Some days you can afford burgers and other days its daal chawal but students of 200 madrassas in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have to take what they can get, even when what they get is food poisoning.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Food Safety and Halal Food Authority served notices to 200 madrassas across the province for failing to meet hygiene standards. On September 23, 38 students of a madrassa in Kohat’s Jarma were hospitalised for food poisoning.
The students, who were between 10 and 25 years old, got sick after eating dinner.
After inspecting the food and water arrangements at madrassas in seven districts of the province, only four in Peshawar were declared satisfactory – three in Hayatabad and one in Dahatabad.
The problem is that madrassa students in KP don’t get food the same way those in Sindh and Punjab do. In the other provinces, donations are collected and the food is cooked at the madrassa itself.
There are between 2,000 and 5,000 students living at madrassas in Karachi. Their expenses are paid through donations. The head of a madrassa in Karachi’s Gulshan-e-Iqbal said that one man provides flour for the 200 students at the seminary. Donations for madrassas in the city just keep coming.
But in KP, the madrassas don’t give the students food or water. The younger boys divide themselves into groups and ask people living nearby for food thrice a day. They call the food given as part of this tradition ‘wazifa’.
The children haul around a single container and each household gives one or two spoonfuls of food. This means 10 or 15 dishes are mixed together for the kids. They also have a cloth bag to carry roti or naan.
When the boys get back to the seminary they dump all the food into a single pot, heat it up and dig in.
But how are madrassas supposed to follow health guidelines while collecting wazifa? KP Food Authority spokesperson Ataullah Khan told SAMAA Digital that collecting food like this means that there is a higher chance of food poisoning. Sometimes, people give the kids leftovers that aren’t that fresh.
Khan said that the children are also given unfiltered water and the tanks in which the water is stored don’t have covers.
A number of madrassa principals contacted by SAMAA Digital refused to talk about the hygiene standards at their seminaries but the head of a seminary in Swat said that madrassas in smaller cities get fewer donations than the ones in big cities. There isn’t enough money to get food or water for the students, which is why they have to collect food, he said.
Not all students are happy with the system but they have no other choice – there aren’t any other options for them other than wazifa. Sometimes, fresh food is mixed in a pot with leftovers from the day before.
“How can it be healthy when multiple vegetable, meat, lentil and other dishes are heated up together in a single pot and kept for two to three hours?” demanded a madrassa student.
One madrassa graduate said that sometimes the children suffer from inferiority complexes because they have to go door to door and ask for food.
The madrassas usually send kids younger than 12 to collect the wazifas. They go after Maghrib and return before Isha prayers.
Sometimes, the children are even chased by dogs. Khairul Ameen, a student at a madrassa in Swat, said that if a dog gives chase they dump the food and run. He isn’t happy with this ‘duty’ and said it’s difficult to do it thrice a day, every day.
Some people consider wazifas sacred and in KP you can’t become a scholar if you don’t eat it.
People happily give food thrice a day and one student said that people have never been rude to them. If they don’t have any food cooked, they give us money, he said.
When we still lived in the village, young boys would come to our door and call out, said Saira Farooq, a resident of Mansehra. When they came we would hurriedly give them a plate of curry and some naan.
In fact, the children are a familiar sight in most neighbourhoods. When they miss a house, the residents will ask them where they were the next day.
A boy who studies at a madrassa in Dir said that the food may be unhygienic but you won’t find such a delicious meal even at the most expensive restaurant.
Read the Urdu version of this story here.