Zimbabwe Rising

It’s always startling when you visit a developing country that is actually, well, developing. That’s Zimbabwe. When I visited five years ago, the country was teetering on the edge of economic collapse. Harare, the capital, seemed desolate. I half expected to see tumbleweeds blowing about, like some abandoned mining town in the Wild West. There was little fuel, little food, miles-long queues at the lone gas station that actually had gas, and long lines of people waiting at the bank doors, begging to withdraw their life savings before the currency collapsed. To pay for anything literally required bags of Zimbabwe dollars, which were fairly worthless. Each restaurant, if it had food, required a money-counting machine to “quickly” add up the plummeting currency.

The ZHA Committee Welcome
When I arrived in Harare on Saturday, I was stunned at the transformation. I was greeted by my colleagues from the Zimbabwe Hemophilia Association, three men who have hemophilia. Downtown was bustling with cars, nice cars. I had never, in the three previous visits to Zimbabwe over twelve years, seen so many people out and about. Doors were open for business and shops and restaurants were selling. Most surprising was seeing the predominant US dollar being spit out of cash registers and hands like slot machines. Zimbabwe had embraced the US dollar as a major currency, and suddenly, things got better.
But not everything: life for those with hemophilia is still harsh and unforgiving. I was about to be reminded just how much.
Reality Shows

Today, Sunday December 2, we had a meeting of the Zimbabwe Haemophilia Association (ZHA) at my hotel, the Rainbow Towers in downtown Harare. The committee members quietly presented a still grim picture of life with hemophilia: Zimbabwe is totally dependent on factor donations, and in the past year ten patients died from lack of clotting factor. Unemployment still hovers are 80% and most of the men with hemophilia cannot get jobs. With a show of hands, five of the eight at the meeting were not presently employed. There is only one hematologist in the entire country, in Harare. One. And she’s Cuban. Seriously, God bless the Cubans for sending their doctors out in the world as part of their public health policy.

No one from Harare has been to Bulawayo, the second largest city, since 2007, when I last visited there and brought two committee members with me. Reason? Lack of funding. In fact, lack of funding impacts everything. So the ZHA has plans and dreams but can scarcely carry them out. The lack of funding is demoralizing and hangs over everyone like the sword of Damocles. But the ZHA is tenacious; the members just won’t quit. As one confided, they may wish to walk away, but they would leave behind the deaths of dozens of people on their souls, for without the ZHA, no one would care about the children with hemophilia in Zimbabwe. And these children are slowly being tortured, by an ancient disease that is relentless, senseless and crippling.
Solitary Confinement: George’s Story
Each visit to a developing country is not complete until I witness: this means I go out into the “field,” whether it is literally a field, farm, megaslum, or inner city barrio; anywhere there are patients living, struggling to survive. I need to immerse myself in their world, if only for a day or even a few hours, to know how they live. How can we help if we don’t understand how they live?
Simbarashe Maziveyi accompanied me. Simba is a young man with hemophilia who is articulate, thoughtful, and as soft spoken as he is determined to change hemophilia’s destiny in Zimbabwe. He is president of the ZHA and has severe factor VIII deficiency. I met him first in 2000, during my first trip to Zimbabwe, when he was only 19, a fresh-faced college student. We’ve been in touch ever since as he was groomed to one day assumes leadership. Simba recommended that we go to see George.

Just 20 minutes outside the electrifying energy in Harare, a subtler tragedy emerges. We drive past roadside shops and trading centers, colorful and crude. Here, vendors hawk the items they purchased in South Africa to sell to pedestrians; and so many in Zimbabwe seem to walk everywhere. On the outskirts of the capital, the highway eventually stretches before us as we pass “Goat’s Place,” a sad, miles long cemetery, simple and rural, dotted with grey headstones, so nicknamed because next to it is the market where goats are sold. Roads taper down to dirt roads on our quest to find George, a 20-year-old with hemophilia. The sky, so unnoticed in the sensory overload of Harare, becomes startling large and piercing blue with puffy clouds, like an anesthetic beckoning to look up and not down at the suffering.

Zimbabwe means House of Stones

We stop briefly and in hops a smartly-dressed lady and her daughter: this is Judith, George’s sister, who will show us the way. George doesn’t have an actual address. As we turn down another dirt road, Simba points out the distant city ahead, Chitungwaiza. As I struggle with the Shona language pronunciations, he tells me “Chi Town” will do nicely. It reminds me of the scene from “The Mummy” when the adventurers first spy the far off city of Hamunaptra, where their fate awaits. Like military ramparts, large hills of dazzling rocks both distract from and guard the city. I have a sudden urge to put on my rock climbing gear.

Drought stricken Maize

A sharp left and we rattle down an uneven dusty road, our driver Andrew taking care not to damage his car. We park and hop out. It’s hot. The dirt crunches beneath our feet and I realize we’re stepping on dehydrated maize. Despite being the rainy season, the ground is thick and hard, cracked and muted. The maize is either ankle high when it should be thigh-high, or it’s nothing, dead before it could even sprout. I feel like I am on the edge of the Sahara; how did the topography change so drastically so quickly?

