I went to work in Karachi, in the headquarters of the Pakistan leprosy programme, in 1986. My job was to set up a health education department. The work of this department had several aims: informing the public that leprosy is curable, encouraging them to come for treatment at the earliest opportunity and that leprosy did not automatically lead to deformities. It was also to help the paramedics trained in leprosy control find ways of encouraging their patients to take their medication regularly and not stop the treatment just because they felt well. Telling patients they would go to jail or end up becoming totally deformed having proved to be not a particularly motivational method.
As well as working from the base in Saddar, in the heart of Karachi I often had to visit clinic in various far-flung districts of the city. When I was told there was some funding available to purchase a small Suzuki van for me I was delighted because it would mean no more death-defying journeys perched on the back of a motorbike.
Sitting side-saddle. Clutching my handbag and files. With nothing to grab hold of and, this being a Muslim country, forbidden to fling my arms round the man who was trying to shave seconds off his previous best time between clinic and centre. My hair blowing in my eyes, my scarf flying about risking being caught in the wheels a la Isadora Duncan. Eye-balling donkeys at traffic lights. Being looked down on by camels.
I beamed at Mr Fernandez the head administrator. He beamed back as he handed me the keys.
“Em, I will have a driver, won’t I?”
“No, there’s nothing in the budget for a driver. You have a driving licence, don’t you?”
I stopped beaming and tried for a beseeching look but he was having none of it. “All you have to remember is to watch the car in front. We drive on the same side of the road as you and follow your Highway Code. After the first couple of dents you’ll be fine. Maybe don’t go near Empress Market at first. When I’d just passed my test I found myself there by mistake. All the buses, the cars, the horns blaring – total gridlock.” He shuddered at the memory. “I stopped the engine and walked away. Went back for the car when it was quieter.”
I took the keys in my now sweaty hand and went outside to admire ‘my’ new vehicle. I sought out Zafar and asked if he’d sit with me a few times – like maybe a hundred – until I gained a little confidence. Could he think of somewhere quiet to practise? He decided we’d drive to the sea front at Clifton a place favoured by Karachi-ites for ice creams, pizzas, catching the sea breezes.
I seem to remember it was about 10 o’clock at night. Zafar drove at first explaining the rules of the road. There was one more than the one Mr Fernandez told me about. The only other rule, Zafar told me was that if the vehicle approaching is bigger than you, you give way, otherwise you go. We swapped places and I started driving, very, very slowly. Zafar urged me to go a little bit faster and eventually I was in third gear. By the time I’d driven to Clifton and back three or four times Zafar declared himself satisfied with my progress and we returned to the hospital.
“Just one thing,” he said, “it would be best if you kept your eyes open when you go round a roundabout.”
I learned to keep my eyes open. I learned to be a pretty confident driver but I never, ever learned to keep my hand on the horn – at all times.