MarySmith’sPlace – A bit of retail therapy AfghanAdentures#24

Sughra was so excited about her proposed shopping expedition that she was waiting at the foot of the hill, dancing from foot to foot in her impatience. Gul Agha’s youngest brother, Najibullah, was hovering, his usual cheeky grin replaced by a look of anxiety. When told to get into the car his face split into a huge grin of delight.

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Sughra’s father Baqul (which means old man, which he clearly wasn’t!) – the cook at the clinic 

I said we’d leave soon but first I had to say hello to her mother and let her know we had Najibullah with us. Sughra’s face fell. ‘She’ll make you drink tea,’ she muttered. I promised I’d refuse.

The house was small, with just two rooms, both of which could fit easily into our living room at the clinic. The door opened directly into the first room – a kitchen and store. The second room provided the living and sleeping accommodation for the family of seven. A threadbare piece of what, once, had been a colourful gilim covered only part of the earth floor, while a small bundle of bedding in a corner constituted the entire furnishing of the room. On the one small, recessed shelf were stored a few medicines (no home was without a plastic bag of pills, syrups and tonics), embroidery materials and a small bundle of clothing.

Of his seven children, Baqul had only one son and he, like Annis one of his sisters, had Hurler Syndrome, a genetic disorder, once more commonly known as gargoylism. Neither child could talk or walk. Khudadad was a sociable child and would shake hands and smile when spoken to. There had been rejoicing at his birth, the longed for son. Even when it became obvious that he too suffered from the strange thickening of the tongue, the over large head, he was fussed over and petted and loved in a way his sister hadn’t been. Despite disappointing visits to every doctor and clinic for miles around, Baqul still hoped his son might be cured and could not accept that he would never be better. The entire family would have run naked through the streets to find a way to make their precious son normal.

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Khudadad, who had Hunter Syndrome. 

As soon as I paid my respects, refusing tea three times, I jumped in the jeep and we headed for the bazaar. I drove, Sughra perched excitedly on the passenger seat waving to everyone we passed, while Jon and Najib sat in the back. We were soon giggling at the expressions of amazed disbelief on the faces of everyone we passed on the way.

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It was lunchtime when we reached Sangi Masha bazaar at lunchtime so Jon suggested kebabs at Sufi’s to fortify us for the serious business of shopping. The two children were soon tucking into soup, kebabs, rice and korma, concentrating on their food, without speaking a word, until they sat back with satisfied sighs.

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A much more interesting route to the shops than I have now!

Although Sughra had never been shopping in her life she took to it like a duck to water, examining each of the bolts of cloth carefully, dismissing them, with a toss of her head, as being inferior to her needs. At the third shop Jon and Najib left us, bored with such feminine pursuits as looking for dress fabrics, and wandered off to do their own shopping.

Sughra and I visited each and every cloth shop until even I was becoming quite desperate.   Finally, back in the first shop, she found what she was looking for – a bolt of purple velvet.  She lovingly fingered the soft material, nodding with satisfaction, ‘This one.’  With a sigh of relief I asked the shopkeeper to cut the required length. While he was doing so, Sughra looked at me beseechingly, ‘Amina doesn’t have any nice clothes. Could I have an extra piece for her?’ She added earnestly, ‘She won’t need much, she is very small.’ I suggested we should buy some for her older sister too. Sughra’s eyes grew round, ‘But she is very fat!’ she exclaimed.

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Fatima with her two youngest

Hugging her parcel, we wandered along the street. Sughra turned her attention to what other shops had to offer and soon we had a ball for her brother Khudadad, some luxury sweets and fancy hair grips. She was grinning all over her face by the time we met up with the others. Najib, totally disinterested in Sughra’s purchases, was overjoyed by the discovery of the bakery with its tempting choice of cakes and biscuits.

Jon had bought a patou, a large woollen shawl worn by men. Sughra, usually very shy with him, went into peals of laughter, eventually gasping between her giggles, ‘In barai zen ast! – It is for a woman! Pas bidi! – Give it back!’ We trouped back to the shop where Sughra soundly harangued the shopkeeper for selling Jon a woman’s chaddar before selecting something she considered more suitable.

