MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan adventures #11

A shorter post this weekbecause I’ve been running around like a headless chicken with the book launch. Plus, I felt this particular story needed to be told on its own.

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One day, Rosanna was awaiting my arrival at the field hospital with great impatience. A young woman had been brought to the hospital after a wall of her house had collapsed, burying her completely in mud and rubble.  She couldn’t move her legs and Rosanna needed another woman to help her lift and examine the girl. She was afraid the girl’s mother-in-law could not understand the need for minimal movement to avoid further damage and, although any one of the Translators could have done it, the women would not allow a man to be present for the examination.

Together we undressed her carefully. When at last her tunban – baggy trousers – were removed, we discovered the village women had administered their own form of first aid. From waist to thigh, back and front, between her legs, the girl had been plastered with a homemade compress of cow dung and mud which, dried to a hard crust, took forever to clean off. It was clear as we soaked and sponged the girl could feel nothing from below the waist. There was no response, no flicker of movement.


Rosanna was pessimistic, but held some hope that after the initial trauma had passed the girl might recover the use of her legs. She inserted a catheter, teaching the mother-in-law how to empty the urine bag and promised to visit her at home the following week. She carefully explained the girl must be kept flat on her back, not moved in any way, until her visit. The family agreed.

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Not easy to keep someone lying flat and immobile on roads like these.

She asked me to go with her on the house visit a week later. As we bounced over the potholed, boulder-strewn road I winced at the thought of how it must have been for the family trying to keep the young girl immobilised on their return home. As she examined her patient, Rosanna’s face reflected a mixture of anger and compassion.

Indicating we should move to another room, out of earshot of the girl, she asked through Iqbal the translator what they done. The girl’s mother-in-law said, ‘We couldn’t do nothing. She couldn’t move, couldn’t walk. We had to try something.’

‘What did they do?’ Rosanna asked again.

After a few moments, Iqbal translated, ‘They waited for two or three days but when she showed no improvement they called in a local healer. He manipulated the girl’s spine. They say it made no difference.’

To me, Rosanna muttered, ‘It made a difference all right. He’s inflicted such damage, there’s no longer the slightest hope she’ll ever walk again.’

She was eighteen and had been married for just one month. Her husband had gone to Iran to earn enough money to allow them to build their own house.

He would know nothing of the tragedy until he returned, perhaps after one or even two years. Custom does not allow bad news to be sent to a person who is far from home. Many a migrant worker has returned home, money for the family in his pocket, to a tearful reunion with loved ones. All too often they are tears of sorrow as he learns that, in his absence, his mother died or his brother was killed in action. His hard earned savings may well have to be spent on ceremonies to commemorate a death rather than provide for his family.

The return journey was subdued. Everyone’s thoughts were with that young girl. She had not uttered one word of complaint.  I wondered if, when alone, she raged and cried out, as I wanted to do on her behalf, or if she calmly accepted what life had dealt her?

MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan adventures #10

The bazaar held an endless fascination for me, although the attention my presence attracted embarrassed Hussain horribly.  He hated to see men staring at me. ‘’Mum, pull your chaddar round a bit more, those men are looking.’  With my chaddar pulled down to my eyes and up to my nose I would end up unable to see much more than the road in front of me. As I went about my shopping Hussain would accompany me, his face becoming more and more thunderous as a procession of curious onlookers formed, trooping from shop to shop behind us.

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A typical bazaar – though rather quieter than usual.

Tiny shops lined both sides of the street. Some were of traditional mud and wood construction but others were large transport containers.  In the shop where I purchased sweets there was only about a yard of standing room. The rest of the floor was taken up by displays of sweets from Pakistan (these were an assortment of caramels and sherbet or chocolate filled boiled sweets, far superior and far more expensive than the plain, Afghan made sweets which came with tea), sacks of walnuts, almonds, dried apricots and sultanas from Jaghoray’s orchards, and cartons of cigarettes. These were mostly Japanese, under licence to the Afghan Government – Seven Stars, Peace – while were rip offs of branded names.

