The New York Times has this story on rural Zimbabweans from the Makonde valley having to barter peanuts and other agricultural produce for medical treatment from Chidamoyo Hospital. Parts of it are quite good and informative but other parts of the report are laden with all the typical cliches of abject poverty and desperation with saviour America on a mission and it's irked me. Take this gem for example:
'The hospital’s cavernous chapel is now filled with what looks like a giant sand dune of unshelled nuts.'
'“It’s very difficult to get this famous dollar that people are talking about,” said Esther Chirasasa, 30, who hiked eight miles through the bush to the hospital for treatment of debilitating arthritis. Her son, Cain, 13, walked at her side carrying a sack of peanuts to pay for her care.'
The descriptions of the 'cavernous chapel' and arthritic Esther hiking through the bush leave quite an impression on one's mind: of the primitive and dreadful circumstances these people live in. Without taking anything away from the severity of Esther's suffering or the image of the chapel turned hospital as a place of refuge in a remote area, I think it's quite possible to write about that without casting Esther in the poor villager/victim role and the American hospital as the 'star-spangled saviour' stuck in the middle of nowhere in Zimbabwe. I find it annoying that the Heart of Darkness narrative continues to seep into stories in so many ways despite that it's 2010 and reportage and postcolonial* travel writing has long moved on from this way of writing about places.
Admittedly my response to the problematic sections of this article is not impartial but I offer no apology for that. I'm tired of the aid discourse of victims and saviours. I always have a glass half-full perspective when it comes to all things Zimbabwe so I don't think the way this story is written gives much emphasis on the fact that the villages are actually able to produce crops and trade them for health care. Considering the myths about Zimbabwe's failed land project and collapsed agricultural sector, how is it that this story of agri-resourcefulness can be written in the same 'Zimbabwe is on the brink of disaster' tone?
Barter trade has long been a part of Zimbabwean history (after all, that is how we met the Portuguese, the Arabs and the British) and has continued through the colonial and post-independence periods of modernity. Rather than go the long route of having to sell one's goods at the market (that must be travelled to!) for days or weeks to raise enough money for hospital care or school fees in some cases, this is an alternative and a short cut. In the mid-1990s when primary education for rural schools was no longer free, it was no surprise to hear stories of villagers bartering livestock for a term or a year's fees - depending on the beast. In more recent times, barter has become commonplace in the cities too, at my niece's school when fuel was in short supply in '08-'09 this well-equipped private school accepted fuel or fuel vouchers as payment of fees to keep it's fleet of cars on the road. Parents in the fuel business or with access to large amounts of fuel happily complied. Even businesses do it - trade offs of fuel or sugar happen all the time, why run around looking for US $, Botswana Pulas or South African Rands when commodities of value can be used?
On the cultural and economic/technological front, the Chidamoyo story lacks context - I'm not in denial of the dire situation of these villagers, but context helps put into perspective the extent to which the situation is dire and how such stories of direness may be written. Peanuts are commonly used in Zimbabwean dishes so they're not 'melted into vegetables' as though that was a desperate move to shift the peanut butter to feed starving patients as the article suggests, but peanut butter is often used in Zimbabwean (mainly Shona, Chewa and Tonga) cuisine so it's the norm - a luxury in some cases to have peanut butter stew with vegetables or meat. On the economic/technological front, there have been a number of trial and error inventions of devices that can use peanut butter as a bio-fuel. If you look online, most stories suggest it can't be done, but offline there are stories that suggest it can. I remember some years ago somebody coming to my father's office to pitch his invention to him but my dad wasn't interested in buying it because we don't produce peanuts on a mass scale for the device to have been useful. As part of his pitch, the man had said that the Ministry of Education had expressed interest in the invention and they were looking it over and I don't know what's happened to it now, but if that man's idea hasn't taken off it might be worthwhile for this hospital to investigate the possibility of using peanut butter as bio-fuel for an eco-generator or using the sun as solar power. The hospital will need diesel to power the generator they're appealing for and if patients pay in peanuts and livestock, how will they raise funds to buy diesel?
So this story is not one of tragedy, but reality - were it not for the plea for funds for the hospital, there are parts of this story deserving of a so-what-that's-what-people-do-to-get-by response. I'm not dismissing this case, I'm dismissing the way the parts of the story is written. I just would like for stories to be placed in context and to move beyond the 'basket case' narrative. I'm kinda tired of always having that label stuck on me, my fellow people or my country. On the upside though, I do think the pictures of the villagers and what the hospital is doing are pretty cool. : )
(* i.e assuming the post-colonial moment began after the moment of encounter and not after political independence)