The cramped living room of a Harare apartment with decrepit walls turned into a maternity ward in November. And her owner improvised as a midwife to help pregnant women, terrorized at the thought of giving birth alone at home, for lack of personnel and adapted equipment in public hospitals.
Zimbabwe has been plunged for twenty years into a terrible economic crisis without end, and its public health system, like the country, is dying.
The situation has recently worsened for the users, with the strike of the doctors of the public started at the beginning of September. They demand a revaluation of their salary whose value has plummeted in one year, victim of hyperinflation and devaluation of the currency.
There is no public health in Zimbabwe right now. Everything is at a standstill, even those who provide emergencies have given up
And when the nurses joined the movement in November and the situation became untenable, especially for expectant mothers who are about to give birth, a 69-year-old female Zimbabwean Esther Gwena, a housewife, decided to help them.
« A man came to me to tell me that two women were giving birth » near a maternity closed because of strike, she told AFP.
Esther Gwena, without any medical training, then rushed to help them.
On arrival, one of the babies was dead. « I brought the other woman to my house where I helped her. The baby survived, « she says relieved, from her two-room apartment in Mbare, a poor district of Harare.
« From that moment, I knew I had something to do, » said the very believing grandmother, wearing a white scarf embroidered with a green cross, symbol of her traditional church.
In her living room where two old television sets are piled up, Esther Gwena covered the concrete floor with large plastic bags to accommodate women in bed.
The news spread like wildfire. And for two weeks, in her small one-story building in red brick, women followed one another to give birth on the floor.
Like Winnie Denhere, 35 years old. « Everything went very well. She did not ask us for money, « she says, her two-day newborn baby in her arms.
A company provided patients with water and a tent, which, planted in the courtyard, served as a makeshift waiting room.
Even the First Lady, Auxillia Mnangagwa, went on the spot, with food, detergents and blankets.
The most complicated was the birth of babies who came to the seat, recalls Esther Gwena. « I prayed to God and the deliveries went smoothly, » she says.
In total, « I helped 250 babies to come to the world (…). Today, they babble at home, « she says. A figure however impossible to verify from an independent source.
Finally, a local maternity ward reopened and the authorities demanded that the improvised midwife cease her activities.
What she did, to the despair of future mothers who say they have more confidence in « ambuya » Esther (grandmother in Shona) than in hospitals.
Lack of gloves
Because hospitals have become a « death trap », say the doctors of the public in a statement.
« There is no public health in Zimbabwe right now. Everything is at a standstill, even those who provide emergencies have given up, « told AFP a doctor who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The social movement launched in September is bogged down. The government recently fired 448 strikers.
Nurses who have returned to work come to the hospital only two days a week for lack of a salary.
« They do not need to come two days in a row, so there is no passage of witnesses between the nurses » on the follow-up of patients, says the doctor disappointed.
In addition to insufficient staff, hospitals lack even the most basic equipment, such as gloves. And when they are available, they are not always at the right size.
« For delicate operations, we need perfectly adapted gloves », insists the doctor.
A UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, has recently reported disturbing reports that Zimbabwean public hospitals are running out of food and « operational equipment ».
Health Minister Obadiah Moyo acknowledges that the situation is complicated, but ensures that the government will soon post the vacancies left by the dismissed doctors.
Time is running out because the private system is not an option for the majority of Zimbabweans. They can barely afford a meal a day. In these conditions, says the doctor, « people are dying at home. »