The church service finished and all of the children spilled out into the garden.  Green spaces are hard to come by in Pakistani cities these days; the old houses with large gardens are being knocked down one by one and two or three houses built on the plot, meaning more rent income for the landlord but, inevitably, the concreting-over of the garden. The garden at church – a wide lawn fringed with fruit trees – is therefore a place of wonder for our kids.  Last week they found a bird’s nest in a conifer and were enthralled by the complexity of its design.

This week they found a dead crow.  While the parents stood around drinking coffee and catching up with friends our children were huddled around its glossy black corpse, poking it with sticks, torn between fascination and revulsion.  My son ran in to find me and, dragging me by the hand, brought me over to have a look.

It was pristine, impeccably black, perfectly unharmed, as if life had simply fled mid-flight.  Or perhaps it had flown into a window and broken its neck?  One way or another its existence had abruptly stopped and now it lay on the grass as though sleeping, while a huddle of children gaped and poked and shrieked and wondered.  One boy flipped it over with a leaf to look underneath.  My son cried out in anguish.

“Don’t do that!  Don’t hurt its wing!” he said.

“Why?” said the other boy.  “It’s dead; it won’t feel it”.

My son looked down at the dead crow, so perfect and yet so lifeless, and his eyes lit up with the staggering possibility of reincarnation.

“But when it gets to heaven, it will be able to fly again”.

My son is five, and learning to read English.  This is deeply unfair on him.

His school is doing an excellent job teaching him to read.  First he learned the alphabet, both phonetically and traditionally, and then he learned to put letter together.  He started to patch together words – “cat”, “bird”, that kind of thing – and then increasingly complex ones like “toothpaste” and “pancake”.  He reads road signs eagerly and the other day he excitedly called me into the kitchen to show me how he had read “cooking oil” on a bottle in a kitchen cupboard.  He sucks in information like a vacuum, desperate to learn.

Now I have to start teaching him how to do it wrong.

The English language is deeply illogical.  A few days ago he wrote his mother a letter to say “To mom, luv from sam”.  I let the “mom” go with gritted teeth – I’m married to a Canadian so making a fuss about that particular mis-spelling would be politically unwise – but I corrected his spelling of “luv”.  He’s learned that the letter “u” makes a sound like the start of “umbrella”, so it’s logical to put it in the middle of “love”.  Except it’s wrong.  He needs to use an “o” and a totally unnecessary “e” at the end.

It’s the same with “dade”, which he how he writes “daddy”.  Naturally he needs to add an unnecessary extra “d” and replace “e” with “y”.  Why?  I don’t know.  Neither does he, and it frustrates him.  And this is just the beginning.  One day he will encounter words such as “rhythm”.  One day I will be forced to inform him that “rough”, “bough”, “cough” and “through” are all pronounced differently for absolutely no logical reason whatsoever, and I can’t begin to imagine how that is going to go down with the little chap.

Still, it can’t be helped.  English is the most useful language in the world.  He has to learn it.  I just wish it was somewhat less illogical, that’s all.

We were visiting friends for “High Tea”.  They live in a house on the outskirts of Islamabad, which served to remind me that it’s possible to drive for ten minutes out of the city and be in the countryside, surrounded by fields and farms and birdsong.  There can’t be that many other capital cities in the world so closely embraced by nature.

“High Tea” sounded like a somewhat unappetising idea – in England it would probably consist of tea and sandwiches, not exactly the kind of thing you’d drive a long distance for, but Pakistani hospitality being what it is, we were served with kebabs, samosas, pakoras, salad, and a dish of haleem, a kind of stew of lentils, chicken, and roughly eighty-four spices.  Everything was delicious.

Our kids ran up to the roof to look at the view, back down again, up again, and then down once more.  Then they proceeded to eat every single crisp in the house, drink Coke, and ask for more.  Pakistanis can never refuse a child’s request, so more came, and were duly despatched.  I stepped in to sort out some of their more boisterous behaviour but our host stopped me.

“It’s ok” he said, smiling indulgently as one of my offspring crawled through a gap in their screen door, laughing uproariously.

“In Pakistan we say that when you meet a child, you are in the presence of God”.

Our son woke us at 4am.  He was obviously distressed, coughing and gasping, clutching at his throat.  Despite this he was quite calm as he informed us, in a matter-of-fact manner, that he had a coin stuck in his throat.