As we were returning to the jeep, Jon was hailed by a huge, black bearded, turbaned, giant of a man, who threw his arms around him in a rib-cracking hug. Sayed was a truck driver and when Jon explained that I needed transport north, he agreed to take me along. Only, he was leaving in two days’ time!

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Syed, the man who was going to take me north

Back in Sangsuragh, Sughra and Najibullah vied with each other to tell of all they had seen and done. Everyone seemed delighted that they had so enjoyed themselves.

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A very happy Khudadad with his new ball and Annis with her doll.

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Taken later, after Sughra’s purple dress was made 

Somehow, everyone seemed to have already heard I was leaving for the north and almost the entire village turned out to say goodbye when, with promises that would I see them all after my travels, we drove away.

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Last time I posted the wrong picture of Gul Agha and Latifa’s mum – there’s no mistaking where her daughter got her smile

MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan adventures #23 a bit about party politics – Afghan style

By now I had spent nearly two months in Jaghoray and it was almost the end of August. It was almost time to move on, if I was to reach the other clinics before winter. Jon, the project co-ordinator returned to Qolijou and I went to discuss travel plans. The idea was for me to spend some time in each, helping with any admin tasks, stock taking and generally being there to sort any other problems. Jon would return to Pakistan to collect the money and essential supplies the clinics needed before winter closed the road. We would meet at the clinic in Lal-sar-Jangal and return to Pakistan together.

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My room in the clinic


At the hospital, one of the translators greeted me, adding, ‘Have you come to visit your landlord’s mother?’ I was mystified until I found Rosanna setting up the x ray equipment for Gul Agha’s mother who was lying, grey faced, clutching at her stomach.

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The x ray room where they were able to see where the fragments of metal had gone in

Chi shud? – What happened?’ I asked, appalled at her appearance. Her only answer was to groan and grab my hand. The translator explained, ‘Hisb-i-Islami attacked Gul Agha’s house in Sangsuragh. His mother was standing behind the gate when a rocket went through it. She is really lucky to be alive but we think pieces of metal have lodged in her stomach.’


‘What about the rest of the family, Latifa, Gul Agha ….?’

‘Latifa was slightly injured in her leg, nothing serious. Gul Agha is all right but they captured his brother Hazrat.’

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Gul Agha’s mother and Sughra

Gul Agha appeared then – a miniature Rambo, weighed down by his bandoliers, Kalashnikov in hand – but when he spoke to his mother, his expression softened until he looked like any other young boy, stricken with fear for his mum.  I expressed my sympathy and concern and asked if I could visit Latifa at home.  ‘Yes, of course, she will be happy to see you. I have to go now.’  The smile slipped and he looked grim again. ‘I have to do something to get Hazrat back.’

The x ray showed the fragments of metal had missed the major intestines and, although she would be in hospital for some time and suffer a great deal of pain, Fatima would make a full recovery.

Jon and I left immediately for the village. In neighbouring village of Kat-i-Sang people tried to dissuade us from continuing, insisting that it was too dangerous. We carried on, wondering if we were being naive in our assumption that reports of any incident were always lavishly embellished. Gul Agha had said it was all right to visit, we reassured ourselves.

Sughra spotted our approach, running to meet us so, before going to visit Latifa, we first had call at Baqul’s house. We answered queries about Fatima’s condition. I also explained I would soon be leaving, although I would be back before winter. I asked her mum for permission to take Sughra to the bazaar for a shopping expedition with me and Jon the next day. We took our leave and headed towards Gul Agha’s house.

About twenty yards from our destination we were taken completely by surprise as a dozen armed mujahideen leapt from the trees and surrounded us, Kalashnikovs pointing menacingly at us. Obediently, we froze.

Another would-be Tarzan jumped from the branches, rushed towards us, and suddenly threw his arms around Jon in a huge bear hug. They indulged in a bit of back slapping and hugging and went through the necessary enquiries about each other’s health then the muj indicated with a grin, that we could proceed. ‘Who was that?’  I asked.

Jon shrugged. ‘No idea, don’t remember ever meeting him before. Seems he knows me, though.’

Latifa was delighted to have visitors and, once assured that her mother was all right, embarked with relish on the story of the attack. She didn’t seem particularly concerned about the fate of her little brother, positive that Gul Agha would soon secure his release. Her own injury, which was nothing more than a slight scratch on her leg, was proudly displayed.

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 Latifa with her sister-in-law, Gul Agha’s wife and their first baby 

I asked about the people hiding in the trees.  ‘Oh,’ Latifa replied, ‘they are guarding the house in case they try to attack us again. They are from Hisb-i-Islami.’

I was confused. ‘I thought it was Hisb-i-Islami who attacked you?  Gul Agha is with Nasre.’

Latifa nodded. ‘Yes, it was people from Hisb-i-Islami who fired on the house but they are strangers. These guards are Hisbi, but they are from our village. They don’t want any more fighting.’

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Gul Agha in proud daddy mode

I was surprised, and heartened, to hear that village loyalties took priority over those of the Party. Much later, on my return to Jaghoray I was astonished to learn that Latifa was engaged to be married to a man from Hisb-i-Islami – the same man who had taken her brother prisoner. Gul Agha (who had succeeded in getting Hazrat freed – I think without blood being shed) was hoping to put an end to Hisbi by joining the two political parties in marriage. Latifa, who had always made clear her views against marriage, was not in favour of her brother’s political manoeuvring and had objected strenuously, but unsuccessfully. Shakespeare, I thought, could have done something with this storyline.

Back at Hussain’s clinic everyone was excitedly embroidering their version of events in Sangsuragh. These now included details of the enemy storming the house and being mowed down mercilessly by Gul Agha, from his stand at the top of the stairs. When Hussain heard of our plan to take Sughra to the bazaar the next day, he immediately informed me that it was impossible, that it was too dangerous for me to go to Sangsuragh to collect Sughra.

I did rather enjoy watching his expression when I told him I had not only already been there already today, I had visited Gul Agha’s house too.

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Me, Jon and Ismail, Hussain’s field assistant. Jon was tickling Ismail so he wouldn’t stand all solemn and unsmiling.

MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan adventures #22 with fighting and kidnappings

Now we were living on the building site work on the new clinic was speeding up and patients seemed unconcerned about the makeshift consulting room. I still spent part of the day writing out case notes and prescriptions. It was good practice for my language skills and could listen to the gossip – even if I did still need Hussain to translate much of it.

Much of the talk was about the fighting which had recently taken place. From what people were saying it had been more than the usual inter-party skirmish and several days of heavy fighting had resulted in casualties, both dead and injured, on both sides.

We decided to visit the Qolijou hospital.

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Qolijou Hospital from the mountain behind. Built at a time Soviet air strikes were a possibility, it’s well camouflaged

The grounds were swarming with mujahideen and a weary Rosanna was in the outpatient department.

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A group of mujahideen posing for their photo – they don’t usually point their guns at each other!

She and the translators had been kept busy patching up the wounded. The stranger with her introduced himself as the “prisoner doctor”. He was an Egyptian surgeon, brought to the hospital to operate on one of Nasre’s men, critically injured in the fighting. I had heard of four foreigners who the Nasre Party had kidnapped a year earlier. They had been sent by an Islamic Arabic organisation to work on a programme it was funding in a Pushtoon area.

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The ward in the hospital

En route they, three doctors and a teacher had been taken hostage. No one seemed to say with certainty what Nasre hoped to gain by this, nor even if negotiations were taking place. Some said Nasre wanted money, others believed the Party was demanding the organisation should build and supply a hospital for Nasre in Hazara Jat. Until meeting the Egyptian doctor I’d never known whether to believe the story or not.

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What can happen if picking up a landmine. This lad lost his sight and a hand.

We went to the staff room for tea and he was allowed to speak with us in English (there were enough Nasre spies amongst the Translators to report back if any attempt was made to pass on messages to the outside world). ‘Mostly our days are spent in a mountain cave, hobbled by leg chains so we don’t try to escape,’ he told us. ‘They took our watches and radios. Otherwise, we are well enough treated.’

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A bit luckier, only part of his hand gone after playing with a bomb

I’d hear one of the men had tried to escape and been shot but didn’t like to ask. The hostages had no idea if negotiations were taking place or what their fate might be, and that, along with their enforced inactivity, was the most difficult thing to bear. ‘We would be happy to use our skills but are not allowed. Only when mujahideen were in need of treatment are we asked for our medical knowledge.’