Narrow shelves were stacked with tea glasses and enamel teapots from Russia, tin plates, soaps and talcum powder, fancy hairgrips and ribbons, cold cream and hand lotion, batteries, matches, babies’ feeding bottles, soothers and powdered milk, Chinese toilet paper and countless other items – an entire supermarket crammed into a tiny space.

Other shops sold cloth, their bolts of bright materials adding splashes of colour to the otherwise rather drab, muddy shades of the bazaar. Even the cloth merchants diversified into selling other lines;  tin plates and the metal ‘glasses’ used for drinking water, thermos flasks and hats and prayer caps of every description.  Hats were Hussain’s ‘thing’ and he rarely came back from a shopping spree without a new addition to his collection.  As well as the local, round white caps he was the proud owner of a karakul or astrakhan, a flat, woollen Chitrali hat known as a pakol and a selection of prayer hats, plain white or crocheted in gold and silver Lurex. He had to commission the carpenter to make a hat stand.

As well as fruit, vegetable and meat shops, others sold second hand Russian cameras. Pistols were to be found in one general goods store while bullets were on display in another.  One day our shopping list included explosives and fuses (for blasting through rock for the well at the site of the new clinic) and I was astonished that one could simply ask for such items without an eyebrow being raised. I was extremely nervous on our return journey that day, convinced that the bouncing of the jeep would set of an almighty explosion. Hussain said that at one time even hand grenades and mines were openly sold until the Parties, becoming alarmed at the number of family feuds being settled in such a bloody way, banned them.

Rickety wooden ladders, often with rungs missing, led to the second storey businesses. Here the tailors squatted all day behind their ancient, hand operated sewing machines, turning out clothes – mainly for men as women usually made their own at home – and waistcoats without which the well- dressed men of Jaghoray would not be seen. Small lanes running off the main street led to bakery shops which produced a fragrant array of buns and biscuits, carpentry shops and silversmiths.  Here antique silver coins and beautiful old jewellery, no longer considered fashionable, were turned into modern rings and bangles.

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A roadside restaurant

At each shop I patronised a crowd would gather, the people closest to me relaying information regarding my purchases back to those unfortunates too far away to actually witness the entertainment live.

‘She’s buying cigarettes. One box of Cabin.’

‘Now she is buying soap. She’s to buy Dove soap. No, no, she’s changed her mind; it’s Camay. She bought the Camay.’

‘Toilet paper. She’s asking for six packets.’

‘Foreigners don’t use water, you know, they use paper.  Disgusting isn’t it?’

‘Oh, she’s finished, she’s leaving now.  Quick, quick, make way.’

Hussain would snarl at them from time to time but within moments the scattered spectators, first the small boys then the slightly more sheepish men, would re-group and fall in behind us once more.

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This is the kind of bus on which I spent three days getting to Afghanistan.

An outing to the bazaar often ended with a visit to the field hospital so I could see Rosanna, who was still teaching the medical course to the translators/paramedics. Hussain did not care for Rosanna – she was a grown up dictator, and frightened the life out of him – but I welcomed the opportunity to be in the company of another woman. A tentative friendship with Baqul’s wife Fatima was beginning but we could not hope to talk easily until my Dari improved.


MarySmith’sPlace – #NewBook

Thrilled to announce the birth of a new book!

A-Z of Dumfries: Places-People-History by Mary Smith (yep, that’s me!) and Keith Kirk is now out.

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The town of Dumfries, in the south-west of Scotland, known as The Queen of the South, became a royal burgh in 1186 and grew into an important market town and port in the mediaeval period. During its often turbulent past, Dumfries played an important role in the Wars of Independence as the starting point of Robert the Bruce s campaign for the Scottish throne, and later hosted Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobite army. The poet Robert Burns spent his last years in Dumfries and in the 18th and 19th centuries the port of Dumfries benefited from trade with the Americas, as well as being a major exporter of tweed. During the Second World War Dumfries was home to the Norwegian Army in exile and although the port has closed today it is the administrative centre for the Dumfries and Galloway region.

