Wednesday, May 11, 2011

My Real African Adventure

The team in front of one of the health clinics. I'm somewhere in the back row.
It's hard now to think back to day to day life in 1986 and remember the internet was in its infancy and ordinary people did not have access to it. Now if you want to learn about something called Earthwatch you get on line and Google it, but I really had to think long and hard about how I actually discovered Earthwatch and learned about the Maternal and Infant Nutrition Study that Prisca Nemempare was conducting in Zimbabwe. As best I remember, I saw an ad for Earthwatch in Ms magazine, and a phone call to the 800 number got me a list of expeditions and a year's worth of their magazine. 

Earthwatch works on the same principal that Tom Sawyer used to con his friends into whitewashing the fence. They recruit volunteers who will pay our own way to go and work on scientific projects in countries all over the world. If you are a volunteer, you don't just pay your own way, you pay a fee that covers part of the expedition costs as well. In exchange you got a tax deduction (the rules have changed since) and an interesting experience, and free time off evenings and weekends to do your own exploring.  

The Maternal and Infant study appealed to me for several reasons. As one may have deduced from the fact that I read Ms, I was interested in women's issues. The study was going on in an exotic place, one I'd likely never visit otherwise. More importantly, the timing worked out well for me. The place where I worked had an interesting vacation schedule: it closed for two weeks at Christmas, two weeks at Easter, and two weeks in August. That was a lot of vacation time, but it meant having to plan your vacation for those specific times. One of the team segments for the nutrition study coincided roughly with my August vacation.

I also really did charge the trip to my Visa card with no clear idea how I would pay for it. This wasn't as reckless as it sounds. I did have the financial resources to pay for it, just not in liquid assets, but in the form of equity in a whole life insurance policy, an IRA, and the equity in my on-the-market house. The Visa card was the simplest way to pay for the trip, but I wasn't putting myself into danger of bankruptcy, and I actually paid off the card in about 8 months. And we did have to take malaria pills once a week. It was very important to take them on the same day each week.

When I first heard about the trip, the teams were supposed to stay in a hut without electricity out in a rural area. That was the first year of the study. In 1986, the study shifted to Harare itself, and we stayed in a house in Chisipite, about two blocks or so away from the vice-prime minister's compound. Our house was nowhere near as grand, but it had electricity and running water, not to mention a laundry room and a groundskeeper who swept the driveway every day. It didn't have enough beds for the whole team, and since I had brought an air mattress and sleeping bag, I decided to sleep out on the covered back porch.

What we did there was simple. Each morning we went to an antenatal clinic, where we helped the nursing staff do antenatal exams in exchange for being able to ask the patients to participate in an interview. Those of us with no medical background did weigh-ins and collected urine samples. In the course of interviewing, we would ask for volunteers to let us do more extensive interviews in their homes that afternoon. 

Inside a clinic

Typical health poster

The interviews not only contained questions about nutrition, but also about the patient's family, work life, pregnancy history, and job status. The answers could be amusing. A woman who answered no to whether she had a job often turned out to have a farm out of town she worked every summer, or would sit there crocheting clothing to sell as she talked. It was rare for any of our interviewees to be Western-style SAHM's.

We would also ask how many children they wanted and a typical answer was, "Not many. Only four." (or five or six. Eight was the upper limit of ideal family size among the woman I spoke to, and 4-6 the average.). Almost all of the women I spoke to used birth control to space their children. Prisca said in the rural areas where they had been the year before, it was not unusual to see pregnant women bring their infants to the clinics, but in the big city, women appeared to have access to and a favorable attitude toward family planning.

A question that amused me was "Does your husband have any other wives?" I don't remember hearing yes, but plural marriages were  apparently legal.  

We had interpreters to help us with the interviews, but most of the women we saw spoke some English, and if they didn't understand us they would grab the list of questions and read it themselves. English is the official language of Zimbabwe, since to pick one tribal language would have caused war to break out among the tribes, something that back in 1986 the country had avoided. Sometimes one patient would translate for another. 

Of course, the questions about nutrition were quite revealing. When asked how much they ate, the women would reply "A lot! I'm hungry all the time." Then when I asked what they ate the day before, they would report modest meals. Most of these women were quite lean. The nurses in our group, who listened for the baby's heart beats, reported it was very easy to find them with so little fat in the way. One of Prisca's concerns was that in adopting Western ways of eating, people in her country had come to reject traditional sources of protein like rodents and termites. I actually wanted to try eating field mouse, but did not think it would be safe to buy from open pots in the markets.
The two littlest girls with caps on are triplets. The third one died.

The home visits were enough to make you go home and kiss the floor you walk on. Most of the homes we visited had dirt floors, and running water consisted of a tap outside the building. Despite these limitations, those homes were clean. There were radios, but no TV's. A lot of the children's toys were homemade by the children themselves. They learned to make them in school. I did see one boy riding a bicycle, but most bicycles belonged to adults. I remember pricing toys in a store one day. You could buy a rump roast for the cost of a box of crayons and a coloring book.

I did visit one house with a TV, wood floors, indoor plumbing, and some children's toys. It was the home of our driver, Simon, who drove us to our clinic and home visits. I have no idea which homes were more typical of the general population there.

The children we saw were happy looking and extremely polite, and looked on our visits as a great chance to practice their English. Living in the south of the U.S., I'm used to hearing children say "ma'am", but I was charmed by hearing "Good evening, madam" in greeting. 

My favorite picture

All the houses had gardens (not the farms the women would work in summer) where the family would raise some vegetables for the table. When they weren't gardening, the women and girls would crochet. One weekend, on our way to Masvingo (pronounced Mashingo), we stopped to see what some roadside peddlers had for sale. I bought a crocheted, tea-length dress for the equivalent of $10-12 U.S. After spending four times as much for suitable underwear to wear with it and wearing it four times as a party dress, I got married in it.

What did I learn from my trip? Probably not enough.  I saw that even at a point in my life when I felt the poorest I had since childhood, I still owned more of the Earth's resources than women who were working far harder. I learned that despite my intent to be culturally sensitive, our culturally determined ways of looking at life are so ingrained that it is hard to step outside them even with the best will in the world. I learned that drinking from a water fountain at the Victoria Falls Hotel is not a good idea if you have a sensitive stomach.  I learned to love Zimbabwe, and to feel heartbroken over what happened to it in later years. And I learned that sometimes it pays off to leap before you look.


  1. Poor Zimbabwe. Between politics and the HIV/AIDS pandemic they ended up with a really raw deal. Especially considering they should be one of the richest nations in Africa. It is still one of the places I would love to visit, malaria (and other interesting diseases), crocodiles and mambas notwithstanding.

  2. It is beautiful, and the falls are spectacular.

    I've been thinking about you. How is the little one?