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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11 thoughts on “MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan Adventures#20 ‘What use are you?’

    • Thanks, Willow. Yes, it was sometimes difficult to keep smiling. I could understand Mubarak being put out at some foreigner turning up and telling him how to run his clinic but on the other hand if he’d spent a bit more time on organising stock he wouldn’t have ended up wasting the organisation’s money by having out of date medicine.


  1. I think you did well to keep your temper, and always respect such archaic culture and customs. The arranged marriage system there must cause so much heartbreak and unhappiness for young people who like each other but are forced to marry others in the same community.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I had to bite my tongue quite often but I knew losing my temper would destroy any chance of creating a relationship and making things work better. Thirty years later those clinic are still providing much needed health services in some of the most remote place in the country – places which are almost completely ignored by the big funding agencies because they are more difficult to reach.
      Mubarak was unlucky in his marriage hopes because, although both families were happy for it to happen, it was someone outside of those families who had his eye on the land. If the girl Mubarak wanted to marry had a brother there would have been no problem – as long as the Mullah had a daughter to marry him!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, you are right about change being slow. I think the paramedic training should have included some time on stock keeping and administration so that when they came to open their clinics they had some idea of how to be a bit more efficient in those areas. Over the years I met a few others with similar stories of how their love lives had been thwarted by family interference – usually involving future land inheritance.

      Liked by 1 person

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