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.
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.
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Frontiers (MSF), fed up with interference from the political parties who wanted to control, not support the work, had withdrawn from the hospital the translators had carried on by themselves – as doctors.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.
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.