MarySmith’sPlace -What contrary Mary grows in her garden

Here in bonnie Galloway, we’ve had torrential rain for the last two days – much of it horizontal, blown by gale force winds. Not a blink of sun to relieve the gloom. I dread what destruction has taken place in the garden.

I’m glad I took some photos before the weather changed!

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What is this? I put a tiny bit in some years ago and have to keep digging up chunks of it

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Bees adore it

MarySmith’sPlace – Afghanistan adventures#41 When a childhood dream becomes an adult nightmare

Lal-sar-Jangal – early winter 1989

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Qurban’s little brother Bashir and friend


The journey to visit Qurban’s family was rapidly approaching and my chance to fulfil a lifelong ambition to learn to ride a horse. As a child I had wanted more than anything to own a pony, badgering my parents to no avail. The “we can’t afford its” won. I contented myself with devouring every horsy book I could lay my hands on. I succeeded in cadging the occasional ride on a friend’s fat pony and the occasional riding lesson. My passion waned although it never completely left me.

Now, horses suddenly appeared to be very large. Qurban’s horse seemed particularly huge, and every time I passed close to where he was tethered, I had the uneasy suspicion he rolled his eyes at me in a wicked and knowing way.

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We set off in the afternoon for the three-hour ride. I was relieved to see my horse was considerably smaller than Qurban’s. Dredging my memory for all the theoretical knowledge about horsemanship stored away since childhood I declined Ibrahim’s offer of help to mount and, one foot in the stirrup I gracefully swung the other leg over the horse. The ‘How to’ books hadn’t said anything on the subject of mounting a horse while wearing Afghan dress and long chaddar. My graceful manoeuvre was marred by the necessity of having to make hasty rearrangements to my clothing to regain my modest appearance.

I took the proffered reins, afraid to grip too tightly in case the horse thought this was a signal to go, but refused the whip which was also offered. I had read my Pullen-Thomson, and knew that the bond, which would surely soon be formed between me and my horse, would be sufficient for me to direct her with the lightest of touches on the reins.

Qurban arrived, his horse impatient to be off, stamping his hooves and circling round and round, nostrils flaring. Ibrahim turned my horse around and led us to the edge of the village where I managed to raise one hand in a tentative wave of farewell to everyone who had turned out to watch. All went well for the first fifty yards. My horse stopped, refusing to put a hoof in the shallow stream we had to cross. Qurban was already miles in front, oblivious to the fact that I was no longer with him. I felt a complete idiot.  Having tried the pressure with the knees bit, the gentle tug on the reins bit and even – principles are soon abandoned in the face of acute embarrassment – a sharp kick or two with my heels, I didn’t know what else to do. Some men working in a nearby field saw my predicament and alerted Qurban, who sent his young brother, Bashir, to the rescue. He took the reins and led us through the water.

We plodded on. Plodded, rather implies a dogged determination to reach one’s destination but my horse’s speed and enthusiasm for this venture was demonstrated by a laconic shamble. I named her Slowcoach.

Qurban was still a long way ahead, half way up a mountain. On the gentle, lower slopes Slowcoach stopped. I urged her on. Qurban, impatient with my uselessness, yelled advice from far above, “Kick her!” I kicked; Slowcoach gave a huge sigh, moved forward ten yards and stopped again. I kicked, I kicked harder then, thinking I was perhaps being too squeamish about this business of getting a horse to move, I kicked harder still. Slowcoach sighed heavily again, but she did not move. Bashir had to run back down the mountain to lead her on. It was all very embarrassing.

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Bashir on Qurban’s horse, me on Slowcoach

Qurban said nothing when we finally caught up with him. On the summit of the pass he dismounted, saying we should lead the horses down as the slope was too steep for them to carry our weight. I was delighted. I made faster progress on my own two feet than on Slowcoach’s four.

We paused for a photo session of the superb views from a height of around 3000 metres.  For miles an endlessly repeating pattern of mountains and valleys, the landscape patch-worked in shades of brown and russet and golden yellow, glowed in the late afternoon sun. We were in a totally silent world. Suddenly a huge bird soared into the sky from a nearby mountain top, circling and swooping in its lonely search for prey. Qurban said it was an eagle but I knew he would have called any large bird an eagle, and debating cheerfully about other birds of prey we continued down the mountain.

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Qurban – the world beneath him – and the sun going down because I’d taken so long.

