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Into Cholera Country

Last week, I went to Binga, in northern Zimbabwe. The district centre is situated on Lake Kariba, which is man-made, and blocks up the great Zambezi River, which runs downstream from Victoria Falls. I was lucky to live right on the lake, at a place called Journey’s End, and to watch the sun rise over it every morning.

Tonga is spoken in Binga, and in next door Zambia, across the lake, where the Tonga speaking people came from originally. It’s a minority language here in Zimbabwe, where more Shona and Ndebele are used. Because people in Binga are far away from the centre, and largely disenfranchised, we’ve been working with families there for a number of years.

I went to make a report of our emergency work – how far we’ve got, and what else we need to get done. It was warm in Binga, not cool like in Harare, and there’s some electricity, but no email. The cell phone service shuts down at night. My report was more than ten pages long in the end, with numbers and tables and recommendations. But there were many things that were not in it. Some of those things I will carry for life, I think.

I went into the main Save the Children warehouse in Binga. We were poking about in the stocks there, counting up things, putting them onto the computer, making lists, and checking and rechecking them. I was also taking some photos for the record. I saw what looked like plastic sheeting. “What’s this?” I asked. “Body bags” came the reply.

When someone dies of cholera the body needs to be disposed of in a plastic body bag, and no one is even allowed to shake hands at the funeral – that’s one of the many ways to ensure the disease doesn’t spread. We’ve been supplying the government here with the equipment they need to contain the epidemic and body bags were part of our assistance package.

I forced myself to think of Lloyd, 5, who I’d met only a day before. He’d been very sick with cholera in the summer, but he’d been saved. Kezia, a local health worker had been telling people in her village how to spot the signs and symptoms and that’s why his mother knew something was wrong. Lloyd’s father went running all the way to the clinic to get help when he saw his watery, whitish stools. I took a picture with Lloyd, I kept hearing his uncle’s words, “He is well! He is cured!” It made me feel much better.

In Lloyd’s village, there’d been a large gathering of people. They were sharing food and laughing and I was hanging about trying to make friends and take photos. Everything seemed wonderful. I was intrigued with the design of the chairs that some people were sitting on, and my colleague was chatting happily to someone. Later, she said, laughing, that the Prophet had been flirting with her.

The Prophet? I did a double take. The village gathering was in honour of this Prophet, I learnt. He is the Prophet because he knows how to cure people of all their troubles. He takes away cattle from peoples’ homes if they cannot pay him with money for doing this. He tells people, “You are sick because you are a witch.” Do people feel that they are being duped? Not at all. In fact, they revere the man. I realise that it’s a miracle that Lloyd was saved in that same village.

I also think that Kezia deserves a medal. She told me she ran up and down to the cholera clinic several times a day to get help for people with cholera – each trip took her a couple of hours. She isn’t even paid to do that.

I’ve got no right to complain that a third of the eight-hour road journey to Binga is an unpaved road, full of potholes!

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