Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Poo Poo Thoughts

I am in a terrible mood. Really. You would be as well, if you went through a colonoscopy and stepped on shit. I am in Mumbai, India, taking a breather after a grueling week in Afghanistan and few days in UP, India. My doctor advises it would be a good idea to have a complete physical, including a colonoscopy done every other year, since I am now fifty-six with history of family cancer. As it is (still) cheaper to have these things done in India, and my good Doctor Wakeel from Al Imaan here to arrange things with reputable hospitals without me having to declare bankruptcy or lose an organ, I have been going through the routine of fasting and cleansing my guts and having doctors prod instruments in parts of my body I’d rather not mention.

My mood nosedives as I return from an errand buying antiseptic soap from a Banya store around the corner from my hotel. Groggy from general anesthesia, I notice a filthy cur that is desperately, unsuccessfully trying to scratch it’s flea infected itchy back. A lout, probably drunk or stoned, bends over, relieves the itch and the cur licks the aiding hand in gratitude. Near the hotel, a wedding party startles everybody, especially stray dogs, with an ear splitting crash of drums, fireworks and bangra dancing by young teenagers. The tune is catchy, by Daler Mehndi I think, something Bale Bale. Why, were it not my state of mind, I would have broken out into a jig myself.
I guess I take some blame not looking where I step, knowing streets in urban India, even in good neighborhoods, have stray dogs, drunks or stoned humans with defecation needs and public toilets scarce, non-existent. But I am distracted, and step on a pile of poo-poo; human, cattle or dog, I am unsure, nor care, right outside my hotel in an ‘upscale’ neighborhood of suburban Juhu. I abandon my fine pair of sandals immediately, passionately cursing the culprit animal (or human) and their entire ancestry and progeny with some colorful, powerful vocabulary I am now shocked I possess. A street urchin across the street, resting from all the dancing, watches my predicament with a bemused look, moves with astonishing speed, scoops up the soiled sandal and bolts away like a speeding jet taking off; as if I want the shitty footwear back. And what good is one pair to him? So I take the other pair and hurl it towards the retreating nincompoop, cursing his intelligence as well; yes, I am in that mood. I can feel and hear the doorman and security guys hooting with delight at the unfolding drama but I don’t care, ignore them. I tiptoe barefoot into the hotel lobby to be gawked at by Minakshi, the pretty receptionist, who opens her mouth to ask me the obvious question but stifles it when she sees my scary scowl. Poor Minakshi.

When will this great intriguing country take control of her human and animal dumping behaviors? I despair. Having divorced India two years ago, I now have a love – hate relationship with her. I eagerly look forward to be with her whenever I visit, at least three times a year, but frustration and hopelessness sets in once here. I have great fondness for India, my fore parents being from here perhaps, but it is more than this fact. India gives me a sense of belonging, of being home, among billion plus humans that pulsate this country.

India has lots to contribute, to me, to the world, in varied fields. Indians excel in IT, medical and business acumen outside of India; I can see their impact in the US. Why the crippling mismanagement, brazen corruption and resulting apathy reserved for Mother India? Boggles the mind, no?

When cricket match fixing and betting fiasco sullied the national Pakistani team players few years ago, Indian media went into uncontrollable frenzy of arrogant smugness. Che-che, how shameful, this certainly will not / cannot happen in India, boasted Sunil Gavaskar with a snobbish expression. Hah! Never say never! The IPL match fixing / betting humiliation blew up on his face last week and he eats humble pies now, desperately trying to fend off his prior censure of the neighboring rival.

Sadly, it’s all about easy money and absolutely no accountability; the rot starts from the apex to the very bottom. The politicians are very involved, always looking for a place to park black money, so they will not consider legalized betting, which will shutter the stashing outlet. Yes, there is corruption all over the world but the brazenness in India is mind blowing.

The IPL ruckus has Mumbai police is a tizzy. For the first time in my seventeen years of visiting India, the CID came calling. It is 2:30AM and the hotel night manager calls. I jerk awake in panic; is it family calling, emergency at home? I relax somewhat; they would call my cell, not the hotel phone. The manager is apologetic, says the CID wants to come up and check the room. Eh? Why? Routine search, nothing to worry about, they are doing this at all hotels. Highly unusual, no? Not really, normal procedure. All kinds of legal rights come to mind, but I am not home in the US, can’t rationalize my thought process; I concede entry.

In walks a Laurel and Hardy pair. Hah, what are you doing Saa’b? Um, sleeping? Aree, no, what are you doing in India. Medical needs, visiting friends. Oooo, what is the matter Saa’b? Routine health check. Hmmm, what hospital? Global Hospital. Do you have your passport with you? Yes. Let me see it please. I open the hotel safe and hand my passport to Laurel. American eh? Yes. Born in Tanzania eh? Yes. You speak good Hindi, where did you learn it? Awaara, Anaari, Bobby, Aradhana, Mera Naam Joker...Bollywood. Hahaha, bohoot aacha. Theek hai. Thank you. They depart.