Following this last battle one seriously injured mujahid was brought to the surgeon who explained he could do nothing in the cave, the man required urgent surgery. Nasre commanders decided to bring patient and doctor, along with what looked like half their fighting force to guard the prisoner, to Qolijou where the necessary operation had been carried out. The surgeon was being allowed to remain twenty four hours in the hospital to care for the patient during the intensive, post- operative phase, and then he was to be returned to his mountain prison. ‘I hope,’ he added, ‘they will bring me back after ten days to reverse the colostomy. In the meantime, I shall try to convince Nasre to allow me, and my colleagues, to work here more often. We could do many surgical procedures, and teach the translators how to carry out the more simple operations. So much could be done for the people.’

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The hospital pharmacy

Unfortunately, the patient died less than a week later so, sadly, the “prisoner doctor” never returned to Qolijou. The hostages were, I heard, finally released, after about two years in captivity.

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The X ray room

I wish I’d known the outcome sooner. It may have had me less anxious when my husband, Jon, the programme co-ordinator was kidnapped in Jaghoray a couple of years later. I was six months pregnant in Quetta, Pakistan when I received the news. As I was thirty-six and considered rather old to be having a first baby – elderly primagravida, as they put it – it had been agreed (reluctantly in my case) I shouldn’t accompany him on a tour of the clinics in case anything happened. As it was I had no idea if they would demand money, keep him for months or years, or shoot him. He did get back to Pakistan before the birth of our son – but that’s a story for another time.

MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan adventures #21 – in which we go camping.

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When we arrived home, everyone trooped out to welcome me and I felt extraordinarily glad to be back, although there was an air of suppressed excitement about Hussain which made me wonder what was afoot.

Ali Baba and Ismail vied with each other telling me tales of the recent fighting. Throughout my stay in Malestan I had never heard a shot fired in anger, nor heard of any fighting. The three Parties in that district seemed content to maintain a peaceful status quo – or perhaps they shared Mubarak’s apathy for anything troublesome.

While I was unpacking Hussain asked, ‘Well, Mum, what did you think of Malestan?’  Before I could open my mouth, he proceeded to answer the question himself, ‘The people are not as educated as Jaghoray people, and of course they are much poorer.’

I replied, ‘Well, I admit Jaghoray is more prosperous but Malestan is peaceful – and the women are much more free, which I liked.’

Hussain snorted.  ‘Free? Free to work all day in the fields! Is that what you call freedom?  Our women don’t need to be field workers. Their husbands can provide for them; they are free to stay at home.’ I was still trying to formulate a suitable reply, hampered by my knowledge that in the UK in the 1950s and 60s some men did not want their wives to take jobs outside the home because it reflected badly on their ability to provide for their families, but Hussain had moved on.

‘I’m very worried about how slowly the work is going on the new clinic. Sometimes when I go there to check only one man is working, the rest have gone to do some other job. They know that we are too busy to supervise them. I think we have to move in now, and then they will work faster. What do you think?’

‘I think you’re mad. How can we move in? The roof isn’t on yet. Where would we sleep, where would Baqul cook, how could you run the clinic?  There isn’t even a latrine!’

‘We can build a latrine in a few hours and we can live and work in tents.’ He flapped his hand about airily, all problems solved. I knew there was no point in arguing.

‘When were you thinking of moving?’

He gave me one of his most engaging grins, ‘Tomorrow.’

I began walking towards the door. ‘Where are you going? Don’t be angry.’

At the door, I turned, ‘I’m going to ask Baqul for hot water for a bath – it sounds like I might not have the chance of one for a while.’

It was actually two more days before the move was made – two days of frenzied activity, begging tents, hiring transport and packing all the equipment, furnishings and medicines.  A large notice on the door stated normal clinic timings would be kept at the Mazar Bibi clinic.  It seemed a bit hard on Latifa who was scheduled to have her ears syringed the day we moved. She now faced a three hour walk to reach the new clinic.

