Education volunteer Taner Koçyiğit continues narrating accounts from the 14 years he spent in Pakistan. In the fourth part, he described the school in Attock, how they found a new school building, and his embarrassment during a visit to a student’s home.
Since our school building in Attock was small, we decided to move to somewhere larger and increase the number of our students. We searched for a feasible building for a long time, but to no avail. We had informed all of acquaintances about our search as well. We scouted many buildings for many months and still could not find anywhere suitable. Eventually, we started to think, “We’d rather quit searching and begin the essential repairs on our current building instead.”
On a Friday, we were returning from the Friday Prayer. We saw that the sewer trench in front of the school had overflowed again, blocking our entry. We even did not have any means to jump over the trench, enter the school and change our clothes to address the brimming crisis. With friends, we found some tools and tried to unclog the trench, but it seemed impossible unless someone stepped in and unclogged it manually. One of our friends did not hesitate; he stepped into the trench and unclogged it. Hours later, the putrid water in front of the school was finally subsided.
We hired a tonga to visit the new school building
After all that effort, we were tired. Before entering the school, we sat in front of the gate and were sipping from the chilled soft drinks we had purchased from the next-door tuck shop. We were also discussing about the future renovations and repairs in our school building. Right there and then, a man approached us and said, “I heard you had been searching for a building for your school. I have a carpet factory and I am planning to close it down soon. If you wish, I can rent the place to you.” The proposed place was just right with its number of rooms, monthly rent, and other terms and conditions. Allah bestowed us with our new school building, which we had searched for months, at our doorstep during our hardest time.
Without stepping inside the school, we hired a horse-drawn buggy (called tonga in Pakistan) and went to see the new place which Allah bestowed us as our next school building. After spending a couple of months more in our old school building and starting the next semester in our new building, Mustafa and Ilhan – my two boon companions – came to work in my school as well. We were three friends then, and I felt immensely relieved. The local student volunteers who had helped us in school affairs earlier had left, and we as three friends rolled our sleeves for running the school.
Students had illnesses which I had not seen before
In Attock, people used buggies drawn by beasts of burden and motor rickshaws to haul passengers and cargo across the city. I do not remember seeing any taxis. If a destination was not at a walking distance, we would usually go there on tongas (horse-drawn buggies) because rickshaw fares were high. Loads would also be hauled on donkey carts. Since Attock had a substantial population of refugees, a dentist brother of ours would come from Peshawar and a general practitioner brother of ours would come from Islamabad to conduct frequent medical check-ups on our students and the residents of the refugee camps around the city.
Some students had illnesses which I had never seen in my life. Most of them had birthmarks or the marks of childhood injuries on their faces. Surely, people in Pakistan were no stranger to financial hardships but since most of our students were refugee children, they bore such financial burdens harder. Most of them could not access even the most basic medical services.
Scorpions came out from under our mattresses
One night, before going to bed in our room at the new school building, we decided to clean and tidy the place a bit. We three would sleep on our personal mattresses. When we lifted the mattresses, we found a large scorpion with its babies. We swept the venomous family out with a broom but, when we combed the room further, we found another scorpion under one of the cabinets. During that night, I and my friends slept in fear with one eye open. Next door to our school building were a buffalo farm, a poultry farm, and a cemetery. For sure, our building had its ample share of insects and pests.
One day, when I woke up in the morning, I noticed I had been bitten by something. I did not mind that at first, but when it started throbbing with pain, I visited a doctor. He could not diagnose anything and none of the medicines he had prescribed helped to soothe the pain and the problem. When the agony of my swollen foot and infected bite wound became unbearable, I had to go to Turkey for treatment. Bursa State Hospital relegated me to the Uludag University School of Medicine Teaching Hospital. The doctors there too told me that they had never seen such a bite wound before. Following a series of lab tests, they started my treatment. They also photographed the wound and told me that they would research about it further. Even though they did not know the exact origin and nature of my wound, they prescribed me with some medicines. In time, Allah Almighty restored me back to my health.
I have never asked for a spoon again
One evening, we were at a parent’s home to keep his dinner invitation. Most of the parents were refugees who worked as manual workers on daily wages and they in all respects had limited means. We had tried to turn down the parent’s invitation with gratitude so as not to cause him inconvenience. When he insisted, we, as four friends, went to his home. Before the dinner, we chatted sitting on the traditional Afghan mattresses. The house was a humble place by all means. Our host expressed his gratitude for our visit and told us that they had exclusively cooked Turkmen pilaf for us. He also apologized for any inadequate preparation. The food was placed on the floor table. There were home-baked tandoor bread, Turkmen pilaf and mouth-watering salads.
At that time, something picked my attention and I inadvertently asked, “May I have a spoon?” I wish I had never asked that question. Our host immediately stood up and rushed outside. All of us were baffled by his sudden leave. While we were trying to understand what had happened, our host returned with some spoons in his hand. We realized he had been to his next-door neighbour to get some spoons. He apologized, “Sorry, I have been late. My neighbour made me wait for a while” but never in my life had I been so embarrassed. Later, the family continued eating the pilaf with their hands. I said to them, “Please teach me eating with hand as well. I also would like to eat pilaf like this from now on.” In order to pacify my embarrassment even for a bit, I tried to learn eating pilaf with my hand… and I have never asked for a spoon at an invitation table again.
To be continued…