Part 2 of my travels in Baltistan, July 2012

Memoir By Hira Nabi
In the second part of her eye-opening memoir, Hira Nabi describes the lessons she learned in a co-ed “teaching garden” in the mountains of Baltistan

Up the garden path
I woke up every morning to melodious birdsong; there were no crows in Shigar. After getting ready and breakfasting in the garden on a stone bench under mulberry and plum trees, I would hoist my backpack on my shoulders and walk to school. On those July mornings, the 40-minute walk was beautiful. There was only one way to get to the school, which sits on Ashkoli Road, also otherwise known as the road to K2. Some days were sunny and brilliant, with clear blue skies and wafts of cloud floating high above. Acreage of planted fields lay next to the roads, with flourishes of mulberry, apricot, cypress and walnut. Jeeps and vans would periodically rush by, snorting out diesel exhaust fumes. I couldn’t have imagined walking on this road if it hadn’t been for the vegetation. There were other days that were cloudy, and mist would descend from mountain tops, rushing down like lava in its haste to enter the valley.

Mist would descend from mountain tops, rushing down like lava in its haste to enter the valley
Abruzzi Higher Secondary School was built in 2009 by the Aga Khan Cultural Services Program (AKCSP). At the 50-year anniversary celebration of the first summit to K2 by Italian climbers, a 24 member team of Italians attended a ceremony at the K2 base camp to mark the Italian government’s donation of funds for the building of the school. The Italians had asked the Balti audience what they could do to show their gratitude to the Balti people, and the community had requested a co-educational school in Shigar valley. The mountaineers sought help from the Italian Government to build this first co-ed school named after Luigi Amadeo, Duke of Abruzzi, who first attempted to climb K2 in 1909.

At the same time as AKCSP architects (the very same team that had spearheaded the restoration of the Shigar and Khaplu forts) were working on constructing the school building, a Pakistani-American garden artist, Tahereh Sheerazie was hired to work on developing the garden that was part of the school.

Sheerazie wasn’t just interested in working towards building a landscaped garden with manicured lawns and symmetrical flowerbeds. Her vision and plans extended far beyond a beautification of the already beautiful land: she wanted to develop a teaching garden at the school where the students would be actively involved in creating the garden and expand their learning manifold in experiential ways and hands-on methods.

I have seen how some learn from books, others from conversation and discussion, yet others by working with their hands
In my own educational experience, I have seen how some learn from books, others from conversation and discussion, yet others by working with their hands and designing experiments. No one method can be privileged over the others; they must all combine and coalesce to form a complete education. Designing and using the garden as a teaching space comes from this multifarious approach towards education.

The founder of the kindergarten movement, Friedrich Froebel, used gardens as an educational tool. He was influenced by Swiss educational reformer, Johann Pestalozzi, who saw a need for balance in education, a balance that incorporated “hands, heart, and head.”

School gardens are historically an urban concept, introducing children to the soil and connecting them with the earth and nature, and ultimately to themselves. It might be argued that while that is valuable learning for city-based students – ostensibly deprived of botanical spaces – how is that useful and not redundant in rural agricultural communities such as populate Baltistan? After all, these children all have kitchen gardens and work in the fields assisting their parents during harvest, planting and sowing. The teaching garden takes on an interesting role in this particular context. The garden can here be utilized for language and literary learning. All of these children knew that plants need sunlight and water and manure in order to grow. But only a few could explain what photosynthesis was. The garden can and must also become – symbolically – a site of language classes, social studies, science, maths and art.

During the summer camp that I co-organized at Abruzzi School, focus was on raising awareness and building sensitization to environmental damage, and to practicing environmental sustainability. Daily activities paired lessons with activities in the teaching garden. For instance: we started with a lesson on different soil types and then conducted soil tests in different parts of the garden, followed up by digging a compost pit aided by local volunteers. We studied river irrigation systems in Punjab, the Indo-Pak conflict over Kashmir and its genesis in seeking control of water, and discussed how best to irrigate the vegetable beds in the kitchen garden; we discussed water pollution, ending the day with experiments on water soluble and insoluble agents of pollution.

