A short stay in Zimbabwe’s finest

18 05 2022

“I have a suppository for you” said the nurse aid pulling on another set of gloves over those he already had on.

I eyed him suspiciously, “What’s it for?”

“Pain” he replied.

“Oh, OK” I relented. I needed a bit of alternative pain control – back surgery is a painful affair. The fentanyl had been a disaster causing me to vomit a lot and pethidine doesn’t have much effect on me. I laboriously rolled over and let him put the suppository where suppositories go.

I rolled back over and watched aghast as he reached over me with his left hand to my table on wheels. “I hope you aren’t left-handed because if you are you’ve just spread the bacterial contents of my rectum over the table” I thought.

Then he stripped off the outer pair of gloves and moved on to the next patient.

The hospital I was in is relatively new being opened in 2017. It’s not big and it only caters for surgery patients but by Zimbabwe standards it is “state-of-the-art”. The wards contain three beds which are comfortable and can be power-controlled for comfort. The food, for a hospital, is excellent. There are still pencil marks on the wall above the awnings in the small courtyard – I guess Zimbabwe’s artisans don’t look at the final details like I do.

I got chatting to one of the qualified nurses on the night shift. She told me that the hospital made use of a lot of nurse aids to keep costs down. The turnover was high as they then took their experience overseas to go caring and earn reasonable wages. She had two small children and a surveyor husband in dead-end government job so she was unlikely to hang around much longer. There were some older nurses around but not many.

Some years ago Canada had a drive to recruit Zimbabwean nurses and physiotherapists. There was a big billboard on a major road into town advertising emigration to Canada. I can only guess at how many took up the offer (a recent France 24 article puts the figure at 1,800 for last year); the weather might be dismal by our standards but the salaries far better. I saw a post on Facebook today that a junior doctor in Zimbabwe on a government salary can expect to earn ZW$35k which is less than US$100 per month.

I was let out of the hospital after six days, trailing a vacuum dressing device and with strict instructions not to go further than the bathroom for the first two weeks. I also had to get in a nursing service to administer the intravenous antibiotics for 10 days. The two nurses involved were older women, one of them very proudly told me that she got her qualification in the Rhodesian days (Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in April 1980). Her husband had retired after spending a lifetime working for the National Railways of Zimbabwe and now gets a monthly pension of ZW$30 which equates to about 7.5c in US dollars. Needless to say we paid the nursing service in USD.

For the first couple of days when Marianne went out shopping she hired another retired nurse to come and keep an eye on me. I told her the story about the suppository. Joy rolled her eyes and said for a start there was no need to double-glove except if the gloves were of suspect quality like when she’d been nursing in the 2000s when just about everything was difficult to get hold of. She’d left nursing as a profession when she could no longer put up with the declining standards.

Boredom set in quickly. It didn’t help that I couldn’t sit up for any length of time. Mike the electrician came in to repair a spike filter on the solar inverter. Themba, my seven month old Rhodesian Ridgeback barked at him from beside me on the bed despite having met him before. When Joy walked up the passage he was even more agitated and growled when he thought she was getting too close. That’s my boy! I was so proud of him (there was no danger of an attack).

Themba, having told off the electrician and nurse for getting too close.

It’s now been a month since the surgery and I am a lot more mobile. The vacuum dressing has gone and I have made the transition from crutches back to my walking sticks. The pain is under control with nothing more than paracetemol but, like all pain control, it must be anticipated. Today Marianne drove me into work so I could see the state of the nursery. All was well though business was slow. My foreman had phoned around the competition to see what their prices were and they were way below mine so I’d taken the rather painful decision to reduce my US dollar prices even though I know that my quality is superior. I didn’t bother changing the Zimbabwe dollar prices. Currently the unofficial rate, i.e. what retail outlets are charging, is around 400:1 US dollar so a minor change was not going to make much difference. In the month that I’ve been away Marianne has been in twice to change local prices. It’s easy enough. Back in 2008 we were changing prices daily so I made sure that the software, which I wrote, was intuitive in that respect.

As I was sitting in the truck with the computer a customer arrived. I have grown seedlings for him in the past but last year he chose to take his business to one of the other cheaper nurseries. Back again this year I can only assume he had a bad experience because he didn’t even blink when I told him my prices. We briefly discussed how the economic environment was affecting his business which is mostly export orientated. He admitted that the 40% export earnings retention by the government was tough (the government takes 40% of the forex earned and gives it back in local dollars at a highly disadvantageous rate for the exporter) but at least changes to the procedure meant that they were “only” losing some 25%.

Two weeks ago the president of Zimbabwe, E D Mnangagwa, announced that all banks were to stop all lending in an effort to get inflation, estimated at 96.4% for April, under control. Confusion reigned. It even made the weekly edition of The Economist which called it a “curious way to tame inflation” and also ran another article on how a Zimbabwe businessman was running a pension scheme for Zimbabweans by breeding cattle. Clients buy cattle and the offspring are the interest. At any time they are welcome to go and visually inspect their investment. It’s a clever idea as Zimbabweans have little faith in any sort of intangible currency. This extends to not depositing US cash in banks but using safe deposit boxes which are now at a premium.

Marianne interrupted our discussion to say that she’d read the loans ban had been completely dropped but we agreed that the damage had been done. Who would want to invest in a country where the government has so little understanding of economics that they might arbitrarily slap a ban on the core business of banking?