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Wellness festivals in Karachi — a bandwagon worth jumping on

Festivals focusing on wellness, mental health and awareness are welcome alternatives to the usual entertainment offerings.
Published 07 Apr, 2022 11:46am

In Pakistan, entertainment is synonymous with food. So when it comes to festivals, most of them are centred around food. Think Karachi Eat or the Coke Fest. An exception to this are the literary festivals that also see significant footfall due to the presence of eminent writers and celebrities. By comparison, the wellness industry does not seem glamorous enough to garner the buzz required for a festival.

Around the world, wellness festivals serve as a platform to bring together leisure, communal bonding and raising awareness for mental health. More than just a good excuse for a party, these wellness festivals put health, fitness and personal growth at the forefront, meaning it really is possible to have the best of both worlds. Mental health and wellness go hand in hand and consist of our environment, relationships, and the communities we live in. Hence, it is heartening to see Karachi jump on this bandwagon.

Earlier in March, we saw the inaugural Karachi Wellness Festival inaugural take place at Veritas Learning Circle in PECHS. It was a not-for-profit event, aimed to create awareness about and offer activities and practices that cultivate truly holistic health. The festival offered various sessions allowing participants to experience the synergy between physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, interpersonal, social and environmental aspects of health and wellbeing. These eclectic sessions encompassed a wide range of wellness activities ranging from a trauma-informed, salutogenic approach to wellness to a spoken word workshop, sound healing and drum circle to Islamic geometry and Zikr .

Dr Ayesha Mian, a prominent child and adolescent psychiatrist, held an interactive discussion around teen mental health awareness, prevention, and risk factors, Aahung organised a session about child abuse and popular urban farmer Tofiq Pasha spoke about the impact of the environment on our wellbeing.

Saaya Health held an hour-long panel discussion on ‘Promoting Wellbeing in Organisations’ featuring panelists Haya Malik, wellbeing lead at Bayer Pakistan Pvt. Ltd, Jahan Ara Saleem, corporate HR professional, and Shaharbano Alvi, vice-principal at Bay View Academy, Clifton Campus. Alizeh Valjee, a counsellor and co-founder at Saaya Health, moderated the session. The key objectives for this panel discussion were to explore the role of organisations in promoting wellness, their motivation, challenges, and the future of advocating for wellbeing in schools and the corporate sector. The panelists emphasised how wellbeing impacts how we are and what we do, hence, it is the need of the hour to recognise the importance and holistic impact of wellness initiatives.

Organising a festival, especially during Covid, was an uphill task. Nida Khan, a clinical psychologist and expressive arts therapist, was one of the organisers of KWF. Discussing the challenges in putting together a wellness festival of this magnitude, she shared that none of them had put something of this scope together before. “On top of that, wellness is something that happens in tight bubbles so even though we came up with the idea in September we wanted people to communicate in real time and engage in community building. We had initially scheduled the festival for January when the weather was nicer but then the Omicron surge happened [and] PSL was happening so it kept getting delayed. Managing the logistics of getting enough people to offer their time for free, on a weekend, during Covid was tough,” she added.

An additional challenge was on how to market the festival to Karachi in general without getting sponsors. "We had 60 to 70 wellness sessions so everything was tightly scheduled and we had to train volunteers to make sure everything went smoothly.”

Since wellness is quite a broad term, selecting what does and does not entail wellness was also a challenge. For Khan, wellness is holistic — mind, body, soul and spirit. It is building community and relationships. "The partners were chosen by sending out emails to everyone related to wellness that we knew," Nida shared. “The only people we said no to were those we thought were not actually wellness people.” Khan explained that they wanted to ensure that everyone associated with the KWF was credible, had proper training and qualifications.

Muzaffar Bukhari, founder of Veritas Learning Circle, shared that organising this festival was essentially an experiment, since they didn't know how people would respond. “There was a lot of depth and breadth in what we were offering. A little too much. And people did not know what to expect. Now, maybe next year, people will have an inkling of what is in store.” When asked about his vision for next year, he said they want to make it bigger and as inclusive as possible. “We want to have more sessions for more age groups since there was a lot of demand for more sessions for kids.”

Bukhari added that he wants it to be a continuing rather than an annual event. “We basically want to build a community around wellness which is engaged in the act of giving and receiving. It is a circle we want to expand by getting more people on board and exploring more modalities of what wellness entails. We want this as open-ended and as inclusive as possible.”

He explained this was because holistic wellness is such a rich concept. It isn't one-size-fits-all. “I might be a yoga person, you might be a tai-chi person, another person might be an expressive art person. The idea is to see what all is available and try it on for size.” He said that Karachi has so much to offer in this realm. His idea is to bring these hidden gems on a single platform.

He shared that at KWF, some of the sessions were conducted by people who did not even have an Instagram page or had never given a workshop. ”So we are not only interested in pulling in big numbers to get focus. Under the umbrella of the festival, we want to create a common hub for the wellness community. We are working on a full directory of wellness providers so that people can see for themselves what all wellness entails and make an educated decision,” he shared.

Regarding the trend of wellness festivals, Bukhari was happy to kickstart a positive trend. “I would love to see more wellness festivals, celebrations and offerings since Karachi has a lot to offer. I want a lot of people to emulate us and get inspired.”

While one of the purposes of such festivals is to allow people to engage and explore novel activities related to wellness, another is to psychoeducate the public about those who have disabilities.

To that end, a carnival took place in March this year that was organised by the Karachi Down Syndrome Programme, which is an organisation advocating for the value, acceptance and inclusion of individuals with Down syndrome in our society. KDSP has been organising their annual carnival since 2015.

“21st March marks World Down Syndrome Day where families with individuals with Down syndrome come together and the KDSP Carnival is their opportunity to celebrate. The purpose is to create a safe, accepting and inclusive space for not only individuals with Down syndrome but also for all people participating. The carnival is a snapshot of what society would look like and how simple inclusion really is,” explained Samar Naqvi, CEO of KDSP.

She shared that the KDSP Carnival is a space where everyone comes together as an inclusive society. This is a platform where everyone's needs are understood. When people come together they also realise there are more similarities than differences.

Mishal Fatima Hussain Ladhubhai is the assistant manager of awareness at KDSP. She elaborated that “at the carnival we had different activities — food stalls, crafters stalls where KDSP students who made crafts could sell them and different stage activities like a drum circle. We did not only have children with Down syndrome but also had individuals from NOWPDP and Special Olympics Pakistan come in. So we tried to make our event as accessible as possible to everyone.”

Here is hoping that we see more such events that aim to make our society inclusive and raise our collective and individual wellbeing.