People sometimes write and tell me, ‘Ohh you’re brave, I couldn’t do that.’ Which always makes me grin, because bravery doesn’t come into it really. It began when I upped and offed to Canada with a 9-year-old in tow. Friends behaved for all the world as though this was as worrisome as sailing steerage across the Atlantic for weeks on end, risking disease and destitution if we didn’t make it by the sweat of our brows because there was no way back. But in reality, in the days of jet travel and credit cards, it was a mere jaunt.
Today though, I want to introduce you to a lady who really is brave. She spent ten years in Pakistan and Afghanistan, setting up training programmes for volunteer female health workers. She didn’t just face language and culture problems, not merely the sort of plumbing and insect issues that would have sent me scuttling home on the next plane, but the sort of armed bandit issues you normally only read about in fiction. And she did this with a two-year-old in tow.
She decided to write a book, well, no, she was told to write a book when she realised that the only books she’d read prior to landing in Afghanistan had been written by men, and about the issues that mattered to men.
By the time I arrived in Mazar-i-Sharif, I had read so much about the mujahideen I felt I was personally acquainted with the more famous Commanders. They were so frequently interviewed in their mountain strongholds it was amazing they had found time to fight a jihad against a world super power. I had also swallowed the stereotyped image of Afghan women – amorphous shapes shrouded in the burqa (that tent – like garment which covers the wearer from head to toe) imprisoned, usually in the name of Islam, behind high walls.
Mary left Afghanistan shortly after the Taliban took Kabul. Her friends in outlying towns and villages were still relatively safe, but with no way of knowing which way things would turn at the time, she wondered about the relevance of the vibrant tales she had to tell.
I looked again at the manuscript I had been writing. It was no longer about the reality of Afghan women’s daily lives. It had, tragically, become a history book. It was about a time, albeit a recent time, when women had been tentatively moving forward, reaching out to grasp opportunities and freedoms that had suddenly, violently, been snatched away…Allowing them to tell their own stories is a way of ensuring that Afghan women’s voices will never be completely silenced.
The result is indeed part history book but Mary returned to Afghanistan after the defeat of the Taliban to catch up with old friends and see for herself how the country was faring. There are some impressions of the way the future could look and I want to ask her more about this when we speak.
There are some politics and a little war in this wonderful memoir, but mostly there are people. Personalities, lives broken and triumphant, small gains and huge losses, the chance to see things from a unique perspective. What struck me more than anything were the things that tie humanity together. The jokes, the raised eyebrows, the wry observations…women are strong and hilarious the world over. And sometimes the strongest and most hilarious in the bad times.
As Mary and her volunteers set up village clinics, finding ways to teach women who’d been denied any form of education how to prevent babies dying of dehydration, and to monitor each other’s pregnancies and deliver each other’s babies safely, she gives us a true glimpse into the lives of people you really, really never hear about.
I could string a load more quotes together, or I can just guide your eyes to the book purchase link in the right sidebar. It’s a must-read for anyone who has an interest in, oh, you know, politics, people, international relations, the future of humanity…pretty much anything that matters.
And I’ll be chatting to Mary in a podcast next week, as ever I have a load of questions and I can’t wait to get to know her on your behalf. In the meantime you can find out more about her at her website. And, stop press, news just in, congratulations on being shortlisted for The People’s Book Prize in the non-fiction category. If you want to add your vote there`s still time, this link will take you there.
And just before I go, a sneaky me, me, me link, big thanks to the lovely Al Kuntz for the chance to feature in an IndieView interview!