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Saying goodbye to friends in the village was painful. Sughra spent the morning in tears. We all knew we would not see each other for a long time, despite the fact I would only be an hour’s drive away. For them, that meant a six hour round trip on foot – not possible for a social visit – and I understood that Hussain would be unwilling to bring me back to Sangsuragh very often. He could barely conceal his delight at leaving the village and moving into his own home territory.

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I have absolutely no idea what Hussain and and I are doing – obviously looking at something fascinating!

Excited as a boy scout on his first camping trip, he was eager to show me our new quarters.  One tent contained the medicines and was to serve as the consulting room. A smaller tent accommodated Baqul, his collection of pots, pans and other culinary equipment.  He was already busy, fussing over a primus stove outside his ‘kitchen’. The third, largest tent was our living and sleeping quarters and I was surprised, and delighted, to discover it was luxuriously different from my notions of roughing it under canvas. The well flattened earth floor had been covered by our brightly striped gilims, mattresses and cushions were arranged invitingly around the canvas walls.  A central flap converted the large living space into two sleeping rooms. The gas lamps hung from hooks, and even my bookcase had been set in place. Very ‘days of the Raj-ish’.

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Hard at work. The new clinic starts to take shape

The temporary latrine was a hundred yards up the mountain, offering a great view of the surrounding countryside.

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Temporary latrine

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Interior view

Baqul, by some feat of magic on his primus stove, provided a feast. After dinner we sat outside watching the moon rise from behind the mountain and tried naming the stars. The Milky Way was a broad band of white sweeping across the sky, and it was astonishing to see how many stars could be seen in Orion, which at home I picked out by his belt. Occasionally we would glimpse a shooting star. Jawad explained that everyone in the world has his or her own star in the sky and when that person dies his star falls down. I told how we wish on a falling star.

We sat talking late into the night. When we could stifle our yawns no longer we retired to bed. Ali Baba, Ismail and Jawad shared one room. Hussain shared mine, explaining that he thought I might be afraid to sleep by myself. I suspected the real reason was that there wasn’t a great deal of room left once the other three laid out their sleeping bags and blankets.

Hussain had been right – our presence certainly ensured the building work sped up considerably. Before long there was a roof on the consulting room, though patients had been arriving long before it was on – and another over the bathroom.

MarySmith’sPlace – a very special party

I’ve been involved, almost since its birth, with a Scottish arts organisation called conFAB, which was founded in January 2004. Over the years it has grown into a really strong, dynamic organisation, developing all kinds of new and exciting work in many different genres and art forms.

conFAB has a commitment to community and education-based work and in its productions both professional practitioners and community actors and performers work alongside each other. It is committed to inclusion and equality, providing access to the arts for everyone as audiences, as participants and as artists, and is always ready to explore new ideas.

Towards the end of 2019 the organisation celebrated its 15th year with a party in the Glad Café,  Glasgow. This is what we were celebrating:

ConFAB projects

I was delighted to be invited to read a poem which was written for a project called Hidden City.  There were several Hidden City projects, in which poets were invited to places around the city and invited to write whatever that place inspired. Almost all the places visited over the course of the project have now disappeared.

My poem, Thousands Pass Here Every Day, became the title poem in my first full collection of poetry published by Indigo Dreams – one of the many reasons I have for being grateful I am involved with conFAB.

I made a wee thank you speech at the party but totally forgot one of the things I wanted to say. I’d wanted to comment on the fact that my son had grown up with conFAB. He was thirteen when the organisation started and was dragged along to various events, then he came along willingly, and then he became involved himself in a project. He was at the celebratory party, listening to the songs and speeches – and to his mother reading a poem. I don’t think he was embarrassed!

Check out conFAB’s website here and its Facebook page here – and watch it grow and develop over the next 15 years.

And here I am reading my poem:



MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan Adventures#20 ‘What use are you?’

I was surprised when at nine o’clock Mubarak yawned, abruptly announcing it was bed time. In Jaghoray we’d still have been chatting or playing cards. I was awakened next morning, by someone knocking. It wasn’t even daylight. I hurried to fold up my blankets and pulled on my chaddar. I glanced at my watch – five to five in the morning! The knocking wasn’t my wake up call, but the first patient of the day calling to see Mubarak. Snuggling into my blanket again, I understood why he went to bed so early.

