"Just human beings" - Joining the team in Pakistan

South African lawyer Eben has just started his first posting with MSF, in Pakistan. He shares his first impressions...

Eben van Tonder and an MSF colleague in Pakistan

It’s Saturday morning and the end of a busy week. I arrived here a month ago. But it’s been a long journey getting to this point – almost a year since my partner, Fran and I had a discussion about my calling to volunteer and I submitted my application to Médecins sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF). Thank goodness, with age comes patience.

I’d been aware of MSF for a long time but always assumed they only recruit doctors. It is after all called DOCTORS Without Borders. Only when I actively researched it did I realise that my skills could be useful and I could apply. I’m a lawyer by profession but also have corporate experience in HR matters such as recruitment, evaluations and disciplinary procedures.
Image shows Eben, a man in his forties or fifties, with shoulder length curly blond or silver hair, wearing an MSF t-shirt
Photo: MSF
I’m incredibly fortunate to have a partner who supports and motivates me on this journey. I always knew being separated from Fran and Lula (our adopted Labrador) would be the toughest part of this. It is without a doubt the single biggest sacrifice to make.
But I don’t know of a bigger gift to give than your time. It’s easy to donate money, but time can never be fully quantified. Having said that, this is only temporary; I know I get to go back home and continue with my life. But for the people relying on us here, there is no going away. This is their home and their daily reality.

I’m incredibly fortunate to have a partner who supports and motivates me on this journey

The district we work in has approximately 1.4 million inhabitants and it’s estimated that a further 500,000 people from surrounding districts also use our facilities. The ER has, on average, 14,000 patients per month and the maternity ward around 1,000 deliveries per month.
After arriving in Pakistan, I spent about a week in the capital, Islamabad awaiting special travel permission from the authorities before coming to Timergara. Our district is not too far away from the Afghan border and for obvious security reasons foreigners’ movements to and in the area are restricted.
Due to the history and context, there are many security measures in place to ensure our safety - something Fran takes great comfort in. General walking around is not allowed and we are all transported by MSF vehicles between our house and the office/hospital. All international staff live in one big house.
Image shows Eben and a colleague holding up a pair of trousers wide enough to fit them both!
One size fits all! Photo: MSF
We all have to dress in the local attire whenever we leave the compound. The traditional shalwar kameez was something to get used to in the beginning. But it helps us blend in and I think it certainly helps with our general acceptance in the community. I was initially surprised by the size of the shalwar (pants). It’s really big – one size fits all. Needless to say we men on the international team have had many amusing discussions and demonstrations about the logistics of this while trying to use a squat toilet. There are as many opinions as there are men in the team and we are still no closer to a solution. Trust me, the struggle is real.
Our days here typically start with everyone having breakfast before departing to the hospital or office. Our work week is Monday to Thursday plus a half day on Friday, while the medical team that has an after-hours presence at the hospital stays overnight. Most of us bring work back to the compound in the evenings and over weekends. The team is really very committed and puts in a lot of hours.

The kindness and generosity of complete strangers continues to amaze and humble me

Workwise it’s been very busy. My position of HR Support works with the HR Manager to recruit local staff and also deal with disciplinary issues that may arise. My greatest challenge, job-wise, is to recruit a female gynecologist. Local women here are generally not allowed to work unless their families consent to it. But at the same time, no male staff are allowed in the maternity ward – not even male relatives, husbands or fathers.
Image shows Eben smiling in his pale blue shalwaar kameez, which he wears in a light-filled garden
Photo: MSF.
This is a very conservative part of the country. Yet I am often struck by the generosity and sincerity of people here.
During a recent interview for a supervisory position, I met an internal candidate applying for the job. When I asked him why he works for MSF, he told a story that will stay with me. He said, with tears in his eyes, that a relative of his was seriously ill a couple of years ago. They brought him to the hospital and MSF doctors saved his life without charging them anything. After that he decided to resign a secure job to join MSF as a contract worker because “they are good people” and that’s why he works for MSF. He was also the best candidate for the job and the recruitment panel was unanimous in recommending him for the position. It gave me great joy to relay the news of his appointment to him.

It gave me great joy to relay the news of his appointment to him.

On another day a colleague and I walked to a local shop to buy some snacks. The owner immediately knew that we came from the MSF office. He hugged and greeted us warmly, and invited us to his house for lunch. We could not accept due to our security protocols, and although it was hard for me to turn him down, we thanked him with the local Pashtun word “manana” (“thank you”) and declined. He got visibly emotional that we “spoke his language” and just the one word of Pashtun made him even more determined for us to join him. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Nelson Mandela who noted that by learning the language of his jailers, he spoke to their hearts. The shop owner finally understood that we could not accept his invitation, but I was glad we had made a connection.
I’ve had the privilege to travel and volunteer in different places with my partner and it’s been our experience that people, for all our perceived differences, are just human beings. I see the same in Pakistan, where the kindness and generosity of complete strangers continues to amaze and humble me.