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Zimbabwe: the long road to giving birth

25-03-2008 Feature

Mona-Lisa was born in good health after her mother trekked over 15 kilometres at nine months pregnant to get to the nearest hospital. The ICRC is supporting 16 health structures in three rural districts to help fill some of the more troubling gaps in Zimbabwe's ailing healthcare system. Robin Waudo reports.

  ©ICRC / R. Waudo    
Baby Mona-Lisa with her mother, Sekia, at Chishave hospital following her vaccination and medical check-up.  

  ©ICRC / R. Waudo    
A baby receives a vaccination at Chishave rural hospital. 

Sekai Zhou, 26, arrived at Chishave Rural Hospital on a bright Monday morning with her five-month-old baby girl, Mona-Lisa. The baby was in good health and had been brought to the hospital for a routine vaccine and check-up. The mother cuddled her baby as she patiently awaited her turn to be attended to by the nurses, along with the other mothers. When her turn came, the baby was injected with the vaccine and cried out in pain. Sekai immediately began gently rocking the baby in her arms while softly singing to her to soothe away the pain.

The young mother hails from Chinjiva village, 15 kms from Chishave Rural Hospital. As there is no other health facility near her village, she had to walk the long distance to the hospital as she cannot afford the bus fare. The journey took several hours and much longer than normal as the time of her daughter's birth drew closer.

 Ramshackle shelter for expectant mothers  

" For five months I walked the long distance to the clinic and back. When I got back home, I was very exhausted and my legs were swollen and painful, " she lamented. During her last month of pregnancy, Sekai was fortunate enough to get a place in the mothers'shelter at the rural hospital. However, the expecting mothers'shelter is dilapidated. It has no bed walls, needs repainting and its ceiling boards are falling apart.

Baby Mona-Lisa was born without any complications in October 2007. " The nurses were very helpful, and my baby was born healthy thanks to their good work, " recalls Sekai. She has two other children, a five-year-old boy and a three-year-old girl. Both children were born at the same rural hospital. The young mother lives with her family in a small village where she grows millet, corn, sorghum and vegetables to feed her family. Her husband works in Chiredzi, about 100 km away from his family, and comes home once a month.

Chisave Rural Hospital is located in the southern Zimbabwean province of Masvingo, more than 350 km from the capital Harare. The hospital is the only health centre within a 20-kilometre radius. It provides much needed health services to a population of more than 14,000 people struggling with the challenges and hardships brought about by the difficult economic times that the country is experiencing. With a staff of six nurses, an environmental health technician and a watchman, the hospital is stretched beyond its limits to provide basic medical services.


 Hospitals are facing 'many challenges'  

Sekai's daughter was one of the 478 babies born at the hospital in 2007. Sister Shupikai Nyamakawo is the Nurse-In-Charge of Chishave Rural Hospital, and helped deliver the baby.

" Although the baby was delivered without any difficulties, the hospital is facing many challenges, " she said. The hospital lacks adequate linen pads for child delivery and generally for maternity cases. Therefore, pregnant women have to bring their own linen, she explained.

Although Sekai applauded the commitment and dedication of the staff at Chishave, she said that sometimes there were no drugs so she had to visit the hospital more times than needed to receive treatment. The inadequate availability of drugs was cited by medical officials and practitioners in the district at various levels.

The ICRC supplements the provision of the most n eeded drugs, plus medical materials and consumables such as linen pads, bandages, latex gloves, face masks, among other supplies to the hospital. " The impact of ICRC support is more than good, " exclaimed Sister Shupikai.

Besides the need for drugs and medical materials, Sister Shupikai identified the lack of safe water as a major problem responsible for increased cases of waterborne diseases like bilharzia. Furthermore, " …the hospital did not have water before, but now we have a borehole, and more [expectant ] mothers are coming to deliver here, " she said.

 Improving access to safe water  

The ICRC drilled a borehole and installed a hand pump at Chishave Rural Hospital in 2007. The Nurse-In-Charge alluded to the fact that because of the lack of water at some health structures and even the district hospital, expectant mothers prefer to come to Chishave. In addition, availability of water at the hospital is responsible for the decline in home deliveries during 2007, numbering only 16, despite the fact that there are about 30 traditional birth attendants in the district, she explained.

The ICRC is supporting 16 rural health structures in three rural districts in Zimbabwe namely, Chivi, Makoni and Tsholotsho. Chisave Rural Hospital is located in Chivi District. The organization also improves access to safe water at those facilities by drilling boreholes and equipping them with hand pumps or rehabilitating existing ones as well as installing water storage tanks.