Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Report from Cathy Buckle

Dear Family and Friends,
I do not remember what month or even what year it was when I came face to face, for the first time, with the reality of those strange sounding words I'd learnt at school: pellagra, beri beri, scurvy and rickets. It was in the mid 1970's and I was in my late teens. Zimbabwe's Independence was near - just a few years away - and I was doing a placement for my training as a social worker. I had been sent to a high density suburb - in those days called townships - where thousands of people, displaced by the war, were sitting it out in extreme poverty, just waiting for the time when they could go home. The task was simple - identify and then assist people most in need - and they were literally all around me.

That was thirty years ago but there are parts of it I remember as if it were today. Everywhere I looked there it was - not words in text books but living proof of pellagra, beri beri, scurvy and rickets. If ever a mother needed to explain to their child why they had to eat their vegetables - here it was. Arms and legs as thin as sticks; deep cracks and open sores on feet, shins and arms; bow legs, sunken faces and staring lethargy. And scabies too - scores and scores of children itching and itching and itching as the mites were everywhere, in their hair, in their dirty raggy clothes and probably even in the sand under their bare feet. What little we had as
trainee social workers in the middle of a civil war, didn't go very far. We had vitamin supplements, red carbolic soap, antiseptic liquid and plastic basins. Forever I will remember squatting down in the dust, picking up a naked screaming infant and bathing it in disinfectant in a bright green plastic bowl. The child was absolutely terrified and screamed hysterically - I can still hear that sound now.

Those are not images I like to remember but every now and again I do think of them, it helps to know how shockingly bad things were then, just before independence. I didn't think I would ever see those things again, at least not in Zimbabwe. This week I saw one of those words again: pellagra - and it bought memories of 30 years ago flooding back.

On page 7 of a weekly newspaper there was a report which I wish had been on the front page and I wish it had been accompanied by photographs. " Malnutrition claims five at Ingutsheni" is the headline.Ingutsheni is not a high density suburb or a camp for refugees, it is a mental hospital in Bulawayo. The report details the dire conditions currently prevailing. Severe shortages of food and medicine, a very unbalanced diet and extreme financial problems. The report told of people at Ingutsheni suffering from pellagra lesions, weight loss, nutritional diseases and serious malnutrition problems.

Ingutsheni is not alone. Similar situations are there for any who care, or dare, to go and see for themselves. I have a friend whose son is in a home for mentally handicapped adults. It is bad, very bad, I have seen it with my own eyes and it breaks my heart to know that this is happening in our beautiful, bountiful land. At homes for the mentally handicapped, the mentally ill, the elderly, orphanages -oh God help us - people who cannot help themselves are suffering and dying, out of sight and out of mind in Zimbabwe's institutions. People barely surviving on only maize meal, people who need eggs, fruit, milk, meat, nuts, cereals.

Memories of a naked, screaming child from thirty years ago are vivid in my mind this week. I cannot stop myself from wondering where that child is now, if he is even still alive. This is 2006, we are not at war and this should not be happening but it seems nothing and no one can do a thing to stop it. I write this letter for David and his colleagues in a home for mentally handicapped adults - you have no voice, I know and I am so sorry.

Until next week, with love, cathy.

Copyright cathy buckle 21st October 2006.