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A farewell to Dr Pfau

The white in the flag may acquire greater meaning as Pakistan turns seventy. Let’s not lose Dr Ruth Pfau’s legacy. Let’s make a new beginning where she left off. The Marie Adelaide Centre has more work to do Rarely has lady luck rescued the most helpless sections of society in the manner that she has helped the ‘untouchable’ leprosy sufferers of Pakistan. These people had been plunged in the lowest depth of social and material disadvantage. But providence acts in its own special ways when human hopes recede. And so, it sent us Dr Ruth Pfau.

Dr Pfau, a German Christian missionary, was on her way to India on a medical mission in 1960. She had merely stopped over in Karachi to change planes. Since her Indian visa was delayed, she was taken around to see the leprosy patients in Karachi. This was her introduction to Pakistan. More specifically, this was when she first came into contact with the city’s leprosy patients.

ind was made. She pledged to help leprosy patients all over Pakistan and Afghanistan. She fully honoured her word and almost single-handedly cleansed the country of leprosy 50 years later. She did not make the effort to earn all the awards and accolades she was bestowed with by a grateful Pakistani nation. The effort was motivated by her love for the Almighty and His people. The prime minister’s announcement of a state funeral and the tribute by the army chief for Dr Ruth Pfau was appropriate. This is one occasion where all Pakistanis are on the symbolic ‘same page’.

met and known Dr Pfau for nearly three decades in connection with her life’s mission. Though I have also met some of the biggest names of the last quarter of the 20th century from different spheres – including Nelson Mandela, Abdul Sattar Edhi and Lady Diana – my greatest hero will always be Dr Pfau. (Sadly, I did not get the opportunity to meet Mother Teresa.)

I remained associated with her dedicated efforts in Malakand Division, the tribal areas and then in Gilgit-Baltistan. She impressed everyone by looking after those who were afflicted by leprosy at a time when most people would not even look at – let alone touch – them.

One of the stories that I have heard about her needs to be shared. In one of the districts that Dr Pfau visited, a leprosy patient had been shifted to a nearby cave to prevent the disease from spreading among other members of the community. Leftovers were provided to him because it was believed that he did not have long to live. His hair was full of lice while bugs and worms gnawed at his skin. When Dr Ruth Pfau visited the district, she ensured that he was properly fed and treated. He was healed to such an extent that he eventually became an active member of the society. If there is a better example of sawab (a noble deed), kindly inform me as well.

 I would like to quote the following lines about Dr Pfau from my forthcoming book. Incidentally, I had requested her a few months back to be the chief guest at its launch. Now I will have to be content with her memories only.

“The greatest individual I ever recall meeting and getting to know was a German doctor, Ruth Katherina Pfau. This saintly caregiver, through the Marie Adelaide Centre, devoted her entire life to eradicating leprosy from Pakistan and later concentrated her attention on tuberculosis control. She was my hero and it is a small coincidence that we share [the same] date of birth: September 9.

“She was meant to break her journey in Karachi on her way to Bombay in 1960, but thanks to the incompetence of the Indian bureaucracy, her visa was delayed inordinately. She, therefore, decided to stay and work in Pakistan. In a sense, we owe the eradication of leprosy in Pakistan to the incompetence of the Indian bureaucracy. This was a silver lining because our bureaucracy could not have achieved it on its own.

“As she lived most of her life in Pakistan, I once asked her what was the one trait she found irksome [among] Pakistani[s]. She was prompt in her reply: whenever and to whomsoever she made a request for assisting patients, invariably replied that there was ‘no problem madam, no problem’. The problem, she thought, was that “there was actually a problem” because rarely did people stand by their word.

“For most Pakistanis, a promise or a commitment is vacuous and never really meant to be followed up. Lip service is cheap and is readily offered but do not expect most Pakistanis to follow up on their commitments. A word is never a bond for most people here. [A few] last word[s] about Dr Pfau may be in order. At the golden jubilee celebration of the successful battle against leprosy in Swat, the [then] [c]hief [m]inister Mir Afzal Khan was the guest of honour to a lunch, which [Pfau] insisted, only consisted of ‘dal, roti, pani’ (lentils, bread, and water), with everyone, including the chief guest, paying for the food. This was the only function [she had] seen where money was actually raised while celebrating a previous achievement. When will we learn such fine art?”

As Pakistan bids farewell to its most distinguished daughter (she had acquired citizenship), I hope that the medical ward named after her at a hospital in Gilgit retains her name plaque and the three jeeps of her organisation in the KP are retrieved from unlawful possession.

It may sound strange that Dr Ruth Pfau, our great hero, was a woman and that too from a minority community – two segments that are generally denied full rights in this country. The white in the flag may acquire greater meaning as Pakistan turns seventy. Let’s not lose her legacy. Let’s make a new beginning where Dr Pfau left off. The Marie Adelaide Centre has more work to do. It must continue to remind us all of our obligations because we tend to forget easily.

Shakil Durrani, "A farewell to Dr Pfau," The news. 2017-08-20.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social aspects , Social needs , Society-Pakistan , German doctor , Human rights , Adelaide center , Christian missionary , Medical mission , Indian bureaucracy , Minority community , Doctor Ruth Pfau , Karachi , Pakistan