By Sonya Rehman
They’re bright, they’re colorful and they carry messages of peace. Some 35 multi-colored rickshaws are whizzing around the thriving metropolis of Karachi, Pakistan, as part of an initiative by the youth-based NGO Pakistan Youth Alliance [PYA] to counter messages of hostility and fanaticism often splashed across the noisy little three-wheeled vehicles.
And PYA founder and Islamabad-based activist Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi says more rainbow-colored “ricks” are on the way. “We plan to make hundreds more,” Zaidi told The Diplomat. “And clone the Peace Rickshaw campaign in different cities of Pakistan.”
The campaign was initiated after Zaidi and his team began noticing many rickshaws “being used for hate-speech in different parts of Pakistan.” While many rickshaws in Pakistan are used as vehicles to advertise brands, religion, political parties, leaders and affiliations, it is a fact that Pakistani rickshaw and truck drivers take immense pride in their vehicles.
Colorful trucks and rickshaws painted in an array of bright, shimmery colors with gorgeous motifs and designs are common sights in Pakistan. However, the trucks take the cake. Given their size (compared to rickshaws), truck artists have a field day decorating each and every inch of their trucks with a variety of ethnic designs and patterns. These distinct colors, motifs and patterns encompass one of Pakistan’s most famed and admired popular art-forms: truck art.
“We aspired to re-own the romanticized art-form by promoting new designs and using them for peace-building messages,” said Zaidi, who added that the rickshaws haven’t been made from scratch. Instead, rickshaw drivers who volunteer to have their vehicles painted under the Peace Rickshaw campaign are paid a daily wage during the makeover stage, until the rickshaws are complete and road ready again.
“We’re not just decorating rickshaws,” Zaidi stressed. “We are involving communities during every phase of the project and delivering workshops to the youth on peace-building advocacy through rickshaw (and other) street artistic expression. Being on-ground activists for over five years now, I can safely say the project has created more impact than we thought it would. Everyone – from rickshaw drivers, and local artisans, to youth and onlookers – has given us positive feedback.”
The message is spreading too. A pink rickshaw emblazoned with the slogan, “With Love From Pakistan,” was recently ferried off to be exhibited at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington D.C. at the request of Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the U.S.
“Youth activism will perhaps define the make or break of Pakistan in my opinion,” said Zaidi, who currently has his hands full with multiple PYA-initiated projects “revolving around relief of terrorism and insurgency-stricken victims.”
He added, “The expanding youth bulge can be a gift or a curse depending upon it. It is the only catalyst that can make Pakistan a progressive and tolerant nation, so it is the most important thing as far as activism is concerned.”
Yet, Zaidi sees the “majority” of Pakistani youth as “reactionary” and not pro-active enough. “We’re mostly found cleaning the mess our own create,” he said.
But amid the mess, Zaidi offers a message of hope. “The upcoming elections are very important. It is for the first time that we have such a vibrant media industry that’s keeping an eye on political transformation; we have a very active judiciary challenging the echelons of power, and we have a GHQ which finally realizes the important of democratic culture in Pakistan.”
With the elections less than two weeks away, the general atmosphere in Pakistan remains tense with anticipation. “Things are falling into place,” the young activist said. “The change we keep on hearing about might have already arrived.”
Photos by: Ali Rizvi and Muhammad Ali
The Diplomat Magazine