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Emile Hirsch

Emile Hirsch

Posted: January 27, 2010 04:30 PM

Confronting Cholera: My Zimbabwe Diary

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The following events took place in April 2009, when I was privileged enough to be invited by Oxfam America to learn about their programs abroad. Focusing primarily on the rampant Cholera epidemic, but also on the importance of sanitation systems and crumbling economies, the diary feels especially timely now, given the Haiti earthquake disaster. Now more than ever, Oxfam and other humanitarian organizations need regular folks' help to keep the victims of these disasters safe from disease and death. -- Emile Hirsch

Photographs by Nabil Elderkin

Day 1

Still hung over from an endlessly long yet surprisingly fun Coachella experience, I swill down Diet Coke and resist the burning desire to have a cigarette--all the while my foot is pressing harder and harder on the gas pedal. In thirty minutes I will have returned from the massive California rock concert outside of Palm Springs to my loft in Venice Beach. In thirty hours I'll be setting foot in Zimbabwe.

After a restless night of tossing and turning in my sheets I can't believe we are already at the Washington Dulles Airport, waiting in the Admirals Club Lounge. By "we," I mean Nabil Elderkin--a young 27‐year‐old raging bull of a photographer, all testosterone, passion and energy--and Lyndsay Cruz, the cute, sharp as a whip beach blonde hair Oxfam Public Figures Liaison, and myself. We all went into the Congo in June of 2008 together, and had eye-opening and memorable experiences while we learned about the rampant poverty, political instability, and quiet determination in that beleaguered country. I originally got involved with Oxfam after portraying Chris McCandless in the film Into The Wild. Chris had given his life savings of 24,500 dollars and sixty‐eight cents to Oxfam before departing on a cross-country spiritual odyssey. Chris was a remarkable individual, with a hard to understand idealism‐-yet the beauty he saw in the world made me want to live in it to the fullest--so when Oxfam first called me to see if I wanted to be involved, I felt Chris tapping me on the shoulder.

Zimbabwe, formerly Northern and Southern Rhodesia until granted independence from the United Kingdom in 1980, is a landlocked country in Southern Africa. Now under the leadership of longtime President Robert Mugabe, and, in a new, positive sharing of power with onetime serious political rival and now Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, what was once a bloody, murderous political climate by many accounts has apparently cooled down quite a few degrees. Meaning just really hot, instead of boiling. Controversy over the fairness of the Zimbabwe presidential elections was the talk of much of world in 2008. But now, with these two powerful leaders joined up, one can only hope there will be a renewed vigor of focus for Zimbabwe's biggest ailment--its collapsed infrastructure and economy.

Anybody who wants to really see that being a "billionaire" isn't all it's cracked up to be need only visit Zimbabwe. Because the hyperinflation of their economy has gotten so incredibly out of hand (independent economists say the inflation rate ran into the quadrillions of percent), four trillion dollars won't even buy you a bottle of water. Political turmoil and civil unrest have resulted in the weakening of the farming and export industries, as many white farmers had their lands stripped from them, rendering far fewer crops than anticipated. And as a result of this collapsed infrastructure, basic services and utilities that most humans take for granted, such as running water and proper sanitation systems, coupled with parching droughts throughout the country, have created a deadly nest for a deadly bacteria--cholera.

Cholera is a water-borne disease that is primarily contracted through human ingestion of contaminated feces. Meaning, if there is a lack of food and people are forced to grow their primary crop (corn) in the street, yet also forced to defecate in back streets and alleys because the sewage system is not working, then there is going to be a high risk of a cholera outbreak. 90,000 Zimbabweans have already been infected due to the 2008 cholera outbreak, with over 4,000 deaths. My eyes grow wide as I read how cholera kills you--diarrhea and dehydration. The insane part of all this is that weeks before, on an early online conference call I did with Oxfam doctors in Boston, I learned the cure for cholera is simple: sugar, water, and salt.

On the plane trapped in seat 26A my mind is racing. I'm fidgety. Pressing down on the screen in front of me attached to the seat, I scroll through all the movies South African Airlines provides. One of them grabs my attention--Senator Obama Goes To Africa. The engaging documentary follows the then Senator Obama on a trip back to Kenya, where he is given a superstars' greeting, to Chad, visiting refugee camps and then to Cape Town South Africa. In Cape Town he gets a tour of where Nelson Mandela was held prisoner, always telling the younger prisoners who joined him in captivity at Robben Island to stop concentrating on fighting and killing, and to concentrate on studying instead. Throughout watching the program I just continuously catch myself with a huge smile on my face. President Obama exudes such empathy for the Africans--I'm happy he's our leader right now. For Africa and the issues like HIV and poverty, violence against women--having President Obama leading the way gives me hope that he is going to inspire a massive revolution of peace and prosperity.

After thirty hours of flying and transferring flights, my feet hit the surface of Harare, Zimbabwe's capital. I feel as if I'm in some sort of jet‐lagged dream. At customs, the Zimbabwean man asks how long I will be staying before he stamps my visa. "7 days,'' I reply.

"7 days is more than enough," he says. Hmm, I think to myself. Was it just me, or did that sound slightly ominous?

At baggage claim, we meet a Zimbabwean man who sticks out a big, meaty paw. "Ransam," he says. His full name is Ransam Mariga, and he's worked for Oxfam for the past seven years. His voice is deep, and each word isn't spoken so much as echoed up from his belly, all in a very controlled, matter of fact way. He reminds me of Arnold Schwarzenegger in T2, but looks more like George Foreman with professor spectacles. He leads Lyndsay, Nabil, and I outside to where his car is parked. 2010-01-19-IMG_2500_eh.jpg

"Smell that?" Nabil says. I do. A burning wood, campfire smell. "Smells like Africa" he says.

Unlike the Congo, where we had official trucks with massive radio antennas attached to them, all sporting big Oxfam logos across them, Ransam is driving a SUV Silver BMW X5. "Ransam, