Cattle have right of way
It is a four-hour drive from the Columban parish of Badin to the Thar Parkar desert. It is located on the bottom right hand corner of Pakistan, right on the border with India. It is the homeland of the Parkari Kohli Tribal People, one of the ethnic groups among whom the Columbans work. There is a small but vibrant Catholic community of nearly one hundred families living in 15 villages scattered over an area half the size of Ireland.
Since my appointment to the remote parish of Nagar Parkar, in November 2008, I have crossed the Thar Parkar desert several times a month to visit the Catholic Community. My trips in and out seldom coincide with the cattle drive but in August 2011, I spent four hours on the first half of the journey mostly in second gear because of the sheer volume of cattle migrating.
Thousands of cattle divided in numerous herds were seeking to escape the devastating floods. Their food supply had been ruined so they sought fresh grass in the Nagar Parkar region.
Twice a year there is the seasonal movement of thousands of cattle. It is an amazing sight to see the cattle and their drovers trek slowly across the desert. It highlights the reality of being away from home for weeks and months on end.
Their drovers walk and sleep with their cattle, like the good shepherd in the parable of Jesus, the drovers know their cattle and their cattle know them. Drovers often have some goats of their own and can be seen carrying a young kid wrapped around their shoulders like a scarf. What milk the cows have is sold to villagers along the seven-day trek across the desert.
Salination is ruining the land in some parts of interior Sindh but the big landowners, who often have more land than they know what to do with, are not doing anything about it. It is an expensive and slow process to reclaim the land for crop production.
In Pakistan, about 6.3 million hectares of land are salt-affected, of which 1.89 million hectares are saline, and about 40,000 hectares of productive land are damaged by salinity annually. The landlords do not want to face the expense of curing the land so it is just left fallow and is a source of fodder for migrating cattle.
The herders belong to a Sindhi Muslim ethnic people who pass on their way of life from generation to generation. Some herders own their own flock but many work as employees of the herd owner. As well as flocks of cattle, there are other obstacles to the journey across the desert. Local security forces, as is their right, are extremely vigilant of ex-patriots coming and going in this border region with India. At this stage those manning the check posts now know me and let me pass without much fuss.
Fr Tomas King SSC has been a missionary in Pakistan since 1992.