Zimbabwe’s hospitals are woefully unequipped for the pandemic, but the nation’s citizens can’t afford to stay inside.
Mazoe cordial is an elixir named for the region of Zimbabwe with the sweetest oranges. Originally a luxury created by British colonists on the backs of locals, the orange concentrate has been reclaimed by Zimbabweans for ourselves. Mazoe now conjures childhood memories: birthday parties, soccer practice, or the reward dispensed by our school matron after a cross-country run. Those of us living in the diaspora risk spilling it in our suitcases for a few sips of home.
So, during fieldwork at a rural health clinic earlier this year, I was confused that the staff seemed disappointed when I offered this token of appreciation. “We must mix it with water,” said Agnes, a village health worker. Of course we must mix it with water, I thought; it’s Mazoe. It took me a bit longer to realize that the issue was not the cordial, but the lack of running water.
After troubleshooting with Agnes, we gathered an assortment of plastic vessels from around the clinic, loaded them into our truck, and drove the potholed dirt road to the nearest community well. “This well was donated by a local politician,” Samuel, our driver, said. “He hoped to gain more votes in the next election.” In 2008, four thousand Zimbabweans died of cholera from untreated drinking water, yet millions still lack access to clean water. My mother in Harare has her own well, which could supply an entire village. I tried to imagine a life dependent on the wealthy and corrupt for such a basic human right.
When I opened the truck door, empty Coke bottles fell out in an acoustic chord progression of hollow, plastic thuds. A breeze from the grasslands carried the smell of imminent rain and reminded me how Zimbabwean summers fuse the ingredients of photosynthesis: thunderstorms and blinding sun. The metal pump handle was shiny—worn smooth from frequent use. Each morning, women congregate around the handle and wait their turn to fill their families’ receptacles before a long walk home. They chat and laugh, clustered closely. With Agnes, I filled each container to the brim, moistening the surrounding red soil until it was mud, chatting and laughing too.
Back at the clinic, I marveled at the building’s design, an open-air layout that was standardized for clinics across the country after independence. The clinic architects knew that confined spaces could spread tuberculosis, so some walls are porous—built of concrete blocks with flower-shaped empty spaces that allow breeze and light to fill the waiting area. On a grassy patch far from the tree bearing the sign “Coughing Zone,” Agnes mixed the white man’s Mazoe with the black women’s well water and poured the cold, golden liquid for everyone. For a split second, we forgot about cholera. We did not yet know a novel coronavirus would be arriving next month.