It was a stormy night on 23rd September 2014 in the Galiyat region of Pakistan’s Abbottabad district. Rizwan, a young member of Youth Impact, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to wilderness-based leadership trainings and experiential learning among youth, was struggling along with his few colleagues, to hold on to the dismantled tents, which they had installed on the curvy high-ground between the two peaks of 9240 feet high Mukshpuri mountain, they had climbed on to after a tiring four-hour steep trek from Donga Gali. Heavy rain was lashing them and the tentage they were trying to assemble for a “youth leadership conference”, which was supposed to be held there the very next day…The spine-chilling cold brought by the northern winds coming directly from the glaciers was making things worse.
“Oh, Gosh! How will we able to hold the much-awaited event with this weather condition?” Rizwan mumbled.
Down the mountain, in Mukshpuri hotel, the whole Youth Impact core team was getting increasingly worried and anxious about the situation. Seventy-five young leaders selected out of around 2000 applicants were reaching there the next morning to participate in Markhor–the second annual wilderness-based youth leadership conference—and many speakers and guests from the supporting partner organizations were also to attend.
“How do you guys plan for unexpected weather conditions? What’s the Plan B?” Faiq Sadiq, the chief of Youth Impact’s advisory board and Habib Bank’s Group Head, started shooting one question after another to Hasan Bashir and Haris Ahmed, the two office-bearers of the organization responsible for the logistics of the conference.
Sadiq is among the many ‘mentors’ of the young participants from the corporate leadership of Pakistan who have volunteered to work with the organization to contribute their bit for the positive change they want to bring about in their country.
There was still a smile on the faces of Hasan and Haris as they looked towards Sadiq and tried to calm him down with their cool facial expressions.
Abdul Samad Khan, their CEO, responded with determined tone, “Don’t worry, Faiq sahib! The harsh weather will only make the conference more successful and memorable.”
Samad, a cancer survivor himself, and the first and only Pakistani graduate from National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), USA, has dedicated his life to develop social leadership among the youth of Pakistan through the outdoor education skills that he has mastered during his specialization and experience in the US, Australia and Malaysia.
The harsh weather did make the conference memorable but only for the organizers, especially Rizwan and his team, who fought the rain and winds to hold on to their stuff and get everything ready for the event by 10 am, the next morning.
The participants started arriving in Mukshpuri hotel on a bright, sunny day. The wind was still cold and the mountain bird species, butterflies and dragon-flies were flying everywhere in dancing motions, showing the happiness in their moods in that beautiful weather.
The inaugural briefing in the huge lawn of the hotel was infusing excitement and passion in each participant regarding the events that were to be unfolded in the next three days. Then there was talk of a discussion on policy issues, about the future of Pakistan, that the participants were supposed to take part in throughout the conference and produce a ‘Markhor Declaration’ by the end of the event, after consensus.
Khalid Rahman, director general, Institute of Policy Studies – one of the oldest and most vibrant think-tanks of the country, started his speech. He wanted each participants to share his or her vision of Pakistan and based on their feedback gave different topics to each ‘tribe’ or group that had to stay, camp and work together throughout the conference.
Around four in the evening, the 75 participants (markhors), including 20 girls, along with their mentors, organizers, guides and porters, started the journey to reach their destination on the steep four-hour Mukshpuri trek through the pine jungle haunted by large monkeys, wild boars, jackals, common leopards and occasionally even black bears. Half of the journey would have had to be covered in the dark…
Shenila, a girl from Quetta, was away from her home for the first time in her life to attend the conference. She was part of the female group which was being led by Esma Saima (aka Bajjia), a senior advisor of Youth Impact, a motivational speaker herself, and a journalist. The fear and feelings of anxiety were gradually fading away from her mind as she tried fighting them along the way. She was starting to trust her own strengths as well as her colleagues and leaders. As she reached the Mukshpuri top, after a tiring but breathtaking journey, it was already nightfall. The clear sky was enchanting as she could see several galaxies with zillions of stars twinkling. She could never had imagined in her life that she would be spending a night out in that mountain jungle, thousands of miles away from her home, with more than a hundred strange young people who had arrived there like herself, from almost every part of the country…
The next two days were filled with hectic and mind-boggling leadership and team-building exercises, motivational speeches and policy debates. A memorable cultural night involving a bonfire, brought all the colours of Pakistan’s rich ethnic and cultural heritage. Emotions of patriotism ran high when the participants from Azad Jammu & Kashmir started singing, “mere watan teri jannat mein ayenge ek din…” and the mountains echoed with the slogans of “Kashmir bane ga Pakistan”, raised by everyone at the top of their voices!