The journey which he said took three hours actually lasted for more than six and, long before our arrival, it had assumed a nightmarish quality for me. Qurban assured me Slowcoach was not lazy and offered to exchange horses to show well she could go. I agreed, but as soon as I mounted his horse, sensing my nervousness, he began to prance around. Qurban speedily reclaimed his horse before I did any lasting damage to him, and I returned to Slowcoach with some relief, but an even greater sense of failure.

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Bashir on Qurban’s horse, Slowcoach behind.

When darkness fell Qurban switched on a torch. We were walking along the edge of a precipice, on a path barely wide enough to accommodate a bicycle never mind a four footed animal. I wished Bashir was still leading me but he had gone to sleep behind Qurban, exhausted after climbing so many mountains, twice, to help me. When we finally arrived I dismounted and hobbled after Qurban like an old woman. I was already dreading the horrors of the return journey, when Qurban told he’d accepted an invitation for us to visit a patient’s house next day. “It’s not far, an hour by horse.”

“At your speed or mine?”  I asked fearfully.

Qurban considered, gave a ghost of a smile and amended his estimate, “Well, maybe three hours.”

MarySmith’sPlace – Afghanistan adventures#40

Lad-sar-Jangal Winter 1989

Qurban’s wife, Masooma, had taken their two daughters to Pakistan to visit her parents, who had not yet seen their grandchildren. She was expected to return with Jon when he came to collect me. In the evenings I sometimes joined Qurban in his room where we talked late into the night catching up on news.

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Qurban had spent much of his life in Karachi and was eager for news of friends there, and to reminisce about his days at the leprosy training centre and hospital. Although I had known Qurban quite well during his student days he had never talked much about his early childhood in Afghanistan. During one of our late night sessions he told the story of the horrors of those days when, at the age of about seven he contracted leprosy.

He had known of the disease as his paternal uncle had leprosy. In those days, people were terrified of leprosy, believing it to be incurable. As no-one understood its cause all kinds of misconceptions and myths surrounded the illness: it was a curse of God, a punishment for sin.  Qurban’s uncle must have done something dreadful to be punished in this way, a bad person, to be avoided. He had been ostracised by the community, forced to build his house far away from the village. He wasn’t allowed to pray in the mosque.

One day as Qurban was returning from the village school he and some friends had stopped to play in the river. A friend pointed to a light coloured skin patch on Qurban’s leg, asking what had caused it. Qurban hadn’t noticed the patch before. When his friend poked it with a sharp stick he felt no pain. In that instant he understood. His uncle had several similar patches with no feeling on his body. Qurban went home but said nothing to his family – hoping the patch might disappear as mysteriously as it had come.

Eventually he showed the patch to his father. ‘It was the first time I had ever seen my father cry. I didn’t know grown up men could cry. His tears frightened me more than anything.’   His father warned him to say nothing to anyone. They began a round of visits to doctors, healers, mullahs, wise women – anyone who might have the means of making the patch disappear. Nothing – not the ointments, pills nor injections, made the slightest difference.   Prayers, visits to nearby shrines and tawiz (a few lines of the Quran stitched into a cloth bag and worn as an amulet) were all equally ineffective.

Despite the misery and fear he felt while his parents searched desperately for a cure, Qurban was still a child, with a child’s resilience and enjoyment of life, delighting in leading his friends in mischief. One day he boasted that he could stick pins in his leg and feel no pain.  For a few minutes he had basked in the admiration of his friends at this strange and wonderful feat. Next day his world collapsed.

‘At first I didn’t understand what had happened. No-one at school would talk to me but I knew they were whispering things about me. After school, for the first time in my life, no-one would walk home with me. But a crowd of boys was following me. I wanted to run, but I kept walking normally. Suddenly a stone hit my back, then another and another and the boys were shouting “Leper, leper!”  Then I ran.’

Qurban’s school days were over, his childhood had ended.

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Band-i-Amir – one of the most beautiful places in Afghanistan

One day Qurban’s father took him to the shrine at Band-i-Amir. This chain of five lakes, or dams, is said to have been created by Ali, son-in-law of Muhammad (PBUH). The waters are reputed to have healing powers. Qurban was excited about travelling so far, convinced that this time, surely, he would be cured.

Wondering whether he was to drink the magic water or wash the patch in it, he heard a splash. Turning, he saw threshing arms and legs churning the water. A young girl, a rope tied about her waist, had been thrown into the lake. He watched, horrified, as she was finally hauled, gasping and spluttering back onto the bank. She lay vomiting onto the shore while the people surrounding her murmured prayers.

