Mbuma Mission Hospital welcomes a trickle of Dutch visitors every year. Dr Snoek recently had a need at the hospital pharmacy, and contacted Gerda Ruijgrok from Opheusden. Gerda has been an assistant pharmacist since 2017, and had previously let it be known that she was keen to support the Mission Hospital. She teamed up with Caroline de Koster, who had booked her midwifery experience placement at Mbuma, and the two of them departed for Zimbabwe on 19 October 2021. We interviewed Gerda.

What took you to Mbuma?
The hospital has an in-house pharmacy. Hospital staff prescribe medication, and patients can come and collect it there on presentation of their prescription. Whereas in the Netherlands only doctors are allowed to prescribe, in Zimbabwe it is one of the nurses’ tasks. Locally-engaged staff man the pharmacy at a counter (behind lock and key) and dispense the medicines. So my job was going to be helping to digitalise the pharmacy. As it’s easier for the hospital to run the pharmacy electronically, I was asked to spend my time at Mbuma doing that task.

I should probably outline how things work at the hospital.

Patients arriving at Mbuma all have their own notebook with them.  It’s a regular school exercise book that you can get from any stationers. The book is used as the patient’s medical file.

They take it around with them whenever seeing a doctor: not just the Mbuma doctors, but any others that might treat them at other hospitals. All observations by the doctors and nurses are written down in the same book. This goes as far as X-ray photos, which are copied by hand as accurately as the staff can manage. The other thing that is kept track of in these books is medicines, so the book serves as the prescription. Patients can show the hospital pharmacist their book to obtain their medicines, for payment at the counter. If they don’t have any money, payment is accepted in kind: an animal or firewood. Both of these commodities go to good use within the hospital to cook the patients’ meals.

What did your time at Mbuma teach you?
It only took a few days after arriving to realise that I wouldn’t be able to carry out my envisaged task, as the internet connection was too unstable. Fortunately, the visit wasn’t wasted: we were able to make ourselves useful providing a range of ad-hoc assistance to the hospital.

So the quickest lesson I learned was to be content with the little things: the warmth and attentiveness of staff and patients. I learned to be glad when the power came on and when water came out of the tap.

Many patients have long waits at the hospital. They arrive there from far and wide, some of them having been on the road for hours, on foot or donkey cart.

First, they must wait their turn to be seen by a nursing assistant. She undertakes a general examination, taking blood pressure, temperature, weight, and the like.

The patient is then referred to a nurse for the follow-up consultation. If the patient still needs to be seen by one of the doctors, they are directed back out to the hallway to take a seat. All the while, they live up to their name: they patiently wait their turn. No matter whom you strike up a conversation with, it always begins with the same courtesy: “Good morning / Good afternoon, how are you doing?”

What are your abiding memories?
There are quite a few things I’m not likely to forget. The Zimbabweans demonstrated patience, friendliness, love, sociable character, trust and faith.

The most memorable and special part of all is that it was communion season the very week we were there. It was a truly remarkable experience. As Mbuma is a Free Presbyterian institution, communion season lasts five days.

There were two services on the first day, the Thursday, and they both had acknowledgement of guilt and sin as their theme. On the Friday, there were likewise two services, and these were on self-examination. At the end of the second one, several men in the congregation were asked to testify of what Christ had wrought in their souls, from the sermon text.

In addition, from the Friday onwards, there was a morning and evening worship. In a Free Presbyterian worship, a psalm is sung, a chapter of Scripture is read and prayers are said.

Morning and evening worship is part of people’s home routine as well, and not just in communion week. The central theme of a worship is the necessity of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

There was an elders’ meeting on the Saturday morning, and those wishing to attend the Lord’s table for the first time were asked to speak to the elders beforehand. The elders also spoke to parents wishing to have their children baptised, and to those seeking baptism for themselves.

The Saturday afternoon service was the preparation service.

When that ended, those who intended to partake of communion the next morning were asked to stay behind, and they were given a token. The rest of the congregation were dismissed. These tokens were collected in again when the Lord’s Supper was distributed.

