Saturday, August 2, 2008

The unfortunate 'rat people' of Pakistan

Nazia, a 30-year-old with microcephaly. She guards the shoes at the Shua Dulah shrine

'Rat people' forced to beg on Pakistan's streets:

Outside a Muslim shrine in this dusty Pakistani city, a "rat woman" with a tiny head sits on a filthy mattress and takes money from worshippers who cling to an ancient fertility rite.

Nadia, 25, is one of hundreds of young microcephalics -- people born with small skulls and protruding noses and ears because of a genetic mutation -- who can be found on the streets of Gujrat, in central Punjab province.

Officials say many of them have been sold off by their families to begging mafias, who exploit a tradition that the "rat children" are sacred offerings to Shah Daula, the shrine's 17th century Sufi saint.

What makes us human?:

The word "microcephaly" comes from the Greek, "small head". But in Pakistan, such children are known as chuas or "rat people". The name is uncharitable but apt, for their sloping foreheads and narrow faces do, indeed, have a rodent quality. When I visited the shrine earlier this year, I found only one chua, a 30-year-old woman called Nazia. Mentally disabled - I would judge her intelligence to be about that of a one- or two-year-old child - her nominal function is to guard the shoes that worshippers leave at its entrance, but that work seems to be mostly done by her companion, a charming hypopituitary dwarf called Nazir.

via Sepia Mutiny

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