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'Builders Of The Nation' Ply Ancient Craft In Pakistan

From Lahore to Peshawar, along the Grand Trunk Road in Pakistan, an iconic image recurs: soot-covered, cone-shaped chimneys that reach skyward. They belch smoke that comes from kilns that fire the most basic building blocks of all: bricks.

Brick-making is one of the oldest industries in the world and has changed little in Pakistan.

Spades and wheelbarrows are still used to move the earth. The brick makers, many of them young people, do backbreaking work that has been passed down from generations.


On a recent day, Niaz Ahmed heaves a shovel full of clay onto a 4-foot mound. He drenches the clay with water and mixes it with sand to make the mud that becomes a brick.

He is part of the army of an estimated 3 million brick workers in Pakistan, toiling in some 15,000 kilns, according to the Brick Makers Union. The kilns here sprawl outside the town of Rohtas, off the Grand Trunk Road.

Our forefathers did this and we will, too.

Ahmed did not spend his formative years in a classroom. Instead, he pounded the earth into bricks, following in the footsteps of his parents. He was 10 when he started making bricks; now, he is 18.

His younger sister Fahkara works alongside him. When she's asked if she had ever gone to school, Ahmed looks up from his alchemy of earth and water and shouts, "This is our college."

Ahmed and four of his siblings are employed in this flat, bone-dry field. They live in ramshackle housing on the site. He says all the children in his family joined this ancient enterprise as soon as they were old enough to work.


Children are among the laborers who tend the earthen kilns with charcoal and dirt. The smoldering mounds look like some ceremonial grounds out of the Middle Ages. A kiln contains 200,000 to 300,000 bricks. The rising heat ripples above the landscape and brings rivulets of sweat to the faces of the workers.

Just over Ahmed's shoulder looms a chimney spewing black smoke.

The product of his family's labor is stacked in neat rows: beige-colored blocks looking like giant dominoes. Ahmed and his brothers and sisters make 5,000 bricks in one day. For that, they earn 1,500 rupees -- or $3.50 per person per day.

Stripped to his waist, the snaggle-toothed Ahmed smiles easily and speaks directly: At 18, he is what he will be, he says. There is no dreaming of what could be, no hoping for an education, because he says his "parents are so poor."

"Our forefathers did this and we will, too," he says.

But Ahmed firmly believes in the dignity of his labor.

"I'm happy because we are builders of the nation," he says. "We are making these bricks, we are making the mosques and the houses and the buildings. If we don't make bricks, people can't build anything," Ahmed says. "Pakistan is going to develop every day because of us."

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