I discovered some more slides, handed them over at the print shop – they say at least three weeks! Photos included this week, while relevant to the post are taken on different times.
Lal-sar-Jangal – early winter 1989
It was time for the trip to Waras which I was anticipating with trepidation. Not only would my equestrian skills be sorely challenged by two days on horseback – each way – but, so too would my conversational abilities. Although my Dari had improved, my vocabulary was very much women orientated. I wondered how far lines such as “Does the back pain come just before your monthly bleeding?”, “Does your bleeding come regularly?” or, “Is there any smell or itching?” would take me.
Ibrahim’s brother, Hassan, arrived to accompany us on the journey and early one morning we assembled outside the clinic. All the staff, several patients plus curious onlookers gathered to watch our departure. My horse was a pretty little thing, brown with a white star on her forehead. Outwardly displaying a degree of confidence, inwardly belied by the nervous churning of my stomach, I mounted, waited for Ibrahim to adjust the stirrups, mount his own horse and give the signal, “Y’Allah”, to be off.
He and Hassan trotted off. I stayed put. It was acutely embarrassing, in front of so many people, all much too polite to laugh, but who must have found the situation hilarious. On previous occasions, the horse had at least started out. After much kicking of my heels and frantic tugging on the reins, I had to suffer the ignominy of being led by Haboly for the first fifty yards, until the horse finally accepted that she was part of the expedition.
Despite having reluctantly agreed to carry me, there was no way that she was going to put herself out any more than was strictly necessary, and I could not coax even a gentle trot out of her. Resorting to the method used on our way to Haboly’s village, Ibrahim rode in front with Hassan close behind me, occasionally giving my horse a flick with his whip. After about an hour of this Hassan decided enough was enough, and that if he did not teach me something about riding, it was going to take us a week to reach Waras.
His method was simple and direct. Riding up alongside me he handed me his whip with the command, ‘Bezi – Beat!’ Reluctantly I took the whip and, feeling acutely self-conscious, attempted to do as ordered but only succeeded in striking the saddle bag behind me. My second attempt connected with the horse’s rump. This so astonished her, she was galvanized into charging forward in a fast trot for all of a hundred yards. As she began to recover from this surprise action on the part of her soft-touch rider and slow down again, Hassan was right beside me yelling in my ear, ‘Bezi!’ There were a few more fits and starts but, at last, she understood, and accepted, that her novice rider actually meant business. She settled down into a steady trot. Flushed with success, I grinned my thanks to Hassan and patted the horse’s neck at which her ears pricked quizzically. I began to feel quite fond of her.
Ibrahim and Hassan sat loosely in their saddles, completely relaxed. I felt like a sack of potatoes lumping around in the saddle, and with every step my spine connected with the wall of my stomach. Progress may have become speedier, but it was excruciatingly uncomfortable. When, after two hours of trotting, Ibrahim suggested a stop for tea I was extremely grateful. Dismounting gingerly, I winced as my cramped muscles protested, but the tea and boiled eggs revived me and when Ibrahim said, ‘We must go.’ I remounted, eager to continue. It was nerve-racking when everyone else in the chaikhana came out to watch how the foreigner rode a horse. To my relief she responded instantly to the dog calling sound, which means “gee up”, and trotted off beautifully. I loved her. I decided to call her Zeba, meaning beautiful.
We were to break our journey at Ibrahim’s uncle’s home in Kirman and Hassan rode ahead to alert the family to expect guests for the night. I watched enviously as his horse galloped over the flat grassland on which we were riding, wondering if I would ever attain such confidence and proficiency on a horse. Ibrahim rode alongside and showed me how to gather the reins in my left hand, Afghan style, my right arm, holding the whip, hanging straight down by my side. I felt that at least I was beginning to look the part.
The family had gathered outside to meet us. As soon as we were led inside Ibrahim’s aunt pounced on me and proceeded to massage my aching legs until the muscles relaxed and the pain melted away. Bliss. Later we played cards until dinner was served. Ibrahim never travelled anywhere without a pack of cards in his pocket. On this occasion he offered to teach me a new game but every time I thought I had grasped the rules, he seemed to change them. By the time dinner arrived, I owed him forty five chickens.
I slept little that night, devoured alive by an army of fleas sharing my blanket. In the morning Ibrahim caught me scratching furiously at my ankles and asked, ‘Fleas?’
Not wishing to offend anyone by saying their bedding was flea infested I muttered, ‘Perhaps I got them from the horse.’
