SAN DIEGO, California — The Kalash tribe of people, also known as the “black Kafirs,” are an ethnic and religious minority living in the Kalash Valleys in Northern Pakistan. They are commonly misidentified as descendants of classic Greeks from Alexander the Great’s army because of their shared features of light skin and blue or green eyes. However, studies show that they have Indo-Aryan origins. Today, the extremely rich Kalash tribe and culture are dwindling. Currently, the tribe stands at a mere number of about 3,000 people — a number that continues to decrease.
Struggles to Maintain Identity
The Kalash practice an animistic religion that worships nature and involves colorful festivals and sacrifices. The economic system of the Kalash is identified as a small “mixed mountain economy” that relies on livestock cultivation and fruit and grain farming for the exchange of goods.
Because the existence of the Kalash spans beyond their Pakistani counterparts, the Kalash people form a vital part of Pakistan’s history. Unfortunately, they face several outside constraints in the battle to preserve their community’s identity.
First is the pressure from Muslim fundamentalists to convert to Islam. Certain groups of Muslims have tensions with the Kalash because the Kalash practices are antithetical to Islam. The Kalash make their own alcohol, practice a polytheistic religion and have more liberal stances on women’s places in marriage and the community. Therefore, they face surmounting pressure from outside groups to convert to Islam.
The Kalash report instances of missionaries tricking young Kalash people into converting to Islam. As few alternatives exist, Kalash children attend predominantly Muslim schools that do not encourage them to retain their language or traditions.
Circumstances of Poverty
Another obstacle for the Kalash is that many of them live in abject poverty. These circumstances of poverty stem in part from destructive floods, the continuation of illegal logging and a lack of connectivity to the outside world. The most recent flood in 2015 led to the loss of many Kalash farm fields. This is devastating because the survival of the Kalash depends on these local resources. When these resources are under threat, it reflects in the economic depression that follows.
Another factor that exacerbates poverty is the fact that limited offroad trails connect the Kalash Valley to the outside world. This lack of road infrastructure cuts the Kalash off from tourism that would revitalize their economy and extend their consumer bases, according to Peace for Asia.
Illegal logging is also destructive because it threatens the physical realm around the Kalash, according to the Forest Policy and Economics Journal. Illegal logging also takes away wood that households rely on for income or heating throughout the year. These factors all contribute to the continuing poverty within the Kalash tribe and speak to the need for sustainable economic systems in the Kalash Valley.
Progress in Preservation
Despite these obstacles, the local Pakistani government and NGOs are making a well-rounded effort to help combat factors that threaten the existence of the Kalash culture. In 2020, the Kalash Valleys Development Authority (KVDA) was formed to help retain the Kalash population in the valleys. The KVDA will carefully approve and track development in the Kalash Valleys to make sure that activities are not damaging to the Kalash culture. The KVDA’s work is important because it may prevent any future fundamentalist establishments from attempting to dissolve the Kalash culture.
NGOs such as the Sarhad Rural Support Programme (SRSP) and the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) support the Kalash in development efforts. The SRSP built micro-hydropower projects in order to supply electricity to certain parts of the Kalash Valley. According to Dawn, the AKRSP also helps to provide loans to the community to begin businesses and support socio-economic development.
The Kalash culture perseveres because the culture intrigues a wide audience of people who visit their valleys or follow their activities online. During their festivals, some local Muslims join to celebrate the harvest, winter solstice or spring, the Guardian reports. The Kalash also hosted the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at a festival in October 2019.
The Kalash are a well-studied tribe, thanks to their willingness to openly share their culture. The tribe welcomes visitors and anyone with an interest in the culture. A simple YouTube search yields many results documenting the daily life or special occasions within the Kalash culture.
The Kalash people face barriers in preserving their culture and struggle with conditions of poverty. But, the diverse mix of groups assisting them and their willingness to receive help brings hope. With ongoing assistance, the Kalash tribe can go beyond simply surviving and become a thriving population.
– Hariana Sethi