The Japanese tourist who joined Pakistani mountain tribe


In 1987 Akiko Wada left her bustling hi-tech metropolis in Japan to go backpacking with friends around the remote mountains of northern Pakistan. But once she discovered the beautiful village of Balanguru and the unique Kalash tribe that lived there, she decided to stay.

An island of high-altitude tranquility within a sea of violent change, she adopted Balanguru as her new home and decided to "become Kalash" and adopt a simple life - no phones, no television and, at the time I was visiting, no electricity.

She might even be the first foreigner to adopt the mountain tribe as her own, but she says that the regular stream of anthropologists who lived among them allowed the Kalash people to become accustomed to outsiders.

"They are very happy that someone stays with them, they welcome it. They are a minority so they feel proud if someone from outside joins them," she said.

The Kalash are not Muslim: they worship their ancestors as well as a pantheon of 12 gods and goddesses.

She learned the language and never looked back.

But it was a different story back home in Japan. Her father was incensed and she was not allowed to return to his house for almost a decade. Now her parents are elderly and she has been to visit them, although her immediate family has never come to see her in her new mountain home.

Friends no longer come either, she says, as they are afraid to visit Pakistan because of the violence.

Akiko says she chose to stay because she was impressed by the Kalash's self-sufficient lifestyle.

"They follow nature, they are self-dependent, weave their own dresses. It is not like working in the office. It attracted me."

She even married into the tribe, but the relationship foundered.

"We are separated now. He used to help and he used to be co-operative. Through him I thought I could do something for the community, like I thought of it as a dream… but he changed."

Helping the community

Despite the estrangement, she has a deep link with the community and today Akiko is a respected Kalash. Twelve years ago she came up with the idea of making hand-made paper using many kinds of waste material as a way of generating an income. She attempted to involve children from the community.

Image caption Akiko lives with no phone and no television

Through the Japanese government she got a generator for the village. A part of her house also serves as a multi-purpose hall for the Kalash community.

"In the morning we do crafts and then the children come in the evening for the library... My Kalash relatives have a lot of functions and it usually involves the entire village."

Although she is protective of Kalash culture, Akiko also has her criticisms.

"Women can only wash their hands in the village, otherwise they have to go outside of the village to take a bath or wash their hair. In some villagers the closest water is two hours away. I feel this is really unfair."

So Akiko began building common bathrooms for the women of the village, but the project has met with limited success. She says there needs to be a change in attitudes.

"I don't say anything. They themselves need to be aware… but I find some of these taboo traditions very annoying," she says.

Outside pressure

Akiko also feels the Kalash have been besieged by modernity and Islamic missionaries. During the 1980s, under the regime of Gen Zia-ul-Haq, a wave of Islamisation reportedly saw self-styled "guardians of religion" forcibly converting many minorities including the Kalash.

Electioneering also kicked off in the area at that time. "Money started flowing in, political candidates came with money and the projects that NGOs did showed no results. I think now Kalash are following the Pakistani system and they are not as simple and pure as they used to be."

She laments the changes she has witnessed, saying that while it is good that boys from the area are getting an education, the simplicity of life when she first arrived is under threat.

"There is no difference between them and a Karachi boy. They don't go to the fields and herd sheep any more."

Such a conservative attitude appears incongruous coming from the mouth of a Japanese-turned-Kalash, but Akiko Wada is clearly respected among the community here.

During a recent Kalash festival she was right in the middle of proceedings - ordinarily a place where only Kalash are allowed - and when the cleric was reciting a prayer, she was sitting on a chair as one of the core circle of elders.

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