Her Story, Told by Me

Photo by Mike Blythe (Flickr)

I've thought a lot about whether I should tell this story. In the end I decided that I should. This is Africa and this is an African story. Nothing will change in the telling of this story, although sharing it gives this woman a voice. And a voice is important.

As a prelude it is worth mentioning Zimbabwe. Hyperinflation, economic meltdown and human rights abuses have characterised Zimbabwean governance for over a decade. In March this year the Zimbabwean dollar was removed from currency. The South African Rand and American dollar are now used in an attempt to stabilise hyperinflation. Although the South African government has relaxed the Zimbabwe-South African border it offers no formal assistance to refugees. There are also refugee camps offering some support on the Botswanan border, although in general the Botswanan government and Motswanans are hostile to Zimbabwean refugees. If Zimbabweans make it to Gaborone they are on their own and risk being herded up, put into buses and taken back to the border. Prejudice and racism are widespread. The Zimbabwean refugees are blamed for petty crime, burglaries, taking Motswanan jobs, taking their women and anything else vaguely derogatory.

So with this background I begin a story about her. She is Zimbabwean and she is poor. Possibly she was always poor, but now she is very poor. I was told that she used to sell fresh vegetables and fruit door-to-door, carrying a tray of fruit on her back and walking the wealthier neighbourhoods of Gaborone barefoot. This was her second job, her first was washing clothes for a Motswanan. She worked up until the day she gave birth to her daughter. Then she lost her job. The Motswanans keep their newborns inside for 60 days after birth. If they survive they are brought out to greet the world amongst great celebration. To be seen with a newborn outside of the house is considered unlucky to you, your child and those who see you. She could also no longer sell fruit.

Three months later she presented to a friend of mine from Gaborone and offered her 200 pula for the baby. Two hundred pula is a little less than AUS$40. She had no support in Gaborone, no money and was eating Pap (maize porridge) once a day. I became involved as a doctor to assess the baby and the mother. With no legal rights in Botswana she was too scared to attend a clinic in case they reported her and sent her back to Zimbabwe. I am pleased that I can say the baby was fine. A little hungry and perhaps a little dehydrated, but healthy and clearly bonding with her mum. We gave the mother food, offered her baby clothes and cleaning products and constant access to my medical services. We offered to try to find her a job. Then we sent her on her way and hoped for the best.

This is Africa and this is an African story. There are thousands of stories like this and to single one person out to help somehow seems like removing a grain of sand from the desert and expecting it to become an Oasis. But it is something. It is worth adding that this lady and her baby were living in a single room of a house with four other mothers and their children. Each paid 150 pula/month to use the room (750 pula/month for the room). This does not include water or electricity. The women choose to pay extra (50 pula/month each) for water. I pay 2700 pula/month for a double room in a house with a lounge room, dining room, kitchen, running water, electricity, cable TV, internet, air-conditioning, bathroom, pool, lock-up garage, security and a full-time maid who on top of the usual "house-cleaning work" washes my dishes, cleans and irons my clothes and when my shelves get too messy, refolds and stacks my clothes neatly. Someone is getting a raw deal and it isn't me.

There is not much I can do for this women, but in telling her story I give her a voice.

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