Abdul Sattar Edhi, the country’s greatest philanthropist, was given a lavish funeral by the very people he avoided in life, writes Rahimullah Yusufzai.
Abdul Sattar Edhi earned fame and respect, in Pakistan and beyond, during a lifetime of work with some of the poorest and most deprived people in society. But it was only after his death on July 8 that many in his own country belatedly realised the high standing of a man sometimes called the ‘Mother Teresa of Pakistan’.
Edhi was undergoing dialysis, but succumbed to complications resulting from his kidney disease at the age of 88. The ruling elite offered to fly him abroad for treatment, but he preferred to stay in Pakistan. This contrasted sharply with the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, who recently flew to London in a specially chartered aircraft of the state-owned national airline for heart bypass surgery, or Asif Ali Zardari, the former President and widower of the late Benazir Bhutto, who for years has been getting medical treatment abroad.
Despite security concerns, Edhi was given a vast state funeral in his home city, Karachi, leading to complaints that the ceremony was monopolised by the civil and military elites who were never in the philanthropist’s good books during his life. Edhi stayed away from pomp and show, and refused to accept donations from the government. His massive relief work was run entirely with donations from the public, many of them anonymous, who trusted him and his Edhi Foundation.
Edhi’s simple ways and frugal lifestyle endeared him to the people of Pakistan and abroad. He was a familiar figure seeking donations in the bazaars of Pakistani cities, wearing shalwar-kameez made of coarse cloth. He rescued abandoned babies placed in cradles put up by his foundation, consoled and sheltered abused women who had nowhere to go, and recovered the rotting corpses of unknown people thrown into streams or by the roadside.
Edhi washed bodies before burial in a Karachi cemetery built on land bought by his foundation, led funeral prayers for the dead, brought up runaway boys and girls and arranged their marriages, and ensured that jobless men and women were taught skills to enable them to earn their livelihood and become useful citizens. In particular, his foundation trained thousands of female nurses. His work encompassed many areas and touched the lives of countless distressed people.
Born on January 1, 1928 in Bantva in Gujarat state in India, Edhi migrated with his family to the newly independent state of Pakistan in 1947. He first cared as a young man for his mother, who had become paralysed, and later started serving the old, infirm, orphaned and widowed, even if they were strangers. Doing odd jobs as a clothes salesman in Karachi, like so many others from his Memon trading community, Edhi began collecting donations to set up his first dispensary, and gradually expanded his charity work as donors found him credible. During the next six decades, he made the Edhi Foundation the biggest welfare organisation in Pakistan and its ambulance service one of the largest in the world. It also ran relief operations in Africa, the Middle East, eastern Europe, the Caucasus and even in the US following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
With Edhi gone, concern is being expressed about the future of his foundation, until now largely a family-run institution. His eldest son, Faisal, one of his four children, who is now running the Edhi Foundation along with his mother, Bilquis, has already expressed concern that donations have gone down. His other worry is the antagonistic attitude of many clerics towards his late father, who held unconventional religious views and was happy to confront critics. His wife and sons are less likely to engage in controversy, but donors may hold back while they weigh up Edhi’s heirs.
During the 1970s, Edhi contested two elections for a National Assembly seat in Karachi, but as an independent candidate he had little chance against the established political parties. His defeat prompted him to abandon any political ambitions and devote all his attention to social and humanitarian work. He expressed frustration with the state of affairs in the country, commenting on one occasion that ‘people have become educated, but have yet to become human’, but he wasn’t tempted later in life, when certain well-meaning Pakistanis tried to persuade him to join them in seeking to reform the largely dysfunctional state.
Weeks after he died, the philanthropist was still being mourned, with demands that the day of his death should be designated ‘national charity day’. He was being commemorated in books and documentaries; politicians, civil society activists and social workers were competing to suggest that major institutions, hospitals, roads or an airport be named after him, and that a chapter on his life should be included in textbooks. The State Bank of Pakistan announced plans to issue a commemorative coin in his honour.
This outpouring of honours would not have impressed Edhi, who did not welcome the occasional awards he was given in Pakistan and abroad for his humanitarian work. He did say that he would not refuse the Nobel Peace Prize if it was offered to him, and Malala Yousafzai, the teenager who was the last Pakistani to receive the accolade, argued that he deserved it most. Sadly, Nobel prizes are not awarded posthumously, but Abdul Sattar Edhi’s achievements will live after him.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Pakistani journalist and Afghanistan expert. He was the first and last reporter to interview Taliban leader Mulla Mohammad Omar, and twice interviewed Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1998. His achievements have been acknowledged by several prestigious awards, including Tamgha-e-Imtiaz and Sitara-e-Imtiaz.