Angela Marzvizo was just a child when her father fell ill and her mother abandoned her. For comfort and companionship, she befriended nurses at nearby Mnene Hospital in the Mberengwa District of Zimbabwe.

Practically raised by nurses, she wanted to become one too. The cost of tuition and books worried her, so she was glad when Mnene began to offer the accelerated nurse’s training program developed by the Zimbabwean government. She could earn a credential as a primary care nurse, with special training as a midwife, in just 18 months. An ELCA World Hunger grant for nurse training in Zimbabwe would cover the cost of her textbooks and give her access to school computers, saving her even more.

When she finishes her training, Marzvizo hopes to earn a full three-year nursing degree.  “I want to come back here and tutor and train people,” she said.

Health ministry to a remote area

Primary care nurses like Marzvizo are part of an effort to reduce infant mortality in Zimbabwe by 75 percent. Tendeukai Moyo, who recently finished her training at Mnene, is proud “to help pregnant mothers deliver safely and prevent complications,” she says. “If the mother is bleeding, the fetus can die.”

Because travel can be difficult in this remote area, pregnant women plan ahead, arriving at Mnene hospital weeks before they deliver.  Living in small shelters on the hospital grounds, they know that when labor begins, primary care nurses and other Mnene staff members are just a few yards away.

Mnene is one of four hospitals operated by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Zimbabwe. All provide critical services in remote communities.

Partially funded by the government of Zimbabwe, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Zimbabwe hospitals are also supported by the ELCA and other Lutheran church bodies. During times of political or economic turmoil—such as the hyperinflation crisis of 2008-09, when a loaf of bread could cost 500,000 Zimbabwean dollars—ELCA World Hunger funds offer welcome stability.

In 2009, the buying power of salaries shrank, causing many medical personnel to move to the United Kingdom or South Africa for better-paying work. The sky-high cost of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies meant that supply shelves were often empty. Sometimes not even a single bandage was available.

The ELCA responded by designating World Hunger funds to buy medications as well as food for patients and staff. To stave off famine, grants to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Zimbabwe helped buy seed for farmers to plant. Another grant helped build a new morgue—important for a hospital that may need to store bodies for months, whether electricity is working or not. Funds to support salaries helped persuade staff members to stay instead of emigrating to an urban center or out of the country altogether.

While Zimbabwe’s economic climate has improved, World Hunger funds are still key to Mnene’s critical health care services. Ongoing support for salaries lets Mnene retain staff in an area where wages are low.

Support for the nursing program is also expected to help. Many of the 40 primary care nurses slated to graduate every 18 months will stay at Mnene to fulfill their two-year rural service requirement.

Government funding can still be capricious. “Not knowing what the government might do next means that staff at Mnene are unbelievably self-reliant,” says Rebecca Duerst, program director for health care within the ELCA’s global mission unit.

Benyam Kassahun, program director for Southern Africa within the ELCA’s global mission unit, has heard many stories of staff finding creative ways to improvise materials for care. “They would do anything when there was nothing to make [medical care] happen,” he says.

Their faith compels them. “In North America we often draw a line between spirituality and social work,” says Kassahun. “In Zimbabwe, there is no such line. The church is always there when you need them.”

“The presence of the ELCA is something Mnene staff just don’t forget,” says Kassahun. “We stuck with them and visited when times were very bad.  People remember that.”

Anne Basye
Basye, a freelance writer living in Mount Vernon, Wash., is the author of Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal (ELCA, 2007).

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