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By 6.30 we had breakfasted on bread and hardboiled eggs – so fresh they were very difficult to peel and were on our way to the clinic. A group of women signalled Mubarak to stop. I heard him say, ‘She’s not a doctor.’

He turned to me saying, ‘They’re on their way to the clinic because they heard a foreign lady doctor had arrived. They don’t believe me that you are not a doctor.’

I confirmed Mubarak had spoken the truth. The spokeswoman looked at me in some surprise then asked, ‘What are you if you are not a doctor?’

‘She’s a teacher,’ answered Mubarak and I nodded in agreement, but didn’t know how to reply to the woman’s next question.

‘Why are you not a doctor?’

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As we drove on I realised she had in fact been asking, ‘If you’re not a doctor what earthly use are you to us?’ I didn’t know if I had an answer, especially after a morning’s work in the stockroom, by which time it looked worse than before I had started. Mubarak would appear in the doorway every so often to gaze around mournfully, making it obvious he felt I should not be interfering in his clinic. I knew good admin systems would help with the smooth running of the clinics but I wasn’t sure I’d convince Mubarak.


By the end of the day I was looking forward to having a bath and changing into clean clothes.  The bathroom in Mubarak’s house had not yet been completed; there was no glass in the windows and with the sun going down, it was chilly. The half bucket of water with which I was provided had been warmed by the simple, economic method of leaving it to stand in the afternoon sunshine. At least the chill had been taken out of it and I did feel better to be clean.

Over dinner, we chatted and Mubarak told me he was lonely and admitted he would dearly love to be married. Soon after his return from Pakistan a date had been fixed for his wedding to a local girl. Sadly, before the marriage took place she had died of typhoid.

‘Have you thought about finding someone else?’

‘For a long time I have been friendly with my fiancée’s sister, and she also likes me. We want to marry but there is a problem. There were only two sisters in the family, no sons. The father is a wealthy man who owns a lot of land and when he dies all his land will go to his only daughter. For myself, I do not care about the land. I love the girl not her land, but the Mullah of the village wants her to marry his son.

‘The girl’s father likes me. He was happy for me to marry his other daughter, but now he is afraid to agree to my marriage with his second daughter. The Mullah has said he will make trouble for him if his daughter does not marry his son. So, I think maybe it is my fate never to marry.’

The stock room was showing some semblance of order but Mubarak, although approving the tidiness, was far from happy. A great deal of expired stock had been discovered and was awaiting disposal, but he wanted to hang onto it. ‘But you wouldn’t give it to anyone when it’s out of date, would you?’ I asked.

‘No, of course not but the people will become angry if they see medicines being destroyed. They won’t understand.’

‘Well, next time the programme co-ordinator comes, get him to take it away.’

He nodded. I made a note to tell the co-ordinator there would be out of date medicines to remove.

When it came to looking at the new stock register and learning the, very simple, system, he insisted Hassan Reza, his field assistant, be taught how to make the necessary entries in the stock book.

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Hassan Reza was delighted to be made to feel so important. He seemed a likeable lad, but according to Mubarak he was terrified of leprosy and refused to go on tour to visit leprosy patients. ‘Well, why do you keep him on? There must be plenty of young men who could be trained to work with you.’

‘It’s not so easy. If I sack him he might make problems for us with the political parties.’

‘Why should we pay someone who doesn’t work?’

Mubarak smiled his slow smile, ‘We don’t. I told him I could only pay him daily wages for the days he is on duty. Some months he gets paid hardly anything. I thought he would get fed up and leave of his own accord, but he still comes in from time to time.’

I explained the stock system to Hassan Reza who appeared to be listening attentively – then announced he wanted to come to Pakistan with me.

‘Whatever for?’

‘I want to be a doctor. Can you arrange for me to have training in Pakistan?’

I looked at him in astonishment. He had completed six years of schooling and if he truly believed he could simply go off to Pakistan and become a doctor, his general level of intelligence was not too high either.

Although Mubarak’s work with his patients was excellent his negative attitude towards administrative matters was becoming depressing. The team in Jaghoray was so much more enthusiastic about their work. Quite forgetting the tensions and problems Hussain could create, I began to look forward to my return. By the time Jawad arrived, I was packed and ready to go.

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