Ibrahim was shocked by such a suggestion, ‘Oh, no, the horses don’t have fleas. They must have been in the blanket.’ When his uncle appeared and was told about the fleas he apologised for my disturbed night, but otherwise seemed to take the philosophical attitude that flea infested bedding was just one of those things in life with which we must cope. I escaped outside to find some privacy in which to enjoy a good scratch at the bites in less accessible parts of by body.
Lal-sar-Jangal – early winter 1989
I’ve included a selection of random photos in this post.
On the ride home from the school visit Ibrahim complained about Qurban’s absence, saying this was typical of his behaviour with the people in Lal. ‘He does not understand it is important to keep these people happy – the teachers, the Commanders, the Mullahs. If they are happy the work will go well but if we upset them they can make trouble for the clinic. They care about their position being respected and Qurban should understand this.’
I decided to talk to Qurban. He was unrepentant about not turning up at the school, ‘Ibrahim behaves as if he is in charge, always talking to the people at the paygar (local government office), being friendly to the Commanders.’
‘Qurban, it’s called public relations. It is important. If the headmaster is upset with you and complains to the Commanders they could make problems for you and for the clinic. It’s surely not asking too much to spend some time now and then to keep them smiling. They know you are in charge of the clinic, not Ibrahim, and if you don’t accept their invitations they feel insulted.’
‘So let Ibrahim do this work and I’ll do my leprosy work,’ Qurban shrugged.
‘That’s not the point. Ibrahim is your assistant. The “bazurg” (big people) expect the most senior person to meet with them.’
Since I was already steamed up about one issue, I continued, ‘Another thing, why do you behave so badly when we are together at mehmanis (dinner parties) – not speaking to me, acting like I have done something terrible. I admit I don’t always understand the customs – but if I make mistakes it would be better to tell me about them.’
‘I don’t have to explain my behaviour to you.’
I gave up and turned to leave but, as I reached the door he called me back. ‘Listen! Our people are very poor. Most of them can’t afford more than dry bread and tea – every day. Some people can eat meat maybe once a month, others, once a year. They work hard on the land but there is never enough wheat for the winter. Do you know that sometimes in the winter the poorest people have to eat grass from the mountain, because they have nothing else?
‘I want to help my people but I can’t put food in their mouths, all I can do is try to make them better if they are sick. Sometimes we give some money from the social budget to a poor leprosy patient who can’t work but there is not enough money to help everyone. Besides, many people who don’t have leprosy are even poorer. You have been here for nearly two months, you must have seen this for yourself?’
‘Yes, I have seen the poverty – although I have never seen people reduced to eating grass.’
‘Well, it happens. People hope to be able to afford new clothes once a year for Nau Roz (Afghan New Year). It is the only time they can have something nice to wear. They wear the same clothes until the next year. These are my people, I work for them, and I really try to help. ‘Then, a foreigner comes along and everyone wants to meet him, or her. They invite them to their houses, kill a chicken for them – give them as much meat in one meal as would feed a poor family for a week. The people make a big fuss of the foreigner; their hopes are raised because they know foreigners have money, and the power to change things.
‘Then the foreigner says we should teach them this and teach them that and not give so much medicine to them. The foreigner bashes away on her typewriter making reports, then goes away and nothing changes.’
He shrugged, ‘Sometimes it makes me crazy. I don’t have power like the Commanders. They are rich, maybe even as rich as you, but do nothing for the people. They demand respect without doing anything to earn it – and expect me to run around them telling them they are wonderful.’
Qurban finally ran out of steam and I sat, stunned, wondering how to reply. ‘I understand some of what you feel,’ I said quietly, ‘and I feel guilty about how much people spend to prepare a dinner for me but what can I do? If I refuse their invitations they will be hurt and offended, won’t they?’ He nodded in silent agreement.
I continued, ‘We work for a very small organisation. We can’t do much more than we are doing already. As we are not agricultural experts, we can’t teach the farmers how to improve their crops. We can only try to persuade other organisations to come and do these things. By visiting the clinics I can provide first hand reports for the donors, persuading them to continue their support. That is the way in which I am most qualified to help – by writing about the needs of the people. I am sorry that you feel my presence is such a burden on them.’
Qurban smiled faintly, ‘Yes, the money is important. I suppose the occasional chicken is an investment – keep you happy so you keep the donors happy.’
‘The donors don’t count the chickens that are killed for me. They judge the success of the project on the number of leprosy patients you find and treat, the number of other patients coming for consultation and, of course, they are keen to see that we can work freely without trouble from political Parties.’
