Accessibility links

Pakistani Singer's Call For Help Rises Above Floodwaters

  • Shaheen Buneri
  • Kristin Deasy

Zar Sanga sits outside her shelter in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province

Zar Sanga sits outside her shelter in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province

Pakistan's flood-soaked plains are alive...with the sound of music.

The voice of Zar Sanga, known as the queen of Pashto folk music, has been heard on radio stations and television channels throughout the country for the last 40 years.

She has performed around the world, including in the United States, Europe, and throughout the Middle East.

But today, the renowned 64-year-old singer is living in poverty in a roadside tent in the small village of Azakhel in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, just another victim of the floods that plagued the country this summer.

Sanga's village had just started to rebuild after a government offensive against the Taliban when the floods hit in August, transforming huge swaths of land into a stagnant swampland of poverty and crime, making it even more vulnerable to militant activity.

"What should I do?" Sanga asks in an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. "I swear by Allah, no one will give me rice or anything to eat. I am helpless, I am homeless, and no one is coming to my rescue. I live here. I am a citizen of this country too. I have a right to be assisted, to be helped."

Humanitarian Catastrophe

The floods in Pakistan have evolved into a humanitarian catastrophe affecting 14 million people. Twelve million of them are from Sanga's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region and neighboring Punjab and Sindh Provinces downstream. Whole villages in the area were submerged -- some are still underwater. Relief efforts are slow.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province alone saw 650,000 homes destroyed and is the focus of growing health concerns over water-borne diseases and polio. Some 70 percent of the nation's reported cases come from the region.

Sanga's plight -- and fame -- have assured that her call for help would be heard, ratcheting up pressure on local and national authorities who have been accused of not doing enough to distribute aid and assist flood victims.

News of her condition reached Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's culture minister, Syed Aqil Shah. He paid a visit to her small refugee camp on October 4, saying he promised to restore her modest artists stipend and "provide money from this department to repair her house."

Shah also gave Sanga 300,000 rupees ($3,480). Meanwhile, another politician -- former cricket star Imran Khan who heads Pakistan's Justice Party -- has reportedly promised to build her a new home.

Aid for the area as a whole, however, remains slow and sparse.

Most of the water has receded in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as submerged roads are slowly becoming visible. Homes, however, have yet to be rebuilt.

The area largely remains a wasteland dotted by makeshift camps for displaced persons, who say they aren't getting enough food and supplies.

The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief minister Amir Haider Khan Hot on October 7 announced a new aid initiative that would allow 149,000 families who have special cards distributed to flood victims by the government in order to track aid to receive cash dispensations of up to 20,000 Pakistani rupees ($234) per family.

Folk Star

Known for her piercing soprano voice, Sanga is beloved by Pashtuns worldwide for preserving near-obsolete folk songs throughout her 40-year career.

WATCH: Zar Sanga performs

Born into a nomadic Pashtun tribe in 1946 in the small village of Zafar Mamakhel, in Pakistan's northwestern district of Lakki Marwat, Sanga began performing when she was 20 years old.

She learned songs by ear and then memorized the lyrics because she was not taught how to read or write, and remains illiterate to this day. Soon after beginning her singing career, Sanga eloped and married a man named Mulla Jan. The two embarked on a nomadic life of travel and musical collaboration.

The couple would visit extremely remote northern areas of the country, where Jan -- who could read and write -- would take down the ancient traditional songs of isolated villages and later sing them to Sanga, who then memorized them. She would then broadcast these songs on Radio Pakistan in a bid to save her country's diminishing musical heritage.

Laiq Zada Laiq, a prominent Pakistani poet, calls Sanga a "pioneer" in Pashto folk singing and a "precious asset" of Pashto culture.

"If you ask why Zar Sanga is so popular, I'll say it's because there is no artificiality in her voice," he explains. "She has a genuine voice, a voice close to nature." Her greatest contribution, he says, is introducing songs from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa "to Pashtuns all over the world."

Laiq warns that despite the significant contributions artists like Sanga have made to their country's cultural heritage, they remain vulnerable.

Artists Scared Silent

Artists are regularly threatened by Islamic militants, who invoke a radical version of the faith that bans all forms of artistic expression, especially by women.

Threats are common and some female Pakistani singers have been murdered in recent years as a warning to other artists. Hundreds of musicians and artists have fled Pakistan, many of them from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

"Despite the fact that Pashtuns have centuries-old musical heritage, still, most of us aren't giving the required respect to our artists," he says. "There are so many female singers who are now old, they're aged, and who aren't able to continue with their career, but still no one provides them with help or assistance. Zar Sanga is one of these legendary singers, and like them, she lives a lonely life."

Sanga, meanwhile, remains homeless. Her son Shehzada is worried: "The culture minister has pledged that he will rent a house for us, while Imran Khan, chief of Pakistan Justice party has promised to build a new house for us. We don't know whom to believe!"

The famed singer repeatedly uses the Pashto word "malanga" -- a person in Islam's Sufist tradition who has given up all of his or her possessions in order to achieve spiritual strength -- to describe her situation.

"My cattle, my belongings, my house, everything was washed away by the floods," she says. "I am a 'malanga.'"

With that, wrapping her white scarf more tightly around her, she crouches back down under a rickety shelter held up by a few sticks and stitched-up scraps of fabric.

She looks serious, perhaps lost in the memory of seeing her gold medals and other awards, including a performance award from the Pakistani government -- the highest civilian award in the country -- float away forever.

Show comments