In A-Z of Dumfries we delve into the history of Dumfries, revealing interesting and significant moments in the story of the town. The book highlights well-known landmarks, famous residents and digs beneath the surface to uncover some of the lesser known facts about Dumfries and its hidden gems.

While I wrote the text, this fascinating A-Z tour of Dumfries’s history is fully illustrated with Keith’s fabulous photographs.

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Devorgilla Bridge, built in 1431 and the oldest surviving multi-spanned bridge in the country

Obviously some of the people and places in the book will be known to local people. Some Doonhamers may know Goldie Park is named after Jean Goldie who left a bequest for a park to be created in Maxwelltown. Few, however, will know it was Jean’s mother who gave Sir Walter Scott the plot for his Heart of Midlothian novel.

While most will be aware of Burns and Barrie’s associations with the town perhaps not so many know of James Hill, a Dumfries doctor who made enormous contributions to the 18th century treatment of cancer and head injuries.

We’re delighted the book has come out in time for Christmas – it’s the perfect gift for Doonhamers at home or abroad – and for anyone who is interested in Dumfries.

A-Z of Dumfries: Places-People-History (published on November 15 by Amberley Publishing) is available in bookshops and other outlets including Amazon.

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Young visitors at the Camera Obscura at Dumfries Museum

For those who live anywhere in the region, Keith and I would be delighted to see you at our celebratory party to welcome the book into the world with some fizz on Tuesday, 26 November at the Rutherford/McCowan Building on the Crichton Campus at 6.30pm. Let me know so we can make sure there’s enough of the fizzy stuff to go round.

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Wallace’s Loaning

Then, on Saturday, November 30 we’ll be at Dumfries Museum from 11am to 1pm to sign books and on Saturday, December 7 we’ll be doing another book signing in Waterstones from 11am to 1.00pm.

MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan adventures #9

One night, only minutes after I’d turned off my lamp, the usual silence was shattered by the sound of firing. This wasn’t the normal reminder from Hisb-i-Islami on their mountain, to which we had long since become accustomed. This was very much louder and uncomfortably close to home. For a brief moment I considered it might be to announce the birth of a son – proud fathers were often given to firing off volleys from their Kalashnikovs on such occasions. The sound of rockets, seemingly directly overhead soon put paid to the idea that this was a celebration.

In the dark I groped for my glasses, wrapped my chaddar securely about me, then, feeling my preparations for any eventuality were somewhat inadequate, but not knowing what else to do, I crouched on the mattress. I expected Hussain to appear to reassure me, to tell me what was going on – but he didn’t appear. And I was certainly not going looking for him. After what seemed like hours everything went quiet. In the sudden silence I could hear my heart thudding – a phenomenon I’d never experienced before.

By torchlight my watch showed, surprisingly, barely fifteen minutes had elapsed since I put out the light. I found my cigarettes and, after two in rapid succession – sucking in the smoke like a vacuum cleaner – I tried to go to sleep. It was a long time coming.

Next morning when I arrived in the staffroom Hussain, Ismail and Ali Baba looked solemnly at me. ‘Did you hear something in the night?’ asked Ali Baba.

‘What was it? It sounded like rockets flying over us.’

Ismail said, ‘It was. Some of the Parties were shooting at each other. Our clinic is in the middle so the rockets went over our roof. Were you afraid?’

I tried to shrug nonchalantly, before admitting, ‘Yes, I was. Why are they fighting?’

Hussain flashed me an apologetic grin. ‘I wanted to come to see you – but was too afraid to move. We still don’t know what it was all about but we’ll find out this morning.’

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In the clinic the night’s battle was the main topic of conversation. After one patient left the clinic Hussain turned to me and said, ‘Mum, that man said during the firing you showed a light for three minutes!’

