Pakistan: The true spirit of MSF

HR specialist Eben is in Pakistan, where he's working to ensure that the MSF/Doctors Without Borders project in Timergara has the staff it needs to continue its vital work. Here he blogs about the quest for a female gynaecologist, and about life in the team...

Eben van Tonder eating lunch in Pakistan

A lot has been happening since my last blog. I have been very busy and time has flown by. I am now officially one third into my assignment and by the time this is published I will probably be at the half way mark.

Workwise, I am neck deep into various recruitments – the female gynecologist still being my biggest challenge. If you read my previous blog, you will understand the challenges we are facing in this regard. To this end our current international staff gyne, Kanya, agreed to appear in a promotional video clip which we have finished shooting.

Image shows Kanya, the gynaecologist, in her green hospital scrubs

Kanya at work. Photo: Nasir Ghafoor / MSF.

Nasir, the MSF communications officer for Pakistan came from Islamabad to assist us with this venture. We had to wait until after hours when the hospital is not too busy to do the filming and had very limited time in which to do so. I take my hat off to Dr. Kanya who got passionately involved in the shooting of our promotional recruitment video with Nasir – this after a long day on her feet in the operating theatre. We could not ask for a better spokesperson who truly epitomizes the true spirit of MSF. Now we just need to find our local female gynecologist for the project.

Image shows Eben, wearing hospital scrubs, waving at the camera

At the hospital. Photo: Nasir Ghafoor / MSF.

Because of our limited movements here in Timergara, we each get a long weekend break every six weeks in the capital. It was great to have a change from the daily confinements and I only realized how exhausted I was when I started to relax a bit. It is an arduous journey, it is only around 250km but it takes between 5 – 7 hours depending on traffic.

On the Saturday morning of my long weekend, I went to a shopping mall to get a few things for the team back at base. This is part of your long weekend duty – you go shopping for the team to find things that are not readily available in the remote area where we are.

I truly do not understand all the negative press around Pakistan. Since my arrival here, I have been treated with nothing but friendliness and respect.

The driver took me to this massive three tower shopping mall. I had a cup of coffee at one of the many food court establishments when suddenly the fire alarm went off. Oh great I thought, just my luck. Almost immediately I was approached by two security officers from opposite directions rushing straight towards me. They promptly assured me that I need not be concerned and that it was just a test of the system. One of them insisted on staying with me the entire time. I truly do not understand all the negative press around Pakistan. Since my arrival here, I have been treated with nothing but friendliness and respect. Even though there is plenty security around, I have never felt threatened or afraid.

I managed to get some postcards and on my way back to our Islamabad residence I asked the driver to please stop at a post office as I needed stamps for the postcards. So we stopped at a post office where the security guard – an uncle with an AK47 – (nothing strange here) asked me what I needed.

I’m so embarrassed I don’t know what to say

I explained that I needed some stamps for my post cards to South Africa. This immediately started the now familiar conversation (when I mention I’m South African) about cricket and various South African players like AB De Villiers, Hasim Amla and Imran Tahir (who hails from Lahore, Pakistan). I usually thank who ever starts the conversation for Tahir and assure them, tongue in cheek, that we are giving him citizenship and not returning him to his country of birth! 

So, after discussing cricket, the uncle marches me into the post office, AK47 over the shoulder, and loudly announces that I’m here for stamps (or 'tickets' as they're called here), pushing me past the long line of waiting customers. He promptly summons the gentleman in charge to come and serve me. At this point I’m so embarrassed I don’t know what to say. I was perfectly willing to wait my turn in line. Oh and did I mention uncle had an AK47 so I’m not arguing J. Needless to say, two mins later I’m the proud owner of Rs. 500 worth of tickets (stamps).

Image shows Eben, wearing his salwar kameez, eating a hearty lunch in Pakistan

A hearty lunch! Photo: MSF

We recently had to say goodbye to six of our international staff team who had reached the end of their postings. One third of the team left all at once, making home life much quieter suddenly but this is the reality of life in a project. I can’t help wondering how the team dynamic and energy will be affected by this.

Our neighbors at the international staff house, I’m told, are Afghan refugees. Every afternoon when we return home the little boy comes running up to our car and wave enthusiastically at us while giving us the biggest smile. It truly is the highlight of my day, every day.

Recently when we arrived home one evening after work, our chacha (cook) surprised us by decorating our dining area with Christmas decor – complete with a miniature Christmas tree. This from a person who does not celebrate Christmas but did it to make us feel at home. Small gestures like this make the time away from home more bearable. Manana (thanks) chacha.

Well that’s it for now. Take care!