We walk a bit to two thatched, circular dwellings; this is where George lives. He hobbles out of the mud home, on one crutch, left leg permanently bent at an almost 45 degree angle. Simba tells me the one crutch was an improvement; when they first met, George was using a hoe as a crutch.
Laurie interviews George

George is smiling, displaying a gorgeous, perfect set of teeth, like most Zimbabweans. But he gets shy, and almost embarrassed. Perhaps because of our age differences, or that I am an American come to visit him. Simba’s comfortable style puts him at ease. We interview George to learn more.

George in front of his house

He lives in these two tiny, mud dwellings with his 17-year-old brother Simba. One is for cooking only. The other, which cannot be more than eight feet in diameter, is for sleeping. His parents are dead. He has four other brothers and two sisters. His sister Judith, the one who came with us, oversees his care. But she lives four kilometers from him. How does he get by? He farms a little, seemingly impossible given the state of his leg. He simply cannot walk without a crutch and barely can walk with one. A nearby well supplies water; there is no electricity. (Try to imagine life with hemophilia, without any electricity. Just try)

George is solemn as he shares. This is a young man who has suffered. Loss, pain, deprivation and uncertainty about a future.

George and the bombed out bridge

What does he do when he has a bleed? He must hobble to his sister’s place, four kilometers away. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he must cross a footbridge. The bridge is in ghastly disrepair. Originally the land was owned by a white farmer, as much of the land in “Rhodesia” used to be. Independence came for black Zimbabwe in 1980, when Mugabe came to power. In 2001, during the very week I was there, Mugabe decided that there would be land “reform.” Black citizens could now reclaim their lands from white farmers, even those who had legally held family farms for 100 years and had provided the agricultural revenue that earned Zimbabwe “the breadbasket of Africa.” The guy who owned this land I stood on was one of them, and he was not happy. Before he abandoned his land to the black citizens who came to claim it, he left a little present behind. He bombed the stone footbridge. George now has to navigate this treacherous passing each time he has a bleed.

He then spends the night at his sister’s, and in the morning goes to Harare, to wait at the hospital for help. By then a lot of damage has been done to the bleeding joint.
George and mentor Simba

The family hopes to get George started in some business, maybe selling chickens. Poultry sells well in Zim, and it wouldn’t require the manual labor that farming does.

Before we leave, the rest of George’s brothers show up. One has perhaps had a bit too much of “Zed,” the potent, illegal brew that is bootlegged from Mozambique to the disenfranchised in Zim. It’s a killer, literally, and is nicknamed “Zimbabwe Early Death.” Later, when Simba and I stop at a grocery store to pick up staples as a gift for the next family we visit, two men loaded on Zed start harassing the women in the cashier line. In their hands is a bottle of whiskey—as if. I have to push them back, out of my private space as they are breathing down my back literally and making comments. Usually Zimbabweans are the most civil and polite of people I have ever met, but Zed makes these two guys dangerously uninhibited.
Time to go and visit another family, and George’s visit puts a sad touch to the day. But a decision is made: we need to get him enrolled into Save One Life, our nonprofit that sponsors children with hemophilia in developing countries. If ever there was a candidate for Save One Life, it’s George.

George awaits a Sponsor

Yet there’s a touching ending to the day: I hand George $100, a fortune, and a gift from Cindy of Hawaii. Cindy volunteered her honorarium in one of our market research studies, to give “to someone in need.” It’s nice to know a young mom of a child with hemophilia in Hawaii can impact a young man who is almost in solitary confinement half way around the world, in a rural village in Zimbabwe.

As we pull away in the car, Andrew, the driver begins peppering Simba with intelligent questions about hemophilia, from the symptoms to the genetics. And finally, “How did you make it so far, without much medicine?”
Simba smiles, as he is not one to complain. “Faith,” he says. “Mostly faith.” A family of chickens cross the road in front of us. The hen has eight little chicks in tow, but the last one, for whom we have to stop, is lame in one leg, and cannot walk well. As it struggles over the drought-stricken ruts in the field, I say, “Like George.” We smile sadly and drive on.

2 thoughts on “Zimbabwe Rising”

  1. Hi Laurie,

    I am trying to remember to read your Zambia Blog to keep up. My family is going to sponsor a life with Save One Life. I plan to discuss your trip and your mission with my family. As you know I am on a mission myself to help people with Hemophilia. I hope to work with you in the future.

    Safe Travels and may God Bless you and those you are serving!

    Brad Nolan

  2. Good evening.
    I'm Looking for contact details for the hemophilia associated of Zimbabwe. Hoping there may be a support group in Bulawayo – our holistic ministry knows of two young adults, brothers, both with hemophilia living in difficult circumstances.
    Please can someone get back to me via email isaiahs@yoafrica.com


Leave a Comment

HemaBlog Archives