‘No, I didn’t. I was shivering in bed in the dark – like you.’ Then I remembered. ‘Oh, well, after it had stopped I put my torch on to look for my cigarettes.’

‘Really, Mum, it’s so dangerous. You must never show a light when there is shooting, maybe they will fire on our clinic.’ I promised. He grumbled on at me a bit longer, clearly feeling I was not showing a sufficient degree of fear. In fact, I had been terrified, lying in the dark, alone, listening to the rockets, not knowing if the clinic was the intended target or not, but somehow, in daylight with everything normal again, it no longer seemed real.

The reason for the outbreak of hostilities was not clear; the most popular theory being that mujahideen from Hisb-i-Islami had entered the houses of Nasre people, when the men were out. They had stolen guns and ammunition; there was also talk of the women having been “tormented” – a much more serious offence. Nasre had retaliated by firing rockets in the direction of houses belonging to Hisb-i-Islami supporters. Nezhat seemed to have joined in just for the sheer hell of it.

It may have ended there, with honours even, but a man from Hisb-i-Islami had been killed.  The need to avenge his death meant the fighting had to continue. The second night, as I groped for my glasses one of the legs fell off. I crouched, cowering on the mattress, grimly holding my glasses onto my nose as though my life depended on it.

Next morning, Ismail and Ali Baba were laughing at this picture of me sitting in the dark clutching my spectacles when Hussain, irritated by what he considered to be my too frivolous attitude, proceeded to lecture me at length on the safety precautions I must adopt. If I had the lamp on at any time in the evening it must always be on the floor, my mattress must not be under the window but in a corner, I must not put a light on in my room during any firing episodes. It got better –I must not stand by the window while any shooting was going on, and, if I had to go to the loo during, or immediately after the firing, I must not put on a torch.

I could not begin to explain to him that I was taking it seriously, was scared witless when sitting alone in the dark, but that the more patronising he became the more the upper lip stiffened. We each have our own ways of dealing with these things. His was to exaggerate the dangers, mine was to try and laugh them off. We each felt the same degree of confusion and fear.

Far more sobering than Hussain’s hysterical approach was the sight, uncomfortably close to the clinic, of a house whose roof and walls had been destroyed by a rocket. The family had taken refuge in a tent and an image of the frightened faces of the women stayed with me for a long time.

After a third night of rockets flying around, hostilities ended as abruptly as they had begun.  Each side was claiming a victory but, as Ismail observed, ‘No-one wins this kind of war, everyone loses.’ A couple of days after the fighting stopped I climbed the mountain behind our clinic.  It was a beautiful sunny day with small wisps of white candy floss clouds floating in a bluer than blue sky and I desperately needed exercise and fresh air.  It was a relief to have no-one prattling incessantly in my ear about firing and fighting and dangerous situations.  From the summit the view was glorious and the clarity of light made the towering mountains, whose range seemed to stretch to infinity, stand out hard and sharp edged against the sky. Below, the flat rooftops were patchworks of colour:  the gold of apricots contrasting with the dark purple and white of the mulberries drying in the sun.

Last year’s dried apricots, poached, formed a staple at breakfast and dried mulberries were sometimes offered in place of the customary boiled sweets with tea. I much preferred them fresh, had eaten vast quantities since my arrival and was sad their season was now over. Gathering mulberries required teamwork – four people each held a corner of a large tarpaulin under the tree. The most agile team member, clinging precariously high up in the tree, shook the branches vigorously making the luscious ripe berries rain down.

Glowing from my exertion, and with a sense of achievement, I returned home to find Hussain, waiting for me.  ‘Where have you been?’ he demanded.

I grinned exuberantly at him, ‘Up the mountain – right to the top. It was wonderful, you should…’   My voice tailed off as he exploded into a tirade about how dangerous it was to walk by myself on the mountain, perhaps mujahideen were up there, this was not his village, not his people so he could not trust anyone, I was a foreigner and did not understand.

