Where angels fear to tread

How Dr Ruth Pfau managed to establish a system for tribes living in a remote village of DG Khan

Where angels fear to tread

After an arduous journey through unfamiliar terrain, one finally arrives at an old resthouse surrounded by cool trees and thick undergrowth. If you happen to arrive unannounced, it takes a while to locate the caretaker, who, after a little persuasion, obliges you by unlocking the creaking door and admitting you to a dusty room where you can stay for the night -- provided you are willing to spend the night without modern wonders like electricity. After dinner, which is usually served just after dusk, he enlightens you with countless stories of gora sahabs (white officers) and the colonial ways of administration.

He also tells you that apparitions of some of the sahabs still pay nightly visits to some of these resthouses. But in my official ramblings, I have had numerous occasions to stay in such remote resthouses and not once did I come across a ghost of the Raj.

Good deeds die hard. At times they leave behind a fragrance that transforms into a local legend. Long after the passing of these colonial administrators, you still hear their stories in old resthouses, as if they took place only yesterday.

The tale I am about to tell is not a usual one. It was neither narrated to me in the dead of the night by some old caretaker of a remote resthouse nor is it about a British gentleman who happened to be the colonial administrator of an area. It is a simple story of sheer commitment, of a lonely ‘white’ woman determined to help the ailing humanity. It’s a story that took place in recent times.

The year was 2000. I was posted in the tribal area of Dera Ghazi Khan, an area that lacked basic civic facilities, even roads. The area was hit by the worst drought in recent history. The tribal Baloch lived off terrace farming and livestock. As waterholes and springs had dried up in the mountains, the herds were driven down along dangerous inclines to the valleys below. The journey could not be undertaken frequently. The animals were malnourished and prone to diseases. Thousands of sheep and goats perished during the migration.

I used to organise medical and veterinary camps in the area back then, when mornings were mostly spent with livestock and afternoons reserved for medical camps. In mid-July, 2000, we embarked on an arduous journey to the 6,000ft high Jhandi Mountain. Just one slight slip on this narrow trail pitched between a rock wall and a sheer precipice with hairpin bends and steep gradients could land you 100ft below on boulders.

Once we had reached there, we pitched our camp near a pool of greenish water full of leeches and pests. Considering the lack of alternatives, this pool was our lifeline. Next morning, we left the camp early, hitting the trail due south, hoping to hold a medical camp at a nearby settlement. Two hours into the journey, a fierce storm hit us with thunder, howling wind and blinding rain. We lost our track due to poor visibility and by late evening, found ourselves in the midst of strange stone and mud houses, wet to the bone.

Our host was a septuagenarian with unusually rough hands and a shaggy beard spread over a creased face. He was the local elder of a outcast tribe, steeped in poverty. Supper was communal; a watery mixture of some vegetables served with coarse roti. We went to sleep soon after as we were dead tired.

On August 10, 2017, at the age of 88, Dr Ruth Pfau left this world -- far away from her hometown in Germany -- among the people she cared for the most.

On the next morning, I opened up my medical box for routine checkups. The womenfolk had to be examined in a completely dark room which looked more like a cave. Men and children queued up under open skies. The community was anaemic and infested with scabies, fungus, eye ailments, goiter and among other ailments. I soon noticed that quite a few individuals had some digits missing, either on hands or feet. I conveyed to my host that he too could be suffering from leprosy and that he might need to travel to DG Khan for proper treatment. On hearing the name of the disease the entire audience burst into laughter. In this region, "lapo-raasy" does not alarm them anymore.

My inflated ego suffered a huge blow when I heard that I was not exactly the first doctor to nurse them. I was told that the "ferangi aurat" had travelled for three days from Balochistan and had stayed there for a week with them. She diagnosed lapo-raasy, and gave them medicines and provided hope to our children.

That was when I realised what Dr Ruth Pfau had accomplished. She had established a system in the remote mountainous area which was still working effectively. She took one of their lads (an eighth grader) to Karachi with her, trained him and sent him back with medicines for three months for each and every patient she had diagnosed. A register was maintained and two weeks before the medicines expired, the lad would undertake the strenuous two-day journey to Taunsa, the nearest town, and send a checklist mentioning each patient to the Marie Adelaide Centre in Karachi. A week later he would receive a parcel, containing medicine neatly packed for each patient. Next morning he would head back to his hometown.

In July 2000, when I visited the region, there were 68 registered leprosy patients, out of which 19 were still on active list. This was indeed remarkable.

On August 10, 2017, Dr Ruth Pfau left this world at the age of 88 -- far away from her hometown in Germany -- among people she cared for the most. The Mirkhani subtribe that resides on the remote mountain of Jhandi got the news of her demise a month later.

Some of my friends suggested that an obelisk should be placed in this remote settlement, telling the travellers that Dr Ruth Pfau had been here: "A place where angels fear to tread".

Alas! Who would tread these paths now!

"When beggars die, there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes" -- William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar


Where angels fear to tread