A lifelong dream has come true and I am in Pakistan to work as an expat gynaecologist at the MSF Women’s Hospital in Peshawar. As I left for Pakistan, my family and friends wished me well. One kind friend even gave me some ‘shalwar kameez’—the traditional outfit of baggy pants and a long, loose overshirt worn by Pakistanis which has become my new working uniform. Some were admiring of my mission, some envious, some incredulous, but all expressed concern. “Stay safe,” was the parting comment from almost everyone. So far, while I am aware that there are dangers all around, I have never felt unsafe.
After a couple of days of orientation and briefing in Islamabad, I am off by car to Peshawar, near the north-west frontier with Afghanistan. I am surprised at first by the width of the highway—at least four lanes each way—but then the differences to home become apparent. Mostly, there are no lane markings, and where they do exist, little notice seems to be taken of them. The vehicles, large and small, move from left to right, overtaking or being overtaken in a way that is haphazard yet finds its own order; they glide like skaters on an oversized ice rink.
We approach the dusty city of Peshawar. It’s usually dusty, I’m told, but worse in recent weeks as there has been no rain.
My driver takes me on the ‘short cut’ (so he tells me) to the MSF expat house. We pass through the older part of the city, the narrow backstreets, and I feel I am going back in time. The road itself is bitumen (mostly) but the verges and footpaths, right up to the front of the shops and businesses, are just bare earth. The pedestrian traffic is mostly male—the few women are always walking at least in pairs, and always wearing shawls or burkas, partly in respectful concealment, partly for wise protection from the dust. It is so dusty this season that I even see some men wearing surgical masks. Vehicles of all shapes and sizes are crazily overloaded, as anyone who has visited this region will recall. Every surface of the buses, trucks and auto-rickshaws is decorated with colourful paintings of flowers, birds, animals, each surrounded by a patterned frieze. Art on wheels! Great pride in ownership, no matter how old or humble the vehicle.
It happens to be the end of the school day and as we are driving through suburbia, some schoolchildren are walking home (I can’t believe their uniforms can look so clean!), but most are transported. There is clearly no law (or none that’s followed) limiting the capacity of passenger transport. I see a tiny auto-rickshaw packed with more than a dozen children, where there is seating for three. Limbs and smiling faces stick out. The tray of a small truck carries a pyramid of schoolboys. Miraculously they stay on, even as the truck lurches as it hits potholes or swerves to avoid other vehicles. I am fascinated by what I see; I could drive around all day watching this real-life documentary.
We arrive at the big gates of the expat house. The driver toots and the watchman comes down from his sentry box to open them. We enter the high-walled compound – a necessary security measure for many NGOs in Pakistan. Everyone is smiling and greeting me, opening doors, carrying luggage, and chorusing how lovely it is to see me here. The reason, I discover later, is that there had been no expat gynaecologist at the hospital for the last couple of months, which had placed stress on the project.
I had braced myself for very basic living conditions, so I am pleasantly surprised by the house, which was clean and comfortable, with large rooms. Seven of us are sharing the house. Security is tight, yet I do not feel afraid at all. I am keen to start work at the hospital.