As Ismail and Baqul had both given assurances that it was safe to walk on the mountains by the clinic I knew Hussain was not as worried about my safety as he was about feeling unable to keep me under his control. I marched into the house, giving vent to my feelings of outrage by childishly slamming the door.

When my temper had cooled I thought about Hussain’s position. His parents had died within months of each other when he was five years old. He and his baby brother were brought up by his older brother’s wife, who had only just married. Hussain had found a job working as the cook’s assistant at the field hospital. He was a dreadful cook but was a smart, intelligent boy and when Jon met him he offered him the chance to train as a leprosy/TB paramedic in Pakistan. Now, back in Afghanistan he was responsible for three staff, overseeing the building of a clinic near his own village while being in charge of a temporary clinic in a place he felt an outsider – not to mention being responsible for the safety of a stubborn foreigner. And he was scarcely eighteen. I vowed to be a bit more understanding.


MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan adventures (8)

The morning of the clinic opening Ali Baba had to lock the door to prevent eager patients from disrupting breakfast.

Too nervous to eat, Hussain checked for the hundredth time that all was ready. He’d asked me to sit with him in the clinic, write the prescriptions and make notes of things which needed to be changed. It would also be a good way to improve my Dari.

Hussain gave the signal for Ali Baba to open the door. Immediately, half a dozen men pushed and shoved each other into the consulting room, all talking at once. Using some pretty persuasive shoving himself Ali Baba eventually succeeded in evicting five of them and the victorious winner sat on the floor, beaming happily.

Hussain urged him to sit on the folding metal chair provided for patients. He, himself, was ensconced in a chair more appropriate to his exalted position.  It was a monstrous wooden armchair of peculiar design and proportions, “crafted” by the village carpenter to Hussain’s specifications. In fact, he very quickly realised it was totally out of place in the clinic and swapped it for a folding chair, which must have been less intimidating for patients.

The examining couch was of equally generous size, and so high that patients required the help of a chair to enable them to reach it. It became a useful diagnostic aid and Hussain often had to hide a smile as a patient who had been complaining of dreadful, incapacitating pains and weakness all over his body would suddenly leap with remarkable agility onto the examining couch.

An average of between forty and fifty patients arrived each day during the first week. This left little time for other work – accounts, reports, supervising the building work at the new clinic. As yet Hussain did not have any leprosy patients on his register but that would soon change.  He would inherit all patients living in Jaghoray who, until now, had been receiving treatment from the leprosy clinic in neighbouring Malestan.

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Hussain at work in his clinic

Many of the patients who came in the first weeks came mostly out of curiosity, wanting to see the foreign “doctor”. I tried in vain to persuade people to stop calling me doctor. Others came because, at last, they had a health service on their doorstep – one which dispensed free medicine. The clinic’s primary aim was to control leprosy in the area but because of the stigma attached to the disease we knew the people would not be happy about a clinic opening only for leprosy patients. We needed to keep people on our side if we were to be able to trace and treat everyone who had leprosy and could do that by prescribing medication they needed.

One major problem was that many of the patients, who showed up in the early weeks, had an obsession for medicines.  Injections were number one on the list of preferred treatments, considered to be the most effective (if it hurts it must be doing some good?), next in favour were syrups followed by multi-coloured capsules. Antibiotics in the form of plain white tablets such as Penicillin V were not thought to be of much use and aspirin or paracetamol were not even considered to be medicinal.

Hussain valiantly resisted prescribing unnecessary medicines but he was going to have to fight hard to win that battle. His entire reputation as a “good” doctor rested, not on effective health care, but on the amount of drugs he prescribed. In such a close-knit community, holding on to such principles in the face of plummeting popularity was going to be tough – especially for someone like Hussain, whose ego needed constant boosting. Occasionally patients became angry and abusive if not given a prescription, as though Hussain was denying them something that was rightfully theirs.