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Taking to the curative waters. This photo was taken in 2006 when I returned to Afghanistan

Convinced he would die Qurban became hysterical, begging his father not to throw him in the water. His father agreed that they should go first to pray at the shrine before Qurban underwent the “treatment”.  The child’s sobs attracted the attention of a stranger who paused and peered at the patch on his leg. ‘That is leprosy,’ he announced. ‘You will never cure it like that – better go to Pakistan. They have medicine for this. My wife’s cousin was cured there.’

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The shrine at Band-i-Amir I think that might be my son standing in the foreground!

Qurban had wanted to go immediately.  Not realising that Pakistan was another country, he couldn’t understand why his father, although excited by the news, did not seem particularly anxious to set off on another journey to buy the medicine. ‘He struggled for months to raise enough money for the trip,’ he explained. ‘And he had to make arrangements for someone to care for my mother and the land. All this time I hated my father because I thought he had decided not to go.’ Qurban paused, blinking back sudden tears, before continuing: ‘I was seven years old, quite a big boy, but all the way to Pakistan, I complained about being too tired to walk. My father carried me on his shoulders most of the way.’

Even when they reached Quetta their troubles were far from over. Many Hazaras had already settled in the city and they soon made contact with people from their own area – but no one had heard of a cure for leprosy. Soon they were caught up once more in a round of visits to doctors, whose prescriptions were useless and expensive. His savings soon vanished and Qurban’s father had to find work. Not far from Quetta he found a job as a coal miner; back breaking work digging for coal in a series of open cast mines and tunnels running deep into the side of the mountain.

One day their luck changed. They met a doctor who not only recognised Qurban had leprosy, but knew of the hospital in Karachi where it could be treated.  He wrote a letter of referral to a doctor there. Within days, Qurban and his father had made the journey to Karachi and Qurban had been admitted for treatment in the large Manghopir hospital on the outskirts of the huge city. His father left him almost immediately to return to Lal.

Qurban grinned, ‘The rest you know – school, training, marriage and back to Afghanistan.’   I realised, however, there was a great deal about Qurban I really didn’t know at all. Although completely cured of leprosy, the memory of those stones thrown by his school friends so long ago had marked him deeply. Those little boys, grown up now, had welcomed Qurban back into the community – showing him acceptance and respect. But Qurban’ feelings of insecurity and lack of confidence made him question what the community really thought of him.

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Qurban in dark glasses even with his family.

Convinced everyone who looked at him saw immediately, in his loss of eyebrows, the stigma of leprosy, he had affected the habit of wearing dark glasses at all times, even indoors. He suffered periods of moody introspection, which could last for days, during which he would talk to no one, followed by a sudden cheerful gregariousness. His sudden mood swings left everyone confused. Qurban admitted he could do nothing to fight off the black clouds of depression which descended on him without warning.

MarySmith’sPlace – Afghanistanadventures#39 – Learning who’s who at the Lal clinic

Lal October 1989

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After the excitement of arriving in Lal I experienced a sense of desolation when Khudadad left next day. Although we’d been travelling companions for barely two weeks, not only had I come to depend on him for so much – from ensuring I was well fed to finding a bed for the night – but I’d truly enjoyed his company. As the truck pulled away I stood forlornly clutching the huge melon he had given me as a farewell gift, waving until he was out of sight.

Stocktaking and updating the record cards of leprosy patients seemed such mundane chores compared to the excitement of travelling, never quite knowing what might happen or where we would end up. Having to begin all over again getting to know a new group of people none of whom, apart from Qurban, I had ever met before was daunting.

The clinic was a depressing place with dark, poky little rooms whose tiny windows allowed in hardly any light – a common design feature in houses throughout the area, to insulate them from the bitter chill in winter, when temperatures drop to -40C. Qurban had done his best to improve the appearance of my room, which was the size of a cupboard, by lining the crumbling walls with orange cloth. When I was in bed, a colony of mice staged athletics events behind the cloth, occasionally venturing out to scamper across the pillow. Qurban was negotiating over the price of a piece of land on which to build a new clinic, something I hoped he could accomplish quickly.

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Entrance to the clinic

I began to sort out who was who amongst the staff. Ibrahim was in charge of the dressings and injection room where he did the soaking, trimming and dressing of leprosy patients’ ulcers, as well as attending to other wounds and injuries. As two of his nephews had both been my English students in Karachi where they were trainee leprosy technicians, I happily accepted Ibrahim’s invitation to visit his home in Waras sometime, as I had promised the boys I would try to deliver their letters personally to their families.

