The 800-year-old Altit Fort perches high above Pakistan’s Hunza Valley, while the River Hunza flows peacefully below. The fort was in danger of toppling off the cliff altogether before its owner donated it to the Aga Khan Cultural Service-Pakistan (AKCSP) in 2001. The non-profit organisation carried out extensive repairs and the restoration, which was funded by the Norwegian government, was such a success that the fort won a Unesco Asia-Pacific Heritage Award in 2011.
The repairs were carried out by a group of highly-trained women from an organisation called Ciqam, which means ‘wellbeing’, ‘prosperity’ or ‘green’ in the local Brushaski dialect. The women, many of whom come from the nearby historic settlement of Altit now manage the fort and its restaurant in the picturesque orchard below, which is visited by thousands of tourists each year.
As a pilot project under Aga Khan’s “social enterprise for women” initiative, Ciqam was initiated in 2003 to help provide poor households with a means of generating a sustainable income. The pilot was so successful that, today, more than 90 women work in carpentry and site surveying and have been trained as painters, polishers and mechanics in the Hunza Valley and Mastuj, a town in the nearby mountainous province of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa.
In a large shed a short walk from Altit Fort and the restaurant, the woman of Ciqam are busy in a workshop that is always buzzing with activity. Women between the ages of 19 and 40 are designing, cutting and polishing wood for furniture and making doors and windows. They wear masks to protect their lungs from the sawdust and headphones to drown out the sound of the whirring cutting machines. There is also a lab inside the workshop where the women design construction materials and furniture pieces. More than 80 women are working in the workshop and monthly income ranges from PKR 15,000 to 25,000 (USD 142-237). Pakistan’s per capita GDP is USD 1,470, or USD 122.5 per month.
With the help of the Aga Khan Cultural Service-Pakistan, the Altit settlement has been rehabilitated with clean, narrow alleys and well-kept clustered stone houses. Through the community’s participation, AKCSP has helped to build proper sanitation facilities (including a sewage treatment plant, the byproduct of which is used as fertiliser in the fields), underground electricity lines, and access to piped water. A town management society manages the strategic planning for the village.
In the lush green orchard below the fort, old apricot and apple trees provide some shade for visitors who can sample the local cuisine prepared by the women of Ciqam, while enjoying panoramic views of the valley. The café was opened in 2009 and its popularity has spread throughout the country so much so that Altit Fort has become the number one tourist attraction for visitors to these high mountains in Gilgit-Baltistan.
“The food was incredible and having lunch under those trees in the lovely orchard with those views is an unforgettable memory,” says Nasreen Ali, a tourist from Lahore.
There is also a guesthouse nearby with three bedrooms where visitors can stay for a few nights. The neat wood and stone building is designed in a traditional style that blends into the environment.
“We designed and built the guesthouse ourselves. Last year there were around 27,000 visitors to Altit, so we thought that if we opened up our own guesthouse we would do well,” says Aqeela Bano who heads the Ciqam project.
“We want to reduce poverty and give opportunities to the girls in our region,” says Bano, who has trained as a carpenter. “We want to give them the skills to become economically empowered and look after the environment. We only use locally grown timber, called greenwood, in our projects in order to conserve our forests.”
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