[This post is being published out of order; it was written in May 2014]
There is free cake in this story, though you may not believe me at first. But trust me, there really is free cake, so read on…
The MSF mechanic testing our moody incinerator burner:
A couple of months ago, my mechanic in Lashkar Gah (provincial capital of Helmand, Afghanistan) requested a few days of annual leave to visit his relatives living in Pakistan, including two of his sons sent there for studies. Sadly, he wasn’t able to make the trip as planned; instead of spending father-son time with his young boys, he helped with funeral arrangements in Kandahar for his sister-in-law and her husband. Driving down a dirt road in one of the districts, their tractor hit a roadside bomb. When my mechanic arrived back to Lashkar Gah, he brought his phone to show me photos of the little that remained of the tractor – a few oversized shards of metal contorted into oversized barbed wire, sitting in the tall grass by the side of the road, serving no purpose to anyone.
He’s a tremendously funny guy, though – check out his beard:
In April, about a week before I left Lashkar Gah, my mechanic had a baby daughter born in the maternity at Bost Hospital. One evening several days later, he called me for help – his wife was unwell and he worried her condition was quickly becoming serious. He brought her to the hospital, where the maternity staff took care of her, and it all turned out quite well.
The following morning, I could see on his face that my mechanic hadn’t slept very well – a logical outcome after the stress of the previous night. As a general rule in Afghanistan, there is a separation between men and women. Owing to this cultural norm, men are not allowed inside maternities, with limited exceptions in some facilities for male hospital staff. He therefore had to return home after his wife was admitted, driving two female relatives to the hospital to act as his wife’s caretakers during her stay.
It came as no surprise to me that he was so tired, but as I spoke with him near the huge hospital generators, he appeared not to understand much of what I was saying. With faint signs of pain on his face, I asked if he had a headache and needed to see the staff doctor. His smile – a smile I knew very well after nearly nine months working together – told me that I was on the wrong track but that he would happily help clear my silly foreigner confusion (I was fortunate to manage a team of guys who were not shy to point out and correct my frequent incomprehension, but were also skilled at doing so without offending me at all).
Letting loose a little laugh, he pointed to one ear and said “Sorry, my heering… no good – no workeen. Paroon (yesterday) nighte, my wipe go haspital. After, I bring anadder, stay haspital por my wipe. I am dribe near Kandaharadda (station for buses going to Kandahar), in prant ob maykanic shope. My car, here – fipty meeter derr – blast. My ear apter, no good. Yesterday, two ear, no good. Today, one ear ok, one ear steel no good. Bat, no problem.”
If you didn’t quite understand, allow me to translate: “Sorry, I’m not able to hear well. Yesterday night, I took my wife to the hospital, then I made a second trip to bring female relatives to stay with her. I was driving near the Kandahar bus station, past the mechanic shops, when there was an explosion fifty metres from my car. I couldn’t hear properly afterwards. Yesterday, my hearing was bad in both ears; today, I hear well in one ear but not the other. It’s no big deal, though – I’m fine.”
Later that day, as I drank sweet afternoon tea with my technical team in the workshop, the mechanic arrived with something to share: cake to celebrate not being dead. I joked that I was happy he was alive, because we got free cake as a result. While he understood my English better than he let on, he replied in Pashto, as he often did. I understood his words before my assistant could translate: “I’m not happy. If I were dead I wouldn’t need to spend money on this cake!” We all laughed with him, enjoyed a few minutes of cake and tea, then returned to our job of keeping Bost Provincial Hospital running.