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Journals from Africa by Gloria Simoneaux
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Journal Four

July 10, 2007

Parirentyatwa Hospital (Harare, Zimbabwe)

I had one day off (it was April 2006) and I told Clever, my driver, that I wanted to visit the pediatrics unit at the largest hospital in Harare. I felt such a strong urge, as though I NEEDED to make that trip. Driver was not happy about that plan; he wanted to take me shopping, the choice of most tourists. The extent of suffering is so enormous and I imagine that Clever would not choose to spend the afternoon in a children’s hospital…surrounded by even more suffering. Reluctantly he took me to the Parirentyatwa Hospital in downtown. When we arrived, he told me to wait in the car and he ran inside to get information. He arrived back at the car ten minutes later in a more relaxed mood, and said, “Visiting hours are over. We cannot enter the hospital.” I said, “Come with me. I want to see for myself.”

The grounds of the hospital (particularly the large grassy areas) are filled with sleeping and resting people, lying in the sun waiting to visit sick family and friends. We had to walk over and around large groups (mostly women) as we made our way to the entrance of the imposing building. I approached the reception area and said, “Good afternoon. I work in a hospital in San Francisco and I would like to visit your pediatrics unit to see if there is anyway that we can assist one another.” I was received warmly and enthusiastically and before long my driver and I were accompanied to the pediatrics ward. As we were approaching the ward, it occurred to me that they probably assumed that I was a surgeon, and if there were a medical emergency I would be called upon to operate. Luckily, that didn’t happen.

But what did happen, gave me a shock. Standing alone at the door that marked the entrance to the ward was a tall, thin girl of about ten years old. Her face was disfigured by a black growth that grew the entire length (top to bottom) and covered almost half of her face. It was the most hideous disfigurement that I had ever seen on a human being and I automatically gasped and stared in horror. Clever was beside himself, and I told him to go sit in the waiting room. As it turns out, that afternoon meeting was very significant for me. Sbongila, the young girl, is the reason that I needed to visit the hospital and we have become close friends.

Sbongi is an orphan from a distant rural area near the Zambian border. When we met, she had been in the hospital for a year and a half. Her grandmother had managed to bring her for treatment and had left her there alone. She had no visitors.

I tried to collect information about her condition, prognosis and history but that wasn’t an easy task. In Zimbabwe (and the other African countries that I have visited and worked in) bureaucracy is excruciating. I was never able to find out the name of her illness, however I finally met with the “Matron” of pediatrics who gave me official permission to spend time with Sbongi, bring art supplies, food and clothing for her. She needed the most basic things…underwear, shampoo and protein. Children are not fed nourishing meals and so they are not eligible for surgery or any extensive procedures because they are not nourished. It is a wild vicious cycle.

I managed to spend time with her every day for the remainder of the two-week visit. She was very withdrawn and didn’t smile. She understood some English and spoke softly and rarely. We drew and painted together and she was very tentative and shy with the materials.

One day as I was walking to the hospital I ran into Masimba, a young artist who had attended my art therapy talks at the HIFA festival. Masimba had been the most enthusiastic and interactive attendee. He said, “Teach me art therapy. I have researched it on the internet and I know it works. Please take me as your student.”

When I noticed Masimba walking down the street, I said, “Masimba, come with me, I have an idea.” As we walked to the hospital, I gave him some background about Sbongi and our relationship…I tried to prepare him. When he saw her for the first time he gave her a hug and then talked with her in Shona as the three of us sat on her bed and she drew hearts with glitter pens. Later, when we left the hospital, Masimba said to me, “from now on I will call you Glow, because when you see Sbongi, you Glow.”

We arranged to have Masimba visit her in the hospital on a weekly basis and bring art materials and food (that I provided) and I agreed to train and supervise him via the internet. I also offered to pay him for spending time with her, but he said, “I am your student. I’m not ready to be paid.” Masimba is a man of great integrity.

Pretty soon he was making art with a whole group of children every Saturday, and then the hospital’s pediatric oncologist (the only one in the entire country) noticed the impact that Masimba was having and requested that he also work with the child cancer patients. The patients have no stimulation or emotional support, and many of them have no parents and no visitors. The survival rate on the ward is 15%. It is dismal…no medicines, no radiation equipment, no nothing. Masimba quickly became the Pied Piper of Parirentyatwa. The children adored him.

Meanwhile, I had returned to California on a mission. I was intent on finding a plastic surgeon who would volunteer to help my sweet Sbongi, and several doctors (friends of friends) expressed interest. I was encouraged and wrote to staff at the hospital involved in her case, offering to bring her to the states for reconstructive surgery. Time went on…and on…and on…and I was sent cryptic messages indicating that Sbongi would be well cared for in Zimbabwe and that permission for her to travel to the states was denied. “We can take care of our own” was the translation.

After the HIFA festival 2007, I excitedly planned my first visit back to the hospital in more than a year. With great anticipation, and laden with clothes, art supplies, wristwatch, sunglasses and food I went with Masimba to visit Sbongi. She was waiting for us and ran up to embrace Masimba. Tentatively she gave me a little smile and a hug. Her face had changed dramatically and the black growth that had taken over her face was gone. She looked a million times better than last year. But even so, the doctors had done a terrible job with the surgery and had butchered her. She had been in the hospital for two and a half years, nobody appeared concerned about her future and nothing seemed to be happening quickly. I felt sick.

We spent some wonderful days together. Sbongi was ecstatic with her new clothes and smiled easily. She posed in front of the camera, something that she would have never done a year ago. I let her and the other children use my cameras and they ran around the ward taking pictures of posing nurses, orderlies and mothers. There was another young boy there who also really caught my attention. Innocent, a four-year old orphan, has been living in the hospital for more than eight months. Masimba is his only visitor and when we appeared, Innocent smiled, grabbed onto Masimba’s leg and wouldn’t let go. He has a terrible condition on his face, almost as dreadful as Sbongi’s. The day that we presented him with a brand new Spiderman shirt, he squealed with delight and ran around showing it off, laughing and screeching with happiness.

I watched Masimba play and create with the children and I felt in awe of his abilities. He was sitting with eight children at a table filled with markers, different colored papers, glitter paints, scissors and stickers. One of the boys ripped a piece of white paper into the shape of a hat and held it up to his head. Masimba also ripped a piece of paper into a hat and held it up to HIS head. It was a brilliant response to the little boy, because non-verbally Masimba JOINED the child in his playful space. The child understood that someone was paying attention to him, encouraging him and even accepting him. I thought to myself, “Many people go to school for years to learn how to work with children, and they couldn’t do as well.” He has a natural ability and I’m thrilled to see him in action.

During those weeks I trained additional volunteers and officially hired Masimba as a DrawBridge International facilitator. He is now being paid. We have also discussed the possibility of training some of the older street boys as volunteers. That would be an ideal partnership. I am still 100% committed to finding additional care for Sbongi, and nothing will stop me.

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