MarySmith’sPlace -Back in the saddle, bribery and injections Afghanistan adventures#42

Lal-sar-Jangal, Hazaristan – early winter 1989

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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.

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 The healthiest child in the family.

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.

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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.

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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.

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I don’t remember where this was taken but it reminded me of when there was no worries about  lockdown hair!

55 thoughts on “MarySmith’sPlace -Back in the saddle, bribery and injections Afghanistan adventures#42

  1. Mary, it takes courage in such circumstances and fortunately, you are well endowed with it. I am grateful for this window into your journey. You are gifted with the ability to really take the reader with you and we love you for it.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Mary, your fortitude and patience is incredible … your article gives us a vivid image of the people, remote region, stark poverty. Yikes, two days in horseback just one way must have been so painful! Have you done much horse riding since your time here? Wishing you a lovely Sunday! Xx

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    • My patience often came close to running out at this clinic, Annika, and I found it depressing to not be able to make a difference. At least nowadays there are schools for girls, some of whom go on to university, so the level of ignorance I met has begun to disappear. I haven’t been on a horse since I came home!

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  3. I can understand your frustration Mary and a healthy dose of reality about our own pampered lives where slightly bruised apples might end up in the compost heap. This rampant poverty is not eradicated and 30 years on Nasir’s children, if they survived to adulthood, no doubt are facing the same challenges. Excellent.. will share later in the week.. hugsx

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  4. The incremental wearing down of compassion is cruel, and both responses are entirely understandable and difficult to deal with when in the middle i can well imagine. You had a lot of resilience but i imagine there were times when that felt in as short supply as green veg

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  5. It is only human to become worn down by constant demands, and the idea that an injection from a westerner can solve any problem. I suppose that given their ignorance and poverty, the appearance of a foreigner must have seemed like ‘deliverance’ to them.
    You photo reminded me of when so many people wore glasses with lenses as big as car windscreens! 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

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    • You are right, Pete, and they were very upset with me for not providing ‘deliverance’ – and for suggesting there were things they could do themselves. I think of those as my Benazir Bhutto glasses – she had a wonderful pair, even bigger with red frames.

      Liked by 3 people

  6. A very interesting post, a realistic insight into lives so different and how hard to feel good connections. It does make you wonder how people survive generation after generation in an unforgiving environment.

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    • Thanks, Janet. It was an unforgiving environment – and yet stunningly beautiful (to my eyes). I did a survey while there and almost every women I met had lost one, usually more, child before it reached the age of five.

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  7. Pingback: MarySmith’sPlace -Back in the saddle, bribery and injections Afghanistan adventures#42 | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

    • One of the problems, Jacquie, is that the area is very remote and most of the bigger aid agencies didn’t want the hassle of getting there – they preferred to be in the cities or at least in more accessible places. Fortunately, a few other small agencies have been doing some good work there, especially in the area of education for girls. I reckon that’s probably one of the best ways to invest in the future.

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    • I got TB when I was in Pakistan – I suspect from sharing a smoking pipe with the wives of fishermen living in huts near the sea, I received excellent treatment and it cleared up. In Afghanistan, I was very healthy and didn’t catch anything. Quite surprising when I look back!

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    • You are right, Nasir thought only about himself and what he personally could get out of the organisation. From what I hear he is still being a pain – demanding that all leprosy patients should be paid a wage!

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  8. What a reall depressive situation, you had came in. I think most of the people there are living this way, and in the Western world we are producting and selling weapons to make the life of much more such people as difficult as possible. ;-( Thank you for sharing another episode of your experiences, Mary. I would have given up after two weeks at the latest, without having to sit on a horse at all, during this time. Best wishes, Michael

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    • The West has never understood that it doesn’t have the right to interfere in other countries and carries on doing it. When I was in Lal, I did find it difficult but fortunately not everywhere was so difficult. And I got better at sitting on horses 🙂

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  9. Lovely photo Mary…such a sad state of affairs it must have been difficult for you and hard to know how generations of what was most needed(injections) as the cure-all for everything was uppermost rather than looking for solutions but I suppose life was just about survival…I wonder how much that has changed since your last visit…As always an interesting read which makes us realise how privileged we are…Hugs x

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    • You are correct, Carol, is saying it was all about survival. Maybe not people like Nasir, who is a born troublemaker – but the mothers desperate for something to help their sick babies. They had no knowledge or understanding about nutrition. Things have slowly started to change – but it all takes so much time and patience.

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      • There are people like Nasir all over who think life owes them a living and that it is all about them…I can image about the patience especially in countries like Afghanistan as so much is ingrained in society especially about the woman’s place and men are slow to change that ….:)

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  10. I appreciate your honest recollections. Mary. While I’m sure you could empathize with their situation, nobody likes to be manipulated. I can understand why you became frustrated.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It really was the most frustrating place I worked in, Pete. I’m not sure how much it has changed but certainly I know of education projects and schools for girls. Already some of the girls have gone on to university so there is hope of progress.

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