A few days later, the headmaster, with some of his teachers, paid a return visit to the clinic. Qurban played the part of clinic In-charge and host to perfection, smiling, courteous, a role model for all future public relations encounters. The headmaster was extremely deferential towards him. When they left, I said to Qurban, ‘You see it is not difficult to keep these people happy. They were all very respectful to you.’
Qurban looked at me pityingly, ‘You don’t understand anything about the people here. They can very easily pretend to like and respect someone, but I know what they are thinking. When they see me they think of leprosy. If people behave as though they like me, it is because they feel sorry for me. No-one sees the real Qurban so how can they know if they like or dislike me?’
I wished I had a degree in psychology, to help me understand what went on in his head – more importantly to know how to help him.
Lal-sar-Jangal November 1989
The headmaster had asked Qurban to bring me to see the village school. Although our organisation did not provide financial support directly to schools, we acted as couriers for donor organisations in Germany, delivering funds and sending back reports and funding requests. In this way we had quite strong links with several schools. The school in Lal had been open for several years and, although it was only for boys plans were in place to open classes for girls the following year, when new school premises had been built.
Ibrahim was to accompany us, for which I was glad. He, more than any of the other staff, had the ability to understand what I was trying to say, even when it was coming out all wrong. When I had difficulties understanding something, it was Ibrahim who could usually find a different way to phrase things until the meaning was clear. When we were ready to leave Qurban said, ‘You go on ahead. I’ll catch you up when I finish some work here.’
I followed Ibrahim out of the compound to where our horses awaited and Rahimy joined us, just before we reached the school, riding up sporting a magnificent turban.
The headmaster, standing at the doorway of the school was clearly upset by Qurban’s non-appearance – having two lowly field assistants as guests, instead of the big “doctor” was an insult. On behalf of Qurban, Rahimy apologised, delivering the message about him having ‘too much work’. Ibrahim spoke to him in a placatory way. Finally, he shrugged and led us into the two-roomed school.
The boys could study only up to Class Five. When the new building was ready the students would be able to continue their studies further. At that time – 1989 – only Jaghoray had the means of allowing students to study right up to Class Twelve – the final year before higher education.
The rough mud walls were hung with work done by the children; a large colourful map of Afghanistan which showed all the mountain ranges and rivers, posters of birds and flowers, and the alphabet – both English and Dari. In the first room three groups of junior boys sat cross legged in a circle on the floor. I spotted Bashir and Khadeem giggling amongst their friends. The class had been rehearsing something to recite to their guest. Exactly what that something was, I could only guess – it was delivered in such a garbled rush. It may have been multiplication tables.
Through a low archway, in the second room, the higher group were sitting, expectantly facing a blackboard. The headmaster chalked up a few maths problems and chose one or two boys to come and solve them. Ibrahim nodded approvingly by my side so I assumed they must have got the sums right and smiled encouragingly as the boys returned to their places. I made a little speech, previously rehearsed with Ibrahim’s help, on the importance of education. It was greeted with a round of applause before I was asked to write the English alphabet on the board. I’ve never been very good at writing on a chalk board and I’m sure my efforts were a bit disappointing.
The headmaster borrowed “my” horse to warn the cook we were about to arrive for lunch. We walked the few hundred yards to the teachers’ room, making a detour to inspect the progress of the new school building. It was going to be a fine building when completed and everyone was very proud of it. The teachers’ house was one large room in which they all ate, slept, prepared lessons and marked school work. It was already packed with mujahideen, including the two leading Commanders who, of course, must be invited to any special occasion. Books were piled around the room and each teacher had a locked tin trunk in which to store personal belongings.
Pictures – the inevitable Swiss mountain scene and the little boy with the Kalashnikov I’d seen everywhere – and maps adorned the walls. Studying a map of the world I was incensed to discover Scotland had been depicted as part of England. Ibrahim laughed when I muttered crossly about this to him – he’d already heard me explain to various people Scotland was not the same as England.
After lunch one of the Commanders asked about the point I had made regarding Scotland and England. ‘Do you mean the Scottish people are under the control of the English?’
Realising I was unable to fully explain the British political system, I agreed this was true. He asked, ‘Do the Scottish people not want freedom?’
By now, everyone was listening intently to the conversation. ‘Many Scottish people want freedom from the English government. They want to have their own government in Scotland.’
‘Oh, I see – like the Irish? Bobby Sands? But I never heard of any fighting in Scotland?’
‘No, the Scottish people are trying to win their freedom through politics, through talks and agreements. They are not fighting with bombs and bullets. We don’t have Kalashnikovs.’
‘Why don’t your people fight? Can you not buy Kalashnikovs in your country?’