With general elections looming and the opposition in disarray, many pundits predict a hung parliament, so we can expect more of the same. Its sad, says Preity Zinta, actress and an IPL team owner, in a recent interview about the current Indian state of affairs; I agree, wholeheartedly. She then says she wants to become a politician, try and improve the current status quo. I think I will Tweet her and suggest priority number one, if elected – death sentence, on the spot, for any dog, stray or otherwise, caught defecating. Loss of crown jewels, on the spot, for any man doing the same. Harsh, yes; effective, very.

Hmm, what should I suggest Preity do about women caught in the act? Let me muse over a suitable punishment.   

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Afghanistan Once Again - Part One

Visiting Afghanistan is always a challenge; security jitters, uncertainties about almost everything, inordinate security checks, senseless laws, rural and remote areas horrendous logistics, and the weather can and does play havoc on visitors, especially NGO’s like CAI. Even more frustrating, to me, is the protocol of pretense so prevalent in Afghan culture; why, what a waste of time! We have very limited time, what with average of a flight a day to remote location in seven days we are in Afghanistan. Several people seek my attention, showing up with requests for funding various projects, almost all water related. They come, we get up, say sallam, kiss, kiss, cheek to cheek, sit down, polite inquiry about health, family and everything else under the sky, to each visitor; this is repeated when they depart; makes me want to tear my remaining hair out. This trip, my twenty-fourth to Afghanistan, is no exception. My good friend and mentor Aliakber Ratansi from Mumbai and Muslim Faisal of Dubai accompany me on this trip.

Who would have thought CAI donors could accomplish so much in seven years, maasha’Allah! The projects completed so far are not short of miracles from Allah (S). Fourteen schools, three very remote medical clinics, two orphanages, water wells or water distribution projects that satisfy needs of over one hundred thousand destitute people, food aid to thousands, life saving winter blankets and heating coals to several thousands, medical assistance for life / death cases and education to the deserving are some areas CAI donors have stepped in and opened their hearts and pockets. These projects would have taxed the most efficient of any NGO in any ‘normal’ country. But with Afghanistan, under limitations stated above, these accomplishments are extraordinarily sensational.  Again, maasha’Allah, all praise belongs to Allah (S).

A prerequisite of anybody wanting to accompany me is a promise of a Blog that captures ones stay in this wretched country, so that you, the reader, do not have to read my repeated jaundiced perspective. Muslim has done the honors this time around, clicking away as if his life depended on capturing as many moments as possible on his cellphone camera; you can read his Blog below, view photos here.

My Afghan Escapade

This is my first trip with Comfort Aid International and my first blog entry. We arrive in Kabul a little after noon and are met by Engineer Basheer who accompanies us to the residence of our host Engineer Wasi. We spend the night here and prepare for adventures to follow next morning. We are up for salaat at an unholy hour of 3:30AM, breakfast and off to the airport. We fly in a Kodiak six seat aircraft contracted by CAI to the small Nili ‘airport’ – if you can call it that. This is our gateway into Daikundi province. Once out, we pass Nili downtown (bazaar), make some purchases and start for the s site to CAI's 13th sschool. We approach a huge number of people crowded on the bumpy road; Dr Asif announces that they are here to receive us. We are greeted with kisses, hugs and flowers (unfortunately plastic ones) and loud chants. What initially seems like a crowd of people turns out to be a well-planned reception with a person leading chants over a loud speaker and the children responding in sync - ‘Salle ala Muhammad, Khushamdeed, Dar Manteqae Mahroom (Bless Muhammad, welcome to the underprivileged state). 

We climb to the construction site to see the progress with the six-class room building. The walls are all done but it has no roof as yet. While Uncle Ali Akbar checks on the accuracy of construction Yusufali discusses water supply for the toilets that are yet to be constructed. A solution is not found but the responsibility is laid on the people of Nili, led by another Haji Ali Akbar to supply water to the site as initially agreed. In the meanwhile, students get together on the roof of a nearby Hussainiya. We join them and a program of around an hour is initiated with the recitation of the Holy Quran, followed by a poem in Dari, a welcome lecture by a student. Ustaad Faheem (an old resident teacher) then addresses the crowd, followed by short lecture by Engineer Basheer Ahmed Rizai, our Engineer. 

A drizzle leads to change in the climate of the day and we decide to pray inside the Hussainiya rather than above it. People start praying Furada but some got together and pray with us behind Yusufali. We are served some rice with meat and beans. Mirinda cans are distributed and ‘chai’ follows. Over lunch we learn that there are grave misunderstandings between factions of the village and groups never sit with each other - many of them carry weapons when meeting people of the other faction. With this school the groups have come together and insha’Allah, with the help of Allah SWT, these differences will be foregone and a more united and progressive community will be prepared for the next generation of better-educated villagers. 

