Nursing in Pakistan: The PPD and the Pakistani Tea

How do you become a member of the MSF / Doctors Without Borders team? Annke blogs from Pakistan about her decision to take the plunge, and about what happened next...

How do you become a member of the MSF / Doctors Without Borders team? Annke blogs from Pakistan about her decision to take the plunge, and about what happened next...

One day, last October, I was sitting in my favourite coffee spot in the mall in my home town, Witbank, thinking about what I could do with my future, when I looked up and noticed the MSF marketing stand just outside the shop. Then I thought: I want to do something like that... and so the dream was born! While enjoying my cappuccino, I searched the MSF website and was very glad to see that I could apply for an assignment as a nurse with MSF ☺ And I did just that!

One month later I was invited for an interview at the office in Marshalltown in Johannesburg. I showed up 10 minutes early at the office for the interview. Augustin walked me out of the building after our meeting and then suddenly stopped and asked how I knew where the office was because I never asked for instructions on how to get there. (And there I secretly thought it was a test to see I if I could cope with something out of my usual routine!)  I just laughed and told him that Google knows everything.

Off to... Norway?

Image shows Annke in the snow in Norway, wearing a warm hood

Experiencing thick snow for the first time, on PPD in Oslo, Norway. Photo: Annke Yssel / MSF

A short while later I found myself walking through the February snow in Oslo, Norway where I attended the Preparation for Primary Departure course, also known as the PPD. Here I met other MSF-newbies. We were introduced to the what, where and how of MSF. I met humanitarians from 18 countries and we received training on management, security and teamwork. We had many discussions that would help us to be better prepared for that first posting.

Image shows a beautiful Norwegian landscape

The postcard-view from the window in the hostel. Photo: Annke Yssel / MSF

Back home from the PPD, I started preparing for that first assignmnent. I bought a bunch of colours of yarn and made a small blanket from knitted and crocheted squares from friends and family, a little comfort-something from home to take with me. Then I received THE call...

I have a role for you in Pakistan, my career manager said. Are you willing to go?


Less than a month later, visa in hand, I was on the plane to Islamabad and heading to my first assignment as a nurse with MSF. The adventure began!

But the airport was nothing like other airports that I have been through before. There was one baggage carousel and seemingly a million people waiting for their luggage. With a lot of careful shoving (to try and avoid making bodily contact), earnest apologies and careful footwork, I saw my bright pink suitcase on the belt. I wrestled my way to the front and I was reunited with my belongings.

I headed for the exit but found two lines: a red line and a green line. I did not want to assume that green is for 'nothing to declare', but I found no visible explanation of the red or the green so I headed for the green anyway. I could see the exit that way. Then an official stopped me and asked for my luggage tag. He checked my bag and dismissed me with a quick head shake (which I know now as a kind of indication of agreement or saying ‘OK’).

I decided that panic would not help me at all

I headed for the exit,  only to find a sea of Pakistani men dressed in light coloured shalwar kameez (the traditional men’s attire of a long tunic and wide pants). All were waiting for their people to come through the doors. The sight was overwhelming! I almost panicked, thinking ‘How will I find the MSF driver among this crowd?’

I decided that panic would not help me at all. I had all the contact numbers in my bag, as per instructions, and I was sure that I could find a pay phone if I really had to. So I kept walking until I found a quiet spot and I waited. Sure enough, the friendly, elderly man found me and in his hand was the paper with my name on.

"Welcome to Pakistan” he smiled.

Tea, glorious tea!

That was Friday and I slept for a few hours in the house for international staff, in a huge room with a cool, tiled floor, an air-conditioning unit and a light blue mosquito net. It was right in the middle of a heat wave. I was taken to the office for lunch and my first briefing. I was served my first Pakistani lunch of naan bread and spicy chicken stew with tea.

Tea, glorious tea! I received a small cup with sweet loose leaf black tea, brewed with milk. And it tasted like home. Rather like the Koffiehuis-in-a-bag coffee with condensed milk that we brewed on the fire when camping back in South Africa. And I loved the tea. I sat alone for a moment to savour the even better taste of my second cup and my quick longing for home in the middle of this amazing adventure.

It tasted like home

It took a week of waiting in Islamabad for the holidays and the paperwork to come through then I got to travel to Timergara where the project is. We were eight travelling in the minibus and I was the only woman. This meant that I got the front seat and the best view of the mountains ☺                       

I experienced a five-hour journey through the small towns and the mountains with an interesting take on traffic rules, not to mention the complete lack of a white stripe in the centre of the road. I was quietly very impressed with the driver and his skilful driving all the way.

My room in the house was huge and I had a view of the beautiful, green mountains. And my adventure began for real!

Image shows the beautiful view from Annke's window in MSF Pakistan

A fluffy-cloud sunset. Photo: Annke Yssel / MSF.