Laughingly, I replied, ‘I think nearly all the Kalashnikovs in the world are with the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Maybe you have some to spare, now that the Russians have gone?’
Everyone shouted with laughter. I felt inordinately proud my first attempted joke in Dari, delivered in public, had gone down so well. I was not quite so sure when, as we were putting our boots on by the door, the Commander drew me aside to ask quietly how many Kalashnikovs I thought would be necessary – and would Stingers be useful?
Lal-sar-Jangal, Hazaristan – early winter 1989
Next day, Slowcoach had obviously decided to accept her fate and make the best of a bad job. She kept moving, if somewhat reluctantly, until we reached the home of Qurban’s patient, Nasir – after four hours.
After we had eaten, Nasir produced some apples. They were so very small and bruised I, at first, assumed they were for the horses. But they were for us. Other than Khudadad’s gift of a melon, they were the first fruit, I’d seen since arriving in Lal. In the summer months, melons are available, brought from Bamiyan, but bananas, oranges, tomatoes are never seen. When Bashir had shown me his English ABC book I’d pointed to the picture of an orange, asking him the Dari word for it. He shook his head, ‘It has no word in Dari,’ he replied. I said there must be, but he insisted there was not. When asked, Qurban explained Bashir had never seen an orange in his life, and assumed there was only an English name for it.
Lal’s climate was certainly not suitable for growing much in the way of fruit. It is only warm three months in the year, the soil is poor, and few farmers have enough land to grow sufficient wheat for their needs, so even vegetables are rarely grown – a few potatoes and turnips. It was hardly surprising so many children in Lal suffered from a variety of health problems caused by poor nutrition. Feeling guilty about even thinking of giving Slowcoach my precious apple, I bit into it as though it was the most delicious thing I’d ever tasted.
Nasir brought his wife and children into the room to meet me. With the exception of the smallest baby – only a few weeks old – all the children had running noses and skin infections, head-lice and, possibly, scabies.
I held the baby, the healthiest person by far in the family while Nasir, with Qurban translating rapidly, gave a prepared speech of welcome. This included a great many flowery sentiments about friendship, followed by references to his poor house, his poor family – ending with an outright appeal for money, for a job. He handed over a written application, setting out his case and asking for financial assistance.
The dinner and the apples had clearly been an investment. Leprosy patients were able to apply to the social care budget for help if their economic situation, and any disability caused by the disease, warranted it. Nasir, however, owned land and was fit enough to work. Mumbling something about discussing the matter with the committee, I pushed the letter into my bag. I wished he had just asked me outright for a loan when we had met at the clinic, without the charade of the lunch party and overtures of friendship.
The following year, Nasir was given a substantial loan with which to buy supplies, in Kabul, to enable him to open a small shop in his village. He returned from Kabul wearing a very smart new suit, very little stock for his shop and the rest of the money had disappeared. A few months after this he put in yet another loan application – despite not having repaid any of the first one – this time it was refused.
Next morning, we left early to return to the clinic and, wonder of wonders, Slowcoach was quite amenable to a getting up a bit of speed, a sort of half jog. Just when I thought I was improving my riding skills, Qurban dashed my hopes by informing me the only reason the horse was prepared to go faster was because she was going home. By the time we reached the clinic I’d decided I never wanted to sit on a horse again – dreams painfully shattered by reality. I was horrified when reminded of Haboly’s invitation for the following weekend, another four hours of torture each way and, worst of all, I learned for the first time, that the journey to Waras would take two days on horseback – each way.
In the meantime I carried on with the work I’d to do, including taking stock of medicines and equipment, a task often interrupted by the women who wanted to talk to me. Although I met dozens of women every day no friendships were formed between us as they were in Jaghoray. Having always subscribed to the feminist principle that all women are sisters, I was appalled to discover I harboured extremely un-sisterly feelings regarding the women of Lal. Every conversation centred entirely round their determination to get medicines or money from me. I felt guilty about my reaction to their constant whining and complaining, their shameless demands, and their dirty smell.
It wasn’t their fault I’d tell myself. I looked at every excuse I could think of – the relentless, grinding poverty, the annual pregnancies, the death of almost half of all infants before the age of five, the lack of education – but still I could not prevent the feelings of frustration, even disgust, as a woman clutched at my clothing, whining for a pejkari, an injection, for her sickly baby. I’d spend time trying to explain her child needed foods such as potatoes, green vegetables (though where she’d find them I didn’t know), yoghurt, eggs. The endlessly patient Rahimy helped to translate, but the woman would close her ears, continuing to demand an injection. Then, realising this mother desperately wanted her child to live I’d force myself to try again.