The communion service itself was on the Sabbath morning, and in the afternoon we had the reflection service. Communion season ended on the Monday morning with a service of thanksgiving.

We returned to our cottage after the last service full of impressions.

It’s a poor country of enormous riches!

We also went to stay with Ma Sibanda. She and her husband and children live in their own house about an hour’s walk from Mbuma Mission Hospital. She walks to hospital about three days a week to help Dr Snoek and Sister Willie. She also keeps chickens and works hard at that.  It’s a simple home, but bursting with love and kindness. They did their utmost to make us guests comfortable. We were picked up by donkey cart; quite an experience! En route, we picked up several large water canisters, as there’s no water supply nearer their home. The nearest place for them to fetch water is a big well about half an hour’s walk away, so it’s very fortunate for them that they have the use of a donkey cart.

As soon as we arrived, we were given a scrumptious meal. Ma Sibanda served up a turkey, freshly slaughtered from her own stock. It was accompanied with cabbage and sadza, maize porridge.

There is one bed in the house, and all the others sleep on mats on the ground. That one bed was offered to us, as their guests.

It was deeply striking to witness these people’s lives, their contentment and gratitude. They really do earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.

Perhaps the best moment in our visit to Ma Sibanda was that an extra worship was held on the last day, after we’d eaten. We read the Bible, sang some psalms and had time in prayer. There was then some conversation and we sang a Dutch psalm verse for our hosts. When we took our leave, we gave the family some nice edibles and money for all their love and care. Ma Sibanda’s eyes welled up and she said, “I’ve been asking the Lord for money for my chicken farm, and now I’ve been given it— from Him, from the Lord.”

We also had the privilege of shadowing Drs Anneke Snoek and Carolien Janse at work for a few days in the hospital. They have a beautiful job—outpatients, the operating theatre, the ward rounds—but it’s such a demanding job.

It’s so touching to see how deeply the staff care about the patients at Mbuma. The care is not just medical, either: the Word of God is the ultimate remedy offered there.

What is best of all is to hear attestations that that work, together with all the other mission endeavours, is blessed and prospers.

Oh, and I got lifted off the street in Bulawayo! Here’s how I found myself at the police station:

we were wandering through town and I stood to admire a fine building. It turned out to be the courthouse, hence crawling with police, but I hadn’t noticed. A bad moment for my mask to have slipped down my face. It wasn’t covering my nose any more.

Someone walked up to me in civvies, flashed his warrant card and told me I was under arrest and should come with him to the station. You can imagine I was in a blind panic as I trailed the man along the road. Stammeringly, I managed to tell him as we walked that I’d lost my friends, and fortunately he let me call them for help.

Down at the station, I was left to sit on the floor. Fifty or sixty Zimbabweans were packed together beside me in the detention cell. You sit tight there until someone comes to bail you out. The fine worked out at less than five euros.  Happily, the experience was soon over: Willie Geurtsen popped her head around the door, cash in hand. We paid up, signed the fine form and we were free to rejoin the others. Well, you live and learn.

What aspects of Zimbabwe do you miss now you’re back home?
Life in Zimbabwe is utterly different from life in the Netherlands. As soon as you plunge back into the excessive luxury of Dutch life, you’re painfully aware of that.

The thing that really sticks with me is the thankfulness, the straightforwardness and the trust exhibited by those dear people. It’s wonderful to live that way: to live in the knowledge that everything comes from the Lord’s hand, and to live in gratitude for all things.

Rather last-minute before flying to Zimbabwe, we decided to collect what funds we could to donate to the hospital.

Using GoFundMe, we managed to collect quite a lot in online donations.

We used some of those donations to buy medicines and about 200 Covid self-test kits, which we took with us. A large sum remained, and we handed that over on the spot in the hospital. It converted to the sum of $4,886 in US dollars!

Due to all the Covid patients, the hospital has lately needed much more medication and oxygen than in a typical year. Consequently, there was a budgetary shortfall of $23,000. These donations knocked nearly 5,000 off that figure in the red— we were delighted!

It did us good to see how many people in the Netherlands were prepared to give towards that goal. Such practical help is truly needed. Warmest thanks once again to those of you who chipped in!