Dr Sarah Fane OBE (MB ChB 1989, Hon 2022) has dedicated her life to improving the health and wellbeing of children and women across the world. In 2002, she founded the charity Afghan Connection (AC) which supported some 500,000 children through health, education, and sport programmes. Under her leadership, the charity immunised over 72,000 women and children, built or renovated 130 schools and trained more than 1,000 teachers.
In April 2020, with the projects sustainable and the Taliban threatening to charge taxes to NGOs, Dr Sarah Fane decided to bring the charity to a close. She is now the Director of the MCC Foundation, the charitable arm of Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) at Lord’s and continues to support children all over the world through the power of cricket. She told us about her memories of working in Afghanistan, what inspired her to study medicine and how it feels to win the Alumni Award for Global Impact.
On inspiration and early days
My journey to Afghanistan really started when I decided to have a gap year in India before taking a place to read French and Latin at Bristol. I worked in a very remote village in southern India, where people immediately assumed I was a medical person and asked me for help with delivering babies and other general medical problems.
This experience sparked an interest in medicine for me. I decided that instead of studying French and Latin, what I really wanted was to be a doctor. So, I left my course, and studied for A-levels in science by post and eventually managed to get myself a place in the Bristol Medical School.
During the fifth year of my studies, for my elective, I decided to go to the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, which is on the border with Afghanistan. There, I worked for an amazing British doctor called Ruth Cogan in a very traditional area, looking after women in a place with one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates. I saw some incredible medicine and learned a lot.
After I qualified as a doctor, I returned to the Afghan border, and had an extraordinary time living in a Mujahideen camp. The Mujahideen were the Afghan warriors fighting against the Russians in the Afghan-Soviet war. I went out each day to look after the refugees of the war: women, and children. After this, I did not return to the region for 13 years. I went back to England to have my four children and worked as a doctor in between.
Return to Afghanistan
In 2001, I returned to Afghanistan to visit and support a mother-child clinic. Afghanistan had suffered 23 years of war by then and the whole country was devastated. There were no schools, no roads, no infrastructure, and people were incredibly poor. But at the end of each working day, we were taken into people’s homes and given food and drinks. In refugee camps, we would be invited into tents for tea. That generosity of spirit and the extraordinary resilience of the people inspired me to love that country and the people in it. I wanted to do something to support their strength.
On Afghan Connection
In 2002, I set up Afghan Connection. During the 18 years we were operating, we focused on education projects all over the country. However, in the last ten years of the charity, we spent all our efforts in one area of Afghanistan trying to improve the standards of education and open opportunities for girls. In this region the women of my age had limited education, and the girls had no schooling. It was very remote and conservative: a challenging area to work in. But by the time we had finished, we had gone from an area where no women were educated to 85 per cent of the girls attending school. We watched them go to university and come back as midwives and doctors to support their community. There was a shift in the mindset of the community, not just among women but also among men who acknowledged the benefits of educating girls.
In 2020, we closed the charity. We had seen a whole generation of children through school and our projects were sustainable. When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in 2021, we had already stopped operating. But our schools are still open, which just goes to show, if you really work hard with a community and get their buy in, the education programmes for girls are far more likely to continue.
A memory of resilience
I was working in a clinic for mothers and children in Rokha, which is in the Panjshir Valley in Afghanistan. One day a young girl came in, desperately ill and pregnant with twins. She had already delivered one of the babies 24 hours before, who was very sadly stillborn, and we could not hear the other baby’s heartbeat. She had been in labour for an extremely long time, and to save her life we had to give her a caesarean section.
We raced her into the operating theatre, fearing the worst for the second twin but hoping we could save its mother’s life. When the surgeon passed me the baby, I was surprised to hear him crying and full of life. I cried as well that day. Amidst all the war and misery, I tell you this story as a reminder of the resilience of the people of Afghanistan. That baby symbolized their strength to me, crying and alive against all odds. The world must remember to be compassionate to that country and keep supporting it, however difficult it may seem.
Sport has an immense potential to make children’s lives better. In 2008, one of my sons had noticed that the Afghan cricket team were right at the bottom in the world ranking but had great potential and a dream to play in the World Cup. They grew up and learned cricket in refugee camps in Pakistan, where they went to flee the war, and had returned to Afghanistan and formed a team. They had little infrastructure or support. We took out bags of kit for them. With the support of MCC, we went on to build 100 cricket pitches across Afghanistan and distributed equipment. Approximately 150,000 boys and girls took part in our cricket coaching programmes, with some of them graduating to the national cricket team. We also worked with boys and girls and children with disabilities. It was the most joyous project: the cricket team rose through the rankings and became the tenth in the world. The cricketers were the heroes of the country, and the joy of the people. When they won, it provided real hope; everyone spilled into the streets in celebration and for the love of cricket.
I brought that with me to my new job as the director of the MCC Foundation where we transform lives through cricket. We run projects in the UK to support promising young cricketers through free coaching and match play and help them to continue their cricket and thrive in the game. Cricket as a game helps them build their connection with other people and learn about leadership. We also work with child refugees both here in the UK and abroad. The game helps children to forget about the traumas they have been through for a moment and gives them a chance to integrate into their new societies. Cricket is also instrumental in creating gender equality. In Nepal, where it is challenging for girls to play sport and gender-based violence is a widespread issue, we attach the game to social messaging around gender. Now we are seeing boys playing alongside girls.
On graduation and the Alumni Awards
This year, I received an honorary degree from the University of Bristol and my daughter Antonia graduated in the same ceremony as me with a degree in Liberal Arts and French. My family, including my 90-year-old mother, were there to see me graduate in the Wills Memorial for the second time, 33 years after I received my medical degree. This was an extraordinary experience and one of the happiest days of my life which I will never forget.
Receiving this Alumni Award on top of my honorary degree is very humbling and a great privilege. It would not have happened without an enormous amount of input from my family and many other people: people who have given their time completely free to the projects I worked for. I see this award as a recognition of all these people who have helped me along the way.
My one piece of advice
We are here on this planet once. If you are bold in life and work hard to go the extra mile the rewards will be enormous. Your life will feel worthwhile, and you will have purpose.