The days slid by quickly. I no longer reached automatically reaching for a light switch when dusk fell. I’d stopped trying to flush the latrine. I did wish it was possible to flush if only to hide my embarrassing pink poo. Some months before, while working in Karachi, I contracted tuberculosis and had been taking treatment (including Rifampicin, responsible for the pretty poo) ever since. I kind of knew that after nine months of regular treatment – and I was very good at “eating my medicine” every day – it was safe for me to stop. However, I also knew I should wait until I could have bloods checked in a laboratory so I was waiting until that could happen.

Unfortunately, I’d found I was sharing my room with things that went bite in the night. These proved to be tiny mites which lived in the mud walls. Ali Baba sprayed my room thoroughly with an insecticide lethal to all insects – and, presumably mankind, as it had long been banned in the west. Even by bedtime fumes still lingered but I did get a good night’s sleep. After two nights, though, the invaders returned in force to feast on foreign flesh and only if the room was sprayed every other day did we prevent the little horrors from enjoying me for their midnight snacks.

A constant battle also had to be fought against the horrendous flies which swarmed in the moment a window was opened. Baqul would organise fly eviction crusades. Everyone used their patou – the large shawl worn or carried by all the men, required for keeping warm, carrying shopping, wiping noses and a hundred other uses including fly evictions. Each member of staff charged around the room flapping their patou wildly at the flies until, unsettled and giddy, the flies would eventually find their way out of the windows.

The alternative, rather gruesome, method was to add some black Baygon powder to a saucer of water.  The flies found this concoction delicious and would swoop down to gorge, only to be seen moments later struggling in their final death throes. A saucer full of a couple of dozen dead or dying flies floating in black slime was a revolting, but horribly fascinating, sight.

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Threshing wheat – a timeless image and much nicer than flies in their death throes!

MarySmith’sPlace – Settling in #Afghanistan (7)

In a hired jeep, on a road worse than the one I had previously decided had to be the very worst, we drove to Qolijou hospital to collect the medical supplies.

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It might not be much to look at but a Russian jeep could go literally anywhere, on any road surface, on any incline. A true workhorse.

Over a fast flowing river was a rickety wooden bridge festooned in a Heath Robinson-ish way with an irrigation system of hollowed tree trunks taking water to the nearby fields. I closed my eyes until we had safely negotiated the sharp bend onto terra firma, leaving the bridge swaying gently behind us. Weeks later, when Hussain was learning to drive, he entrusted me with the task of switching off the cassette while he ventured over the bridge. The abrupt silence was broken only by the sounds of fearful, heavy breathing – his, not mine. I stopped breathing until we were safely across.

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I’m not sure if this photo demonstrates quite how terrifying this bridge was to cross. It would be absolutely fine as a footbridge – to drive a jeep over it….

The translators – or tarjuman, a title which in Jaghoray had become synonymous with doctor, appeared en masse to meet us and I struggled to remember names and faces as introductions were made. I was rescued by Rosanna, an Italian nurse, teaching a basic health care course at the hospital, who bore me off to her room so we could have tea on by ourselves. She gave a potted history of the political intrigue amongst the translators.

When Medecins sans Frontiers (MSF), fed up with interference from the political parties who wanted to control, not support the work, had withdrawn from the hospital the translators had carried on by themselves – as doctors. During the ten years of Soviet occupation, Afghanistan’s infrastructure was in tatters, particularly in rural areas where there was no electricity, no running water, no sanitation and almost non-existent health services. Their money finished and medicines all but exhausted the translators approached Dr Pfau at the Leprosy Control Centre in Karachi for assistance. She agreed to help on the understanding it was a temporary measure until they could find a more permanent source of funding. Rosanna, who had many years’ experience working in Iran, was asked to teach a course to increase the level of the translators’ medical knowledge.

