by Nancy McDaniel

The reason I first went to Zimbabwe had nothing to do with one of those infomercials, the ones that show crying, hungry children and ask you to send money to feed them. Instead, it had to do with two statistics I read:

(1) about 500,000 women die in Africa each year of pregnancy-related problems, some attributed to inadequate nutrition and prenatal care and

(2) in Zimbabwe, out of every 1000 children born, about 70 die, many an indirect result of maternal malnutrition. The health of the children, the babies, is due in large part to that of their mother. If she is not well nourished, her whole family suffers.

So in 1992, I signed up to be a volunteer on an Earthwatch project in Zimbabwe, called “Maternal Health in Africa.” I wanted to help in a hands-on way, more than just write and send a check for food. This would be my fifth Earthwatch project, which I found to be a wonderful way to travel and see different parts of the world, while learning and giving something back at the same time.

I wanted to work with Dr. Prisca Nemapare, because I had heard wonderful things about her and her work. Prisca was born in Zimbabwe but emigrated to the United States where she earned her doctorate in Nutritional Sciences at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. She was Chair of the Department of Food and Nutrition at Ohio University. For many summers, she had returned to Zimbabwe to work on a project in conjunction with the Ministry of Health. Its goal was to assess the nutritional status of pregnant women, nursing mothers and their infants, as well as to understand the type of foods they were feeding their families and how that might have changed over time. I was part of a team of 8 American and British volunteers, who spent 11 days in Binga and Kamativi, in Matabeleland North Province in the northwestern part of Zimbabwe.

The “A” Team
We were a varied, but congenial bunch. One of my favorite women on the trip was a very together young single-mom/actress who had her own theater company from Leeds, England. My terrific roomie was a retired British school teacher who, after a string of disastrous love affairs, had decided to replace sex with yoga and kept trying to convince me to try doing so as well. (I wasn’t as convinced of the wisdom or enjoyment of this idea as she seemed to be.) Another sweet British woman whose common-law husband was a steam train buff and was riding trains back and forth around Zimbabwe, while waiting patiently for her to do the project.

There was an earnest young feminist who taught health and global ecology, and was an assistant dean at a Quaker boarding school outside Philadelphia. (In a way, we were all feminists but I decided that she really was because she didn’t shave her legs. Guess I’m not as “evolved” as I thought.) A 40ish woman from New Jersey was trading in a lucrative sales job in a car dealership to start a second career as a primary school teacher. A sparkplug of a pediatric nurse was the only one of us who had a relevant background to the project.

And then there I was, a 44 year old advertising professional who had no medical skills but who, after several previous trips, was in love with the soul and the people of Africa. Plus I had spent my career in marketing research and part of this project would be to interview the women, albeit in a language I didn’t understand. But as always, I was undaunted and hoped my enthusiasm would make up for lack of skill.

This article isn’t about the results of the study. Rather, it is to share some of my feelings and experiences about this stimulating and rewarding two weeks of my life

Why Were We There?
Our job was to help interview the women who would come to the clinics to see us, to have their babies weighed and measured, have their own blood pressure taken and some other simple, but important, tests performed. We were each teamed up with a young woman from Bulawayo who served as our interpreter. Our job was to read the questions and record the answers in English, while our interpreter spoke to the women in their language. It probably wasn’t the most efficient way to do it, as the young Zimbabwean women could have just interviewed the mothers themselves, but it involved us and gave us a fully participatory role in this very important project. To further involve us, each night we had a meeting to discuss what we had learned and observed during our day’s work.

My interpreter was blessedly named Rebecca. Blessedly because I had a more difficult time remembering and pronouncing some of the other beautiful names (Zami, Nonzima, Thulani, Thoko and especially Sinquobile, said with the click sound I tried mostly unsuccessfully to master). She was a lovely young woman with a sweet five-year-old daughter named Jacqueline. As was the custom, Rebecca and I generally held hands when we walked and, in fact, we became close very quickly.

Heading For Binga
Remember the Beverly Hillbillies? Didn’t they have a truck with all their belongings tied on the top and jam-packed inside? Well, we looked like the Zimbabwean version of it. Somehow, with our team, the interpreters, Prisca, her three assistants and our driver Simon, there ended up being 20 of us! We had to pack up all our gear (including food, sleeping bags and small suitcases for three days) in and on top of a 15-passenger van for a 3 and a half-hour drive from Hwange to Binga, where we would stay the first several nights. I sat in the very back of the van, with a suitcase under my feet and my knees drawn up to my chest, so my knees continually bashed into the back of the seat in front. This was not the most pleasant way to sit for a person with occasional back problems. I discovered that suffering in silence is not something I do well.

One thing that made the trip quite bearable was the glorious, ethereal singing of the interpreters. They seemed to sing all the time, or at least whenever they were in a vehicle. It was exquisite and a sound I grew to love and have missed ever since. It was also the first time I had heard the haunting, lovely and heart-wrenching Nkosi Sikelele Afrika, which at the time was the unofficial anthem of all of southern Africa and made me weep every time I heard it. It still does.

Father Mike Saves The Day
It’s funny how our expectations so strongly color our reactions. When we finally arrived in Binga, we were told that we unexpectedly had to stay in a Roman Catholic Church. Not the rectory, not the convent, but the floor of the church itself. We grimly unpacked all our gear, laying out our sleeping bags on the cold hard floor of the church. After checking out the aptly named “long drop” toilets (don’t ask, just imagine) out back, Pat and I started a fire to cook our first night’s meal of sadza (more on that later) and baked beans. Things were looking bleak. After all the singing and laughter on the drive, all of a sudden, everyone was very quiet.