It was a gathering of both genders, day and night together in wilderness, who were mostly strangers to each other before the conference, but everyone felt as if it was their own family get-together. Honour and mutual respect and cooperation were personified. The sound of azaan (call for prayer) echoed regularly five times a day and most of the participants offered prayers in congregation.
It was a very unique experience for the two local journalists, Naveed Abbasi and Atif Qayum, attending the event to report for their respective newspaper and TV channel. They were surprised, amidst all the negativity that has polluted the country’s horizon, to see a group of young enthusiastic people who were gathered to build hope for the future of the country and discuss it in a highly knowledgeable way. They were even more surprised to know that the event was a fine example of corporate philanthropy, supporting some bright, committed individuals who had quit their careers and joined hands together to develop thousands of young leaders that can secure Pakistan’s future with their talent, honesty and zeal. This social entrepreneurship, called Youth Impact, has reached out to more than 10,000 youth across Pakistan, belonging to all socio-economic classes and almost all regions, in the first two years of its inception.
Organizations from the corporate sector had not only supported the initiative but many of their finest top executives were also there, camping in the wilderness with the young delegates to share their experiences and stories about their successes and failures and how they were able to cope with them. They included Faiq Sadiq, Group Head, Habib Bank Limited; Shahzad Umar, Head of HR, Nestle Pakistan; Ali Jamali, COO, Indus Motors; Naseem Zafar Iqbal, CEO, Training Impact; Saad Tariq Siddqui, Vice President, Alpine Club of Pakistan; Qazi Waseem, CEO, Descon Power Solutions; Rehan Hasan, Director Riphah Institute of Media Sciences; Khurram Mujtaba, CEO, Jumpstart Pakistan; Omar Mirza, Director Business Development, British Council Pakistan; and Rahim Lalani, CEO, TEXT. Undoubtedly, the organizations that supported the event, wholeheartedly deserve respect and praise from all concerned Pakistanis.
The policy debates which were being conducted under the guidance and supervision of Khalid Rahman, Director General, Institute of Policy Studies, yielded in the shape of ‘Markhor Declaration’, which stated: “We commit ourselves to strive for a Pakistan that is truly independent, self-reliant, politically stable, socially cohesive and economically vibrant; where foundational principles and values of Faith, Unity & Discipline, laid down by its forefathers, are practiced in a way that peace, prosperity, forbearance and happiness prevail; where the life, property, honor and dignity of every citizen is protected; where the principles of merit and rule of law helps every citizen to enjoy equal access to quality education, health & employment; a Pakistan that is attractive to the World because of its friendly people, rich culture, ethical and moral values, creativity and innovation, diversity, natural beauty and topography and above all for its role in promoting a win-win paradigm at the global level.”
‘Markhor 2014’ was a breath of fresh air in the present socio-political environment of the country, which is challenged by an un-ending wave of uncertainty. The event gathered some of the brightest young stars of the Nation in the dark nights of Mukshpuri forest, rekindling hope that through such activities the future of our nation can be secured by developing young leaders who are agile, high in energy, self-motivated, highly adaptable, and who dare to confront challenges like a Markhor.
The conference was a life-time learning experience for the participants who took inspiration from Nature and the wilderness to enhance their leadership skills and develop a collective strategy for the country’s future and a better world. What they didn’t learn in institutions, seminars, programmes and books of hundreds of pages, they learnt in the presence of Nature, accepting wilderness as their mentor, experience as their guide, and infinity as their comfort zone.
It is high time that experiential learning and outdoor education is made an integral part of national and provincial education policies, and institutions like National Commission for Human Development (NCHD), as well as youth ministries at the provincial level, should launch a campaign to promote them as a vital strategy for Nation-building. It is not a matter of choice!