Although the translators had promised to continue to search for a long term solution, they had made no approach to any other organisation, confident, according to Rosanna, in their assumption that, having begun to help them there was a moral obligation to continue to do so. Their demands for salary increases, new equipment and greater volumes of medicines were escalating. It was becoming increasingly difficult to justify the vast amounts of cash required for the field hospital, especially with Hussain’s clinic scheduled to open. Also, an enterprising and dynamic woman, Dr Sima, whose husband had been killed in Kabul, was planning to build a hospital a few miles away.

Some of the tarjuman, more perceptive than the others, had decided to jump before they were pushed. They had secured funding from an American organisation to establish a new clinic at Angoori, the large bazaar a three hour drive from Qolijou. Building was already in progress but, in the meantime, the renegade translators wanted to continue with the medical course. Rosanna regaled me with tales of the very unfriendly rivalry between the two groups in class. ‘The people who will be left in Qolijou are with Nasre and will make trouble when they know we are going to stop funding. Don’t get involved in any discussions with them about funding,’ she warned as I took my leave to help pack the jeep with Hussain’s supplies. It was good to talk to another woman and to know she was there, not so far away even though I suspected in the real world we would never become friends.

When the medicines and other medical supplies had been stacked in towering piles all around the house the mammoth task of checking everything, compiling stock registers and preparing to open the clinic began. The following days were frantically busy, not helped by Hussain’s temper tantrums. For some reason he was permanently on the defensive, convinced that his clinic was being deprived of vital medicines, without which he could not possibly work properly.

Keeping their heads down, out of the line of fire, Ismail and Ali Baba carried on unpacking and counting while Hussain rushed from box to box, peering anxiously at packing lists, muttering darkly. Even when he had to admit everything on the list had arrived, more or less intact, he was scarcely mollified. Everyone’s nerve ends were totally frazzled and on the evening before the clinic’s opening we were exhausted, but everything was ready.

For me, the day’s major achievement had been meeting a woman. Wandering outside for a break in the afternoon I came across a young girl with her small sister playing a game with pebbles, throwing them in the air and catching them on the back of her hand before they reached the ground – similar to the game of Jacks I played as a child. I knew this was Sughra, Baqul’s daughter and she lived in the small house only yards from ours. Instead of scurrying away, as on previous occasions, she smiled shyly, though the smaller child buried her face in her sister’s lap, casting occasional, terrified glances at me.

Speaking too rapidly for me to understand, she pointed towards her home and I guessed it was an invitation to visit. She sped off clutching her sister to her chest like she was some kind of oversized doll, turning once or twice to beckon. Baqul’s wife, Fatima, met me at the door and launched full speed into the greeting ritual, going so fast that I was barely able to respond to half of the ‘How are you, your family, your health, your happiness?’ liturgy. When she ran out of steam we stood beaming at each other. She offered tea. I declined, explaining that there was too much work to be done but promised to come again. Finally, after refusing tea the requisite three times – though I’m sure it was more than that – I was allowed to return to the clinic.

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Taken a few weeks after my arrival when the wheat had been harvested. It was the women’s job to sift through it removing stones and dirt. Tedious, but an opportunity to catch up on all the gossip.

I felt guilty that I had done nothing to improve my Dari since my arrival in Afghanistan. Ali Baba and Ismail always wanted to practice their English and Hussain always spoke to me in English. Although pleased the few words I had said to Fatima had been understood I was puzzled that what she had said had been almost unintelligible to me. I asked Hussain why Fatima and Sughra sounded as though they were speaking something quite different from the Dari I had learned. He laughed.  ‘In your country does everyone sound the same when speaking English?’ I thought of Glaswegian and the Doric and had to agree.

Hussain continued, ‘Here, the people speak a dialect, Hazaragi. The pronunciation is very different to how people from Kabul speak. There are also many words used only in Hazara Jat. The women have never been to school so they only speak Hazaragi though they can understand proper Dari.’ I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to speak proper Dari. However, Baqul explained, very slowly, that his wife wanted me to visit her again soon, to think that her home was mine. I hoped further contact with Fatima and Sughra would let me meet more of the women of the village, who had so far remained elusive.