Aneesa Andrabi ’16: My Summer with the Butchers of Pakistan — Part 1

This is the first article in a two-part series detailing Aneesa Andrabi ’16’s work this summer in Pakistan. Her experiences were funded by the Summer Social Action Award (s2a2) from the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility.

Goat eyes in buckets, cow skins lying on benches, and butchers chopping lamb with their toes: these are the images that come to mind when I think of my summer. This past summer, I spent 10 weeks interning at the First Microfinance Bank-Pakistan, with a Summer Social Action Award from the Lang Center.  My main task as a Research intern in the Product Management and Research department was to research the beef value chain—essentially interview butchers, beoparis (middle-men who buy and sell animals) and slaughterhouse laborers in this market, and explore their potential financial needs. I conducted almost 100 interviews in Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Lahore.

On my first day of field interviews, I hopped in a tiny Suzuki car to Saadkabad, a neighborhood in Rawalpindi. Dirt was flying in the humid 107 degree-air as the FMFB Rawalpindi branch’s driver, Mansoor Akhtar, drove me through every gully (alleyway). The small streets we made our way through, mostly broken, were filled with donkey carts, barefooted children (not in school) running around, women begging, lots of small stores for naan, meat, vegetables, and fruit. We stopped at every butcher shop we saw.

Mansoor was tall and skinny, wearing a beige shalvar kameez (tunic and pants) with embroidery on the collar. His village is in Gujrakhan, but he lives in Pindi with his wife of 6 months.  He and I chatted throughout our bumpy drive about our lives—about our siblings, his nieces and nephews, the license test I failed, iPhones and marital pressures girls face.

I was nervous about the prospect of talking to strange butcher men by myself as a young women. Although I’ve spent much time in rural schools and villages, I realized that my exposure in Pakistan has been limited to my nurturing extended family and their elite friends who travel out of the country frequently.

I had a thorough survey with questions regarding business profiles, profit margins, customers, sources of animals and possibility of loan. We stopped at the first butcher shop and I had no idea what to expect as to how these butchers would react to a girl coming in wanting to ask them detailed questions about their business.

I had never interacted with a butcher in my life in the small idyllic suburbs of Claremont and Swarthmore. I was wearing a full dupatta (scarf) around my head (which I am so bad at handling) in addition to my usual shalvar kameez. Bugs buzzing around us, Mansoor would walk ahead of me, shake the hand of the butcher and say we were from FMFB and this lady wanted to ask a few questions. After his introduction, the butchers would make eye contact with me and agree to chat. In the US, I hate going into the freezer aisle of the grocery store and am repulsed by seeing dead animals. But I quickly became very accustomed to numerous goat heads and eyes on tables, dead cows hanging all around from the ceiling, touching my hair. Since it was morning, some butchers were too busy, others were skeptical and thought we were from the government but most were welcoming.

At first, I was tentative, asking my questions slowly but soon I became very comfortable, and had extended conversations with the butchers about what they would do if they were given a loan, and how their business was running.

I would walk in behind Mansoor, push my way through the crowded, 4’x4’ shop to the back and quickly begin chatting with the butcher and scribbling away. I had to be forceful, pushy and aggressive (the only way to actually get things done in Pakistan) if they were skeptical but most of them were sweet and very willing to help.

I asked all them for names or numbers they had of beoparis and slaughterhouses for further research. One of them, who was pretty young, probably a little older than me was very creepy, winking at me and said. “Come with me tonight, I’ll take you to the slaughterhouse in my car, I’ll show you everyyyyything.” I rolled my eyes and continued questioning. He pursued further so I said “bohat bohat shukriya, khuda hafiz” (thank you so much, goodbye) and busted a move out of there.

The last butcher we met, a middle aged-man, particularly stood out. He was sitting on a wood slab at his one-man shop, legs criss-crossed, chopping goat meat away, and smiling with twinkly eyes. He simultaneously answered my string of questions while bargaining with the women who had come in to get a kilo of keema (minced beef). The lady customer chatted with me also, and asked me what types of loans FMFB gives; I gave her the number of the bank. Not only did I like this particular butcher because he gave me detailed responses, but he was really just so content with his life, and took pride in his work like I had never seen before

I asked one butcher what his maslay (issues) were; he told me about his two young daughters, how high the rent is of his shop, and how he just wants to be able to send them to school. He had never taken a loan before because he thought rates were too high and that they hurt more than help.

As I investigated and explored these markets, trying to understand how the beef supply chain actually functions, I continued to realize that people are working, hard and a lot: going to their jobs daily, participating in the economy, just trying to put food on the table and send their children to school.

The biggest puzzle was trying to figure what these actors actually need, because many times they themselves don’t know. It might be easy to just give people money and aid, but to actually understand what their needs are and what is the most efficient and sustainable way to help them reach those needs is a whole separate, and important ball game. Further, I’ve been pondering the moral consequences of the idea of knowing what is best for someone else’s life.

On the drive back, Mansoor — like everyone else I had met at the Pindi bank branch — made fun of me for the weird way I hold my pencil and my consequential bad handwriting. Laughing towards the end of our trip, he insisted on getting me a cold drink. I had to agree even though I truly hate soda. I enjoyed his company and was so grateful that he went with me; otherwise I am unsure if the men would have agreed to listen to me.

Although some in the US view third world countries as uniform lumps of poverty and violence, people are quite normal and really just carry on with their lives despite the vast array of issues. Setting aside the mass terrorism, the political violence, the (mis)conceptions in the news for a moment; it was quite inspiring to actually witness the economy function with my own eyes, and also grasp an understanding of the complexity of this market and the needs of people. Yes I may have gotten (cow? goat?) blood on my dupatta, and gotten asked out on a date to a slaughterhouse (in a creepy yet humorous way), but interacting with butchers all day was genuinely fun and eye-opening.

 


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