Guided by local volunteers, we dug a compost pit in a corner of the school garden. Initially the students were asked to bring scraps from their kitchens (vegetable peels, egg shells, nothing dairy or meat-related) and khhaad from home, alongside grass and dead leaves from the school grounds.

I tried to challenge various manifestations of gender stereotyping
I learned much about the ways of composting or reuse that are adopted by the Shigris. Food scraps from leftovers are fed to the animals. This not only reduces waste but also feeds the animals, who in turn apart from providing milk, eggs and power for heavy lifting and transport, also provide dung, which is used to make organic manure (desi khaad). This manure is utilized to enrich soil and provide nutrients and minerals to the plants. The only challenge to this way of reusing and reducing waste was plastic. In recent years, there had been a rise in plastic products that were being used and discarded (how many ways can you reuse the plastic wrapper of a crisps packet?). Shigri children loved to eat chips and crisps, all packaged in plastic, which would then be burned. Plastic bottles would be re-used but not always. It was the only form of litter that I saw time and again, an eyesore, in drains and water channels, in fields, by roadsides.

Through summer camp, I tried to challenge various manifestations of gender stereotyping, such as involving the boys in cooking and getting them to do math sums with quantities of food ingredients used, and involving the girls with burning hay to build an outdoor oven. In order to function coherently as a co-educational institution, a school needs to uphold equality for all students; and this means overseeing equal participation of the sexes in classes, sports and other activities. Additionally, the girls need to be encouraged more to participate inside and outside class in school activities. Mixed group activities wherever possible need to be designed, so that the girls and boys are able to share and learn collectively. There is great social resistance to this, but if the school remains co-educational it must not provide segregated education.

The most exciting aspect of summer school was the prospect of the older students teaching and helping the younger students, and the multilingual nature of workshops and activities. Balti, English and Urdu were spoken and mixed all at once.

The local indigenous language in Shigar is Balti. Shina is also spoken by some. However, these languages are not taught in schools: they are spoken in homes, inside offices, in public spaces, at markets, in mosques, during festivals, and even during school, but there is no class devoted to Balti literature or language. Without academic work and research, how can language be expected to progress and remain contemporary? How can it stay in conversation with the world? How can it even survive?

The crippling private vs. public school dichotomy doesn’t yet exist in Shigar. In a strange reversal, the teachers that I met here

told me that they wanted to teach at government schools instead of private schools (which in cities offer competitive salaries to ensure some degree of quality education). Government schools offer free education, high salaries (in comparison to the private schools in Shigar), and less taxing work schedules. Before the schools embark upon the well-worn trajectory of private school and government school disparity, action must be taken to preclude such a happening. If all the schools in that area adopt teaching gardens and experiential learning as a teaching technique, they can create a network of school gardens and make way for collaborative instead of competitive learning, and share resources and innovative ideas in a way that is mutually beneficial for all. (Example: I saw that the local government girls school has an audiovisual system with a projector, and I know Abruzzi School has a telescope. Why can’t these be shared for group interschool activities, which would help build a sense of community among the youth and collectively increase the quality of education?)

Recently the school became a part of the ‘Edible Schoolyard’ project, becoming one of two international schools that have joined the network of building a food curriculum for all schools. The only other non-American school on the program is one in South Korea, making the Abruzzi Teaching Garden the only documented school garden not only in Shigar, and Gilgit-Baltistan, but in all of Northern Pakistan, all of Pakistan, and all of South Asia.

All too soon, we were wrapping up summer camp and regular school was re-opening. I spent my last few days in Shigar rallying the teachers and students to continue working on the garden, securing it and sustaining it. The school is starting a fundraising campaign to extend the boundary wall of the school garden to secure it from goats that are left to wander and graze during the fall months.

Now I am back in Lahore, thinking up ways to grow and dry tomatoes on my roof, and plant mint and onions, and begin composting. I feel immensely privileged to have spent a month in the Shigar valley. Though I continue to be disoriented by the cultural and social distance between the Pakistans I inhabit here and there, I hope that an initiative like a teaching garden at a local school can provide opportunities to bridge that gap, for students as well as teachers.

Hira Nabi is an independent filmmaker based in Lahore. Check out the Teaching Garden blog at

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