Bad dream?  No.  He was insistent, and clearly awake.  He had thought that the cool metal would soothe the sore throat from which he had been suffering for a couple of days.  I bundled him into the car and took off for the hospital.

Contrary to what you might expect, excellent medical care is widely available in Pakistan.  Many hospitals here offer superb services and are staffed by Western-trained professionals.  We were attended to quickly and courteously.  Once they had ascertained that the coin was lodged in the oesophagus and not the trachea – in other words, that my son was not about to suffocate to death – we were sent to the front desk to register.

I walked up to the desk and signed the requisite forms.  The man behind the desk glanced up at me with the kind of bleary-eyed brusqueness that one tends to get from hospital clerks who are forced to work at 4am.

“50,000 rupees” he snapped, before glancing back at his computer.  In Pakistan you pay for medical treatment before you receive it.

I had come prepared.  With one swipe of my credit card the bill was paid.  I signed the receipt and was about to walk off when I heard the person behind me exclaim, in panic:

“50,000 rupees?  I don’t have that kind of money!”.

It was an middle-aged man, accompanied by his wife and their child, a girl with vomit all down the front of her sweater.  The clerk yawned and pointed to a sign above his desk which read “Advance Payment Required Before Treatment Offered”.  He shrugged.

The man sighed, turned round, and headed for the exit.  He walked out into the night, followed by his wife and daughter.  I turned back, my receipt safely in my hand, and walked back to my son.

We were driving to school.  The Monday morning rush hour is, for reasons unknown, an absolute bunfight, quite the worst day of the week to be on the roads.  It continues to mystify me that Pakistani people, normally so charming, turn into such monsters when behind the wheel of a car.  Somehow the action of sitting behind a steering wheel turns gentle people into fearsome road warriors, beeping and swerving and gesticulating like maniacs.  Suddenly my son piped up.

“Why is there smoke coming out of that bus?”.

I explained the basics of the internal combustion engine but he wasn’t listening.  Instead his mind veered off on a wild mental tangent, a train of thought just as erratic as the driving of the cars around us.

“If you get hit by a car your body will be broken and you will be died”.

“Er, yes”.

“If you become died then you will not breathe any more”.

“Er, no”.

“Or you might have a broken arm or leg like the people asking for money at traffic lights”.

There followed a pause as he and his sister digested these thoughts.  Then:

“Daddy, turn the AC up”.

“Well, we don’t want to get too cold.  It’s cool enough as it is”.

“Can you die from being too cold?”.

“Well, only if you fall asleep in the snow.  Then you might die”.

A shocked silence, presumably as visions of ice-encased corpses drifted before the fevered imaginations of my tiny children.  Then:


We pull up outside the school gate.  The school is a large residential property in one of the nicer sectors of the city – in Pakistan many schools operate out of residential buildings.  A stream of cars are coming and going, depositing children on the pavement, parents handing over backpacks emblazoned with Dora the Explorer or Spongebob Squarepants before saying goodbye to their offspring.  Our son hops merrily out of the car, grabs his backpack (Dusty Crophopper, in case you’re wondering), yells a cheery “Goodbye!” and runs in.  We turn to our daughter, just turned three, and on only her third day of school.  She crosses her arms and looks up at us defiantly.

“I don’t want to go to school”.  She sits squarely in her car seat, a bundle of blonde ringlets and stubbornness, while the queue of cars backs up behind us.

We try to reason with her: it’ll be fun, she’ll make friends, going to school is What Big Girls Do.  It’s all to no avail: she simply isn’t going.

We abandon reasoning with her and opt to lift her out of the car and carry her to the gate.  She starts crying – not the screaming, tantrum tears that can be ignored, but the soft, helpless tears that never fail to tear my heart apart.  She’s actually sobbing.  We hand her over to her teacher, give her one last kiss, and get back in the car.

As we drive away I am reminded of my own first day at school, the memory of which is still there.  I recall clinging desperately onto the wall as my own mother said goodbye, clawing desperately to keep myself from being dragged into the building, screaming like a banshee – and these definitely were tantrum tears.  I still don’t know how my teacher managed to prise me away from my mother; primary teachers must do weightlifting as part of their training.  I can still recall the sense of bemusement: my parents are always there, so why am I being separated from them?