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Qurban, his brother Bashir and a patient (name has escaped me)

I’d already been invited by Qurban to visit his family’s village and Haboly, the general medical assistant, was insistent that I must also visit his. Invitations quickly followed from Aziz and Rahimy and my social calendar was soon completely filled for all foreseeable weekends.

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Ibrahim on the camel on the right. Camels were rarely seen so far north

Rahimy had been a mujahid but retired from their service, cheerfully returning his Kalashnikov, to work in the clinic as a field assistant where he was paid a regular salary and was less likely to be shot at. Wounded in a skirmish, the injury had left him with a permanent disability in one hand. He was such a quiet, gentle person, demonstrating a genuine concern for the patients, it was difficult to visualise him in his former role of gun toting freedom fighter. Rahimy was to come with us to Pakistan to attend a laboratory technician course over the winter. The second field assistant, Juma, would then, the following summer, begin his training in Karachi as a leprosy technician.

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Patient on right and some of his family

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Me being maternal with a baby securely parcelled up so it didn’t wriggle

Every morning patients gathered early outside the gates of the compound. Many travelled for hours by foot, or by donkey – by horse, if they were better off. Some took two days or more to make the journey from remote villages and, most days, around fifty patients arrived to consult Qurban and Haboly. They arrived well prepared for a long wait, bringing with them kettles and dry tea and nan, along with fodder for the horses and donkeys. Children found new playmates with whom to pass the time, chasing each other amongst the groups of adults and around the tethered animals. The scene resembled a country fair and in fact, in the days following the clinic’s initial opening, one enterprising man had opened a temporary chaikhana to cater for the crowds.


In addition to these “general” patients Qurban had a case load of around two hundred leprosy patients scattered across his extensive control area. He had an almost equal number of registered tuberculosis cases. It was too much for one leprosy technician to cope with so Qurban was keen for Juma to start his training as soon as possible to lighten the load.

Tuberculosis patients caused the greatest concern because of the rate of absenteeism, and lack of personnel to follow up missing patients. The effectiveness of the tuberculosis drugs in some ways works against controlling the disease in Afghanistan – and other developing countries – because soon after a patient begins his treatment he feels well. Believing he is cured, he discontinues the medication. If he is being prescribed drugs by a private doctor the cost for the full course of treatment is prohibitively expensive and, understandably, the impoverished patient has other uses for his money. The biggest danger, when a patient stops taking his medicine before all the bacteria has been destroyed, is the remaining bacteria mutate into a new strain, resistant to those particular drugs.

When news spread a foreign doctor had arrived the numbers of patients, especially women, increased. Despite Qurban’s cajoling I refused to play at being a doctor. ‘In my country a person would be sent to jail if caught pretending to be a doctor. It’s too easy to make a wrong diagnosis or prescribe the wrong drugs. I’m happy to check female leprosy patients and talk to mothers about nutrition and family planning but I’m not going to pretend I can do anything more than that.’

Qurban laughed, ‘You are not in your country now. The people here are desperate for medical care. Anyway, everyone in this clinic is a doctor, even the cook!’ I’d heard the cook being called Dr Aziz but had assumed it was simply a term of respect. I hadn’t considered the possibility that he might actually prescribe medicines for people and was only slightly reassured to discover he confined his prescribing to aspirin and vitamins.

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‘Dr’ Aziz, the cook

We finally agreed I would do the stock taking, write my reports and carry out leprosy examinations on female patients. I’d be available to talk to women about nutrition for their children and for themselves in pregnancy, to explain how contraceptive pills should be taken or to teach a woman how to work out her fertile days. The dwindling number of female patients soon made it clear the women were not interested in hearing a foreigner talk about mashed potatoes and greens for their children, and had no magic drugs to make their babies strong and healthy.


Do you care? #CarersWeek

Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

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I wandered through into the kitchen, snuggled in my dressing gown, to boil my own kettle for my second coffee of the day… an unaccustomed luxury. I am usually at work by that time, dragged reluctantly from sleep by the alarm clock, woken by the cold pre-dawn walk with the dog and, seven days a week, drink my second cup of coffee perched on the end of my son’s bed. Last night, I had dressed and driven back to work when I should have been on my way to bed. Tomorrow, I will be at work before breakfast. These things happen in my job. While my son, quite rightly, objects to me calling him ‘work’, he is, after all, both my job and my employer (and it is better than some of the things I have called him…).

