The taxi rattled over the rutted road. It lurched and lunged, bouncing from side to side, creaking as if it were on the point of falling apart completely. It was a beautiful autumn day in Islamabad with a bright sun and a mild chill in the air. In the nicer parts of the city trees were starting to change colour, their leaves fading to red and yellow, but this was not a nice part of the city. We were driving down a road which passes one of the largest slums in Islamabad, a place of mud huts and ramshackle roofs and filth-rimmed ditches and unemployment and hopelessness. As we rattled down the road I looked out at the slum with despair in my heart
Scenes caught my eye as they flicked past, tiny snapshots of life lived at the fringe of society. An elderly man was hauling a cow through the streets, tugging and shouting as the obstinate animal dug in its heels. A younger man, perhaps my own age, was pushing a wooden trolley piled high with bananas. Two boys were using sticks to roll bicycle tyres along the side of the road. Tiny girls, surely not more than three or four years old, carried plastic bags stuffed with something indistinguishable, stumbling along as their tiny sandals flipped and flopped in the dust. Another girl, maybe six or seven, sat by the side of the road, twirling her hair absent-mindedly as the cars clattered past. The gesture reminded me of my own daughter – but I am wealthy, and so my daughter goes to school, and eats three meals a day, and sleeps in a house, and has the unimaginable luxury of being able to choose what she wants to wear on a particular day, and the inequality of this situation makes me feel like weeping.
The taxi driver saw me staring at the slum and tried to explain. This was government land, so the people here are squatting illegally. At some point the government will come through and clear them out, and they know this, and so they do not bother building proper houses. They will be forced to leave, and they will find somewhere else to live, and will rebuild their pathetic dwellings of sticks and mouldy canvas, and when it rains they will get sick, and many of their children will die young, and they accept all of this with resignation.
“Their life is so difficult” said the driver. “There is no purpose to their existence. They may as well not have been born”. He spoke not with malice but with sympathy.
The phrase stuck in my mind. As a Christian I firmly believe that life has a purpose, that we were created with love and for a reason, and that every human being is precious and individual and worth something. And yet here in this slum, and in countless millions of other slums that dot the developing world like cancer cells, life literally has no purpose. It is a matter of scratching together enough food for the day and hoping to do the same tomorrow. They cannot afford school fees so their children will never study and learn and so will remain poor, and thus poverty is propagated and institutionalised and the rich gift of existence is reduced to penury and wretchedness.
As we drove away the slum receded into the rear-view mirror. Soon it was gone from sight – and yet it lingers in my mind, dark and hopeless, and I do not know what to do to help.