Masai…

Africa, according to National Geographic, is too predictable. Africa according to a Karachi wallah isn’t.

So I turn to ask them about the cities. The expat lives in Nairobi, Kenya, far away from the clichéd Savannah. It is ‘modern’ and poised to become the largest metropolis in East Africa

“But it doesn’t even come close to Karachi; things shut down too early.”

The traveller echoes this opinion:

“There was no branded stuff, I mean, things you take for granted. You know how there’s a KFC and McDonalds every five minutes back home? Tanzania doesn’t have that.”

But, they have at least one thing in common: load-shedding. Serengiti, a national park, has to produce its own electricity.

Then there are observations that only Pakistani girls can make:

“There are police women everywhere, not just in the city.”

Africa caters to everyone:

“They’ll have separate menus for vegetarians, they’ll have halal meat, and they’ll have their alcohol…”

Africa is diverse. The expat friend talks about her school, full not just of ethnic Africans, but of Sri Lankans, Indians, British and everyone in between. Some of them are expats, like her, while other families have lived in Kenya since the colonial era. Her school is ‘chilled out’, says the expat.

“In Pakistan we’re so much more studies obsessed. Over here kids are just more relaxed.”

And all East Africans are, well, just plain nice:

“All the tour guides kept saying Rafiki [meaning friend in Swahili] to us, and kept joking about The Lion King,” says the traveller.

Until, of course they ask where you’re from. One waiter said:

“Oh Pakistan! So, have you met Osama bin Laden?”

Another guide asked:

“Pakistan isn’t that where they make explosives?”

It’s back to stereotypes again, but this time it’s the Pakistanis who’re confused.

“I don’t get it,” says the traveller. “I’m so used to hearing over and over again that Pakistan is the worst country in the world, that when I arrived in Tanzania I expected something more and I didn’t find it.”

Could you live there? The traveller can’t dream of it.

“Roads, you have no idea how brilliant Karachi roads are. And airports. Zanzibar’s airport was practically a shamiana.”

As for the expat, the first place she visits on holiday in Pakistan is… Khadda Market.

“Bazaars! What I would do for even a Zainab market in Kenya!”

Some of it smacks of pure homesickness but I know the expat would live here given the choice.

Are you sure, I ask, that you’d want to move back here?

Karachi, the city of contradictions, of target killings and endless Atrium outings? Karachi, which is dusty compared even to Lahore, let alone rainy Kenya on the Equator.

“It’s home,” she says with a shrug.

Or as the traveller puts it,

“They don’t have much, but they’re very proud of it.”

A barbed way of saying I under-appreciate my city.

So maybe expats (and travellers) aren’t objective at all.

Maybe home is best after all.

Or at least, finding out that home isn’t quite as bad as you thought it was, and that you needed a Pakistani abroad to tell you that.

Meiryum Ali

Meiryum Ali

A freshman at an ivy league school who writes a weekly national column in The Express Tribune called "Khayaban-e-Nowhere".

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Fahad Raza

    Ahh .. Well it depends on where you Land.. doesnt it.??. Just think of it what if it was Kabul.. or Kyoto or if your really very lucky Kansas city.
    That would change their perspective by no less than 180 Degrees…Recommend

  • mkd

    I think it’s what all expats feel about their homeland oneway or the other.Recommend

  • Chris

    stop trying so freaking hard to sound so much older than you are! btw, an entire article about absolutely nothing at all. and that too when you havent even visited the places yourselfRecommend

  • Omer Irshad

    This just messed with my head.Recommend

  • http://www.6la8.com Confused

    I had to read it twice to get what you’re saying, but it was nice. However, the comparison was Africa which is pretty obscure. Its hard when you are comparing it to, say, the Americas or Europe. Why would anyone want to live in Africa over Pakistan anyways? except for maybe some wildlife aficionados…Recommend

  • Majid Ur Rehman

    “Karachi, which is dusty compared even to Lahore!”

    I want to start ethnic battle ;)Recommend

  • The expat

    @Confused

    “Why would anyone want to live in Africa over Pakistan anyways?”

    ^You come across as one of those ignorant Africa-is-a-desert-and-everyone-has-AIDS people.
    Honestly, I love living in Nairobi, The weather, the environment, the diversity are just a few of the reasons why.Recommend

  • Ahmed

    Very good article.Recommend

  • Ayesha

    A very good article, Meiryum! The conversation between the two is quite interesting.Recommend

  • SEB

    @Omer Irshad: Copy that… :PRecommend

  • parvez

    I liked the bit about cleanliness. This is something we have just failed to develop. I have had the good fortune to travel a lot and I realised its hard to find a country that is more dirty than ours. We are quite simply a dirty nation.
    Coming back from Dubai a man ahead of me, who was on the flight, while walking out of the airport put a pan in his mouth and a few seconds later threw the wrapper on the ground and spat. I could not resist and asked him would he have done that in Dubai and he laughed and said ‘ of course not, I’ve come home now. ‘ Recommend

  • Name.. What’s that..

    I feel nostalgic about karachi. this is exactly the way i think and say about karachi. Even i used to miss load shedding and the time we spent playing games and socializing at the time when there was no power…
    Apna Ghar to Apna hota hai..Recommend