On the way to the school Yusufali mentions children here have lovely rosy cheeks that cut and bleed in biting freezing winter winds. On our way out, saying goodbyes, I notice a child standing by the tree wearing bright blue shalwar kameez – I think his name is Gul Ahmed – As Yusufali is exchanging greetings with him, I noticed the cuts on his rosy cheeks; wonder if they were bleeding the night before ?

Off we go to the next project. We have three and a half hours of Wadi Bashing with Sher Hussain, the astute driver that leads us through horrendous, dangerous lanes of springs, villages and beautiful valleys. We end the journey at the Imam Sajjad (A) clinic in Dairooz. CAI began operation of this clinic a year ago in a leased mud-house.

Since the doctor has moved to Sachek clinic around a month ago, nurse Ibrahim manages this clinic. He sees around 60 patients a day in the OPD – registers of each diagnosis is maintained and medicine dispensed also noted. Yusufali is wary about a nurse dispensing medicines, insists a doctor be found at the earliest. Dr. Asif (CAI co-ordinator for the three clinics) is asked to find a medical doctor by June or personally move here .

Some thirty village elders come to greet us and request CAI construct a clinic of its own. Yusufali meets them cordially but makes no commitments. He insists this clinic is still not operating to its full potential; the clinic is new and a doctor needs to be found. After a few years of successful operation CAI may consider this request. An appeal is also made for a masjid nearby, but again Yusufali is unable to help.

Another 3:30 morning and we are on our way back to Nili for another 2 projects – sheep distribution to widows and a mass marriage program. On our way we notice many children walking to school on these narrow stony roads that have a mountain on one side and a valley on the other – no barriers whatsoever. I cannot help wonder what it would be like if I was living here. My sons Muhammad and Hassan would run to school everyday or do home schooling? But there is no Internet access here – no starfall, YouTube or games. Electricity is dependent on generators, so most probably they would go to school. Then I notice a child step back giving our vehicle way; nothing happens and he is safe. But I wonder what would happen if one of my sons fell into the ravine, how would I even find out about the incident? I try to busy myself by photographing the scenery but with slightly moist eyes. 

We reach the site and realize the governor of Daikundi province Qurban Ali Uruzgani is also attending the function. But since the marriages are yet to begin and widows waiting, we decide to distribute first. 127 sheep lay before us, including the 48 ewes that were born after the sheep were purchased. Another 4 sheep are still pregnant and will deliver anytime. The names of the widows are called and they are given control of their gift as pre-decided by the CAI team. It is a struggle for the ladies to start the journey against the will of the animals who are happy in the safety of numbers.

The governor is already at the marriage function and is giving a speech when we enter through security and straight to VIP seats at the front. Engineer Bashir then speaks on behalf of CAI, followed by Khanum Razaei - minister of Women’s affairs (also the host of this program), Justice Minister, Chief of Education, Minister of Finance and a groom and the father of a bride. We are then escorted into the governmental building for lunch with the governor and other VIP. Through Bashir Yusufali conveys a special thanks to the governor for the help he provided for water supply to another clinic in Uzmuk. Kind words are exchanged, general discussions continue over lunch. We request Khanum Razaei to allow us place to offer salaat and then we are off to Uzmuk for our last leg in the province of Daikundi. 

We arrive by Asr to find a queue of patients waiting their turn. Apparently Dr. Sardar here sees around a 100 patients on average. I go into the OPD room to understand what is happening and witness a patient who has travelled five hours to reach here. Dr tests her for anaemia which she is not so requests her to travel another hour to the Nili DH (a government hospital in Nili) for further tests and a firm diagnosis – he guesses that she might have a heart condition. Another patient is having heartburn and a third is complaining of vaginal discharge and pain in the abdomen. An ultrasound is carried out to learn she is suffering from Pelvic Inflammatory Disease – which is one of the common issues with ladies here. 

Basheer comes calling for me. When I step out into the veranda I see over fifty people crowded around Yusufali. They come with the request of building a school in the village and a dam. We learn that a school is semi-finished and already in use for boys classes. They request they would like to have the girls study separately. Yusufali insists they should suffice with this building and educate both genders in shifts. He offers to help finish the structure if the current contractor defaults. I quickly visit the school that is a ten-minute climb from the clinic; the classes are running; by the time I finish taking photographs, students request for a sports facility. I carry this request letter back to Yusufali, knowing the fate all too well…

We are about to sit for tea when Dr. Sardar sends for me. He is doing ultrasound of a 7-year-old child. In the bladder is a 14mm size stone(s) that seem to have come from his kidney. His father informs us that the child is constantly wailing with pain that does not subside easily. I come back and report to Yusufali who calls for the child and his parents. He relates his own experience with kidney stones and tells the father he understands how intense the pain feels; consoles the child and after consulting Dr. Sardar, has the child taken to Nili or Kabul for further treatment at CAI expense. 

We sit for inevitable tea and discuss various CAI procedures and policy; Yusufali stresses the importance of disease prevention than treatment, advising the doctor to educate villagers, especially mothers, the importance of this golden rule.

To be continued…