Going to school is important for kids.  We know that it will help to mould their character, educate them, train them for life.  But it’s sad that causing pain to our kids is sometimes the best thing for them.

We were sitting down to dinner (shepherd’s pie and guava crumble, since even we can’t eat Pakistani food every single meal) and had just said grace.  Thanking God for the food feels particularly important in a country where so many have so little.  Our three-year-old daughter said “Amen” and looked up at me with a smile.

“I love God” she said.  “He’s nice”.

Our four-year-old son looked thoughtful, wrinkling his nose as he does when tussling with a particularly difficult topic.

“I love God sometimes, but not all the time”.

He thought for a minute.

“Sometimes my love for him is big, sometimes it’s small”.

He paused again.

“But he’s always nice”.

Our third child, and second daughter, was born recently.  This leads me to make two observations: firstly, that three children are a LOT more work than two, and secondly, that life is unfair.

 I’ll explain.  A Pakistani friend of ours also had his third child recently.  Like us he had a boy, then a girl, and now another girl.  Like us he loves his children very much.  Like us he and his wife are devoted parents.  Like us they are delighted to have three healthy children.  But there the similarities end and the differences begin.

 Our kids have Western passports – two each, actually, since they have dual nationality.  For both of those countries the life expectancy is over 80 years.  The literacy rate is effectively 100%.  If we had to return to either of our home countries our kids would benefit from high-quality healthcare at a low cost.  Both of our home governments score highly on transparency ratings, since Western countries have largely eliminated corruption.  If we got into trouble our foreign offices would, in all probability, get us out of it.  While it’s impossible to say that our children will have trouble-free lives, their passports give them a ticket to a life of significant privilege.  They are probably among the most privileged children in the world.

 And our friends’ kids?  Pakistani life expectancy is 65 years, its literacy rate 57%.  Quality healthcare is available here, at a cost.  If you can’t pay for it, you can’t have it.  The average salary is around $3,000 a year, less than a tenth of that in the Western countries whose passports my children possess.  We went to visit our friend recently.  His new daughter, a month older than ours, weighs less now than our daughter did at birth, and she’s growing a lot more slowly.  This is partly due to the fact that she is being fed cow’s milk, since that is what the doctor recommended.  A better doctor would not recommend cow’s milk, but they can’t afford a better doctor, so their daughter’s development is suffering.

 So, to summarise, our daughters were born within a month of each other.  One is statistically likely to live 20% longer, be healthier, earn ten times more money, and is twice as likely to receive an education.

 May God have mercy on a world in which, even at birth, the paths of childrens’ lives are so unjustly laid out.


Time passes quickly.  My daughter is nearly two already.  I spend a lot of time with my family, one of the biggest blessings of the kind of work I do, and I’ve seen every stage of her life at first hand.  The birth, the first few weeks, learning to roll over, to crawl, to walk, to laugh – I’ve seen it all as it happened and it has brought me and my wife a lot of joy.

She’s nearly two, and at the moment one of her favourite things is swinging on the swings.  Friends of ours have a set in their front garden and she’s taken to grabbing me by the hand and pulling me towards them.  “Dat one!” she squeals excitedly, “dat one!”, pointing to the swings and hopping up and down with joy.

Today I pushed her on the swings for twenty minutes.  Whenever I paused she would call anxiously to get me to continue.  “Poosh!”.  “POOOOOSH!”.

She’s nearly two already, and everyone tells me to treasure each day, that time passes so quickly, that she’ll be grown up before I know it.  It’s true, of course.  One day she’ll be grown up, may get married, may have children of her own.  I hope that when that day comes I’ll be able to look back and remember the little girl with blue eyes, swinging on the swings with such joy, her golden ringlets streaming in the breeze.

Recently I went to the bank to be added as a signatory to a bank account.  This seemed like a reasonably straightforward transaction, especially as the bank was more or less empty at the time.  Name…check.  Signature…check.  Passport number…fine.  Witnesses…oh.

Two people had to sign their names as witnesses of the transaction, said the helpful bank employee, a smartly dressed young lady.  Can you do it yourself, we asked?

“No, sadly not.  For two reasons.  Firstly, because I am a bank employee”.

Oh, that’s fair enough.  Probably some kind of anti-corruption measure, which is sensible.  And the second reason?

She coughed quietly and looked straight at me.

“Because I am a woman”.