It has been a while since I wrote about being a carer…

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MarySmith’sPlace – AfghanistanAdventures#38 – We finally reach Lal sar Jangal

Autumn 1989 Yakolang to Lal

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It was bitterly cold at four o’clock in the morning and I really hated leaving my snug, downy bed for the trudge across frozen fields to a frozen truck. Paying a quick call behind a tree before we departed, I shuddered at the thought of how it must be to live here in the middle of winter, the snow thick on the ground for months on end. In an attempt to defog the windscreen, the driver drove with his window wide open. Sitting immediately behind him, I felt the full force of the icy air blasting in my face.


At the prayer stop I shivered, watching the men washing in icy water from a stream.  Khudadad didn’t join them. It certainly woke them up and they returned to the truck, talking and laughing together, although for the most part they ignored us. The breakfast stop was at a small chaikhana where Khudadad insisted that I sit on a particular piece of floor space. This was almost entirely taken up by the driver, who reluctantly shuffled sideways to allow me to enjoy the glorious warmth generated by an underground central heating system. Hot air from a fire is forced through tunnels under the floor. I understood the driver’s reluctance to give up even a few inches of blissful heat.

Breakfast was tea and bread with individual pots of butter. The butter was so hard I couldn’t see how I was to spread it. The driver solved the problem by sprinkling his butter liberally with sugar, then eating it with a spoon. I followed suit.

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The sun finally warmed the cab to a tolerable degree. The road wound up mountain after mountain. At the top of each pass the conductor leapt out to cover the bonnet with a large blanket. This, Khudadad explained, was to prevent the engine, which had become dangerously over heated on its laborious struggle uphill, from cooling down too quickly on the downward slope. At the bottom of the pass the blanket would be removed until the top of the next one was reached.  On the steepest part of the climb all the passengers sitting amongst the apples in the back of the truck got out to walk, to lessen the load, as the ancient vehicle groaned its way to the summit. These mountains were higher than those I had seen in Jaghoray, rising to a height of over three thousand metres.

When Khudadad informed me that we were nearing the top of the highest pass, I looked out and saw the road snake away behind us with one or two toy town vehicles far, far below. On the descent, two bends from the top, the driver misjudged the turn and brought the truck to a halt, its front wheels teetering on the edge of the drop.

Everyone, including Khudadad, leapt out to help the conductor heave boulders in front of the back wheels to prevent the truck from taking a nose dive down the precipice.  Outside, sounds of shovelling and digging were accompanied by a great deal of shouting but inside the cab with the entire bench to myself, I enjoyed the luxury of stretching full length. I closed my eyes. In a sleepy haze I heard someone knock on the window, a voice declaring, ‘Khau raft– She’s asleep!’  Khudadad’s voice in my ear woke me. He was shouting, ‘You must get out!  Get down! The driver is going to reverse the truck. Get out!’

‘Why can’t he reverse the truck with me in it?  Does my weight make any difference?’

Khudadad shook his head in exasperation. ‘It’s dangerous. You have to get out, now!’

Grumbling about having my nap disturbed I clambered out joining joined the cluster of people gathered on the steep mountain slope. We watched the driver reverse the truck back on to the road. ‘See.’ I beamed at Khudadad, ‘I knew he could do it. You have no faith, that’s your trouble, no faith at all.’  I took my place again on my allotted twelve inches of seat.

‘Were you not afraid?’

‘No, he is a good driver; he knew what he was doing. And the conductor had put half a mountain in front of the wheels – the truck couldn’t possibly have fallen over.’ I didn’t admit that until I had actually seen the drop over which we teetered – once forced out of the truck – I had been unaware of the danger.

The driver demanded a translation and was obviously delighted at my praise of his driving – he smiled at me for the first time since we had met.

The scenery changed as we left the high mountain passes, driving now through the flat valley of Kirman with rugged rocky outcrops on either side of us. Few vehicles were on the road but we were clearly in horse country. Many riders had to rein in their mounts as we passed. Frightened by the noise of the truck, the horses stamped their hooves and tossed their heads, obviously longing to flee from the terrifying monster approaching them. Again the landscape altered and we were in the midst of great, rounded, sweeping mountain vistas, vastly different from the more rocky and rugged mountains of Jaghoray.

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Khudadad pointed, ‘On top of that hill, on the other side of the river, is the Lal clinic.’

By the time the truck pulled up a welcoming committee had formed. Jumping from the cab I scanned the blur of faces until I caught sight of Qurban’s familiar features as he pushed through the crowd to greet us. Khudadad received a huge hug and kisses on both cheeks, I got a brief handshake and we were swept off to have tea with my “brother” and his colleagues.

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Qurban and his mother and siblings

Introductions were made to a host of staff, patients and curious visitors but I knew it would be days before I succeeded in sorting out who was who.