And then Father Mike, the local priest who just happened to be from Toledo, Ohio, arrived with great news: he had arranged another place for us to stay. We were moving to a secondary school where we could stay in the girls’ dorm, 2 to a room on uncomfortable cots, with communal indoor toilet and shower room down the hall. Had we gone there first, we would have thought it austere. But compared to the prospect of sleeping on the concrete floor of a mission, it was like a four star hotel for us! Nevertheless, we still had baked beans and sadza to look forward to for dinner.

So Few Ways To Eat Sadza; So Many Meals
A word about sadza. Sadza is the staple of the Zimbabwe diet. It’s basically ground corn meal, highly processed, with virtually all of its nutritional value gone. The mealy meal is made into thin porridge for breakfast and sadza for the other (usually just one) meal of the day. Sadza has a very firm consistency, sort of like polenta, but with less flavor. When times are good, it is eaten with vegetables or a little meat. However, times were seldom good so, more often than not, it’s just sadza. We ate it every day, as did the women we spoke with, but we were fortunate enough to have accompaniments for it: tomato sauce, chicken, sometimes beef, lovely green leafy vegetables. I fantasized about writing a cookbook called “101 Ways to Make Sadza More Interesting.” But I couldn’t get past the first four or five ways.

Where Are The Smiling Babies?
This trip was a very difficult one for me emotionally, as I suspect it was for most of us. Living in an affluent part of Chicago, I am used to seeing chubby, healthy looking babies who coo, giggle, smile and actively respond to people and everything going on around them. Many, if not most, of the children we saw in the rural clinics were quite the opposite. They were less responsive, with sad, dull eyes. It didn’t take a medical professional to see that they were hungry, thin but with distended bellies. I wrote in my journal at the time: “Smiling babies are few and far between here. I think they’re just too tired from trying to live.”

Although AIDS was seldom diagnosed until after death, many of the babies were suspected to have HIV or full-blown AIDS, based on their symptoms of diarrhea, opportunistic infections and, probably worst of all, “failure to thrive.” Although I tried to harden myself to this, I often cried when I came back to my room at night. I have seen much poverty when I travel and usually steel myself to it pretty well, but seeing sick children breaks my heart and makes me feel so very useless.

We Help At A Feeding Station
The drought had made nutritious food sources scarce. One day we went to a feeding station along the side of the road where we helped prepare food for distribution. We shelled sugar beans and, after they were cooked, we mashed them with oil and roasted peanuts, which we then mixed into porridge for a highly nutritious meal for children under the age of 5. The mothers waited in line for several hours for this once-a-day meal for their kids. Unfortunately, the hungry children who were unlucky enough to be 6 years or older didn’t get fed. Neither did their hungry mothers, many of whom were pregnant and desperately needed the nourishment themselves. Yet, they waited in line so at least one of them could eat a nutritious meal. It struck me, as it always does when I go to Africa, that this seems to be one of the constants in the lives of African women: Waiting.

It was always a treat, if also a way for me to recharge emotionally, to interact with a seemingly healthier baby, one who verbalized and reacted and smiled and cooed. This tended to be more the case at the clinic in Kamativi, a company town for the workers at the tin mine. The fact that at least one parent was employed and had income to provide food with better nutrition for the children was obviously a benefit. Easier access to a clinic helped as well. I wished we could have spent more time at the Kamativi clinic, as it gave me a false sense that these children, at least, were going to be all right.

I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing&
There were two things about America that I was thankful for on this trip, because they helped bring us and our new Zimbabwean friends closer together. Some things just don’t need many words or a common language or culture: Coca-Cola and Uno. Coca-Cola didn’t surprise me that much; Uno did.

One night, after a long, emotional day at the clinic, an informal gathering took place in the room that Val and I shared. We had a little bit of vodka, which we mixed with Mazoe, sort of a Zim version of Sunny Delight, for an ersatz, but acceptable, version of screwdrivers. And we taught the interpreters to play Uno, which they took to immediately. Our giggling was out of control as one by one the interpreters enthusiastically cried, “Uno”, even when there was more than one card left. The rules of the game hardly mattered. We laughed and laughed and felt a new, deeper bond developing with these lovely young women. To me, one of the joys of these trips is the delight we can experience when we share small, very ordinary things.

The Coca-Cola event occurred when we visited the mining town of Kamativi. Alison and I went to the home of a woman named Kelina, who lived there with her infant daughter, Jacqueline. Her neighbors, sisters named Susan and Loveness, loaned us chairs and joined us for conversation. Kelina asked if we would like soft drinks, which I offered to pay for, and soon a neighbor child arrived, carrying a basket full of ice cold bottles of Coca-Cola and orange Fanta, which we all proceeded to drink. Although it may sound silly, I felt like singing the old Coke song, “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony& ” It was a moment of closeness, one where barriers of language and culture vanished, if only for a moment.

Prisca has recently retired from Ohio University and has moved back to Zimbabwe. She continues working with the Ministry of Health and has dedicated herself to helping the women find nutritious food sources for themselves and their children. Earthwatch continues to support Prisca and her work and is, in fact, sending three more teams this summer.

I yearn to go back to Zimbabwe to work with Prisca again. I think of those two weeks often, every time I play Uno, drink a Diet Coke or see a smiling baby.

[NOTE: For more information on helping as an Earthwatch volunteer this summer yourself, consider joining Dr. Nemapare on one of three 11-day teams, beginning July 18, August 1st and August 15. For more information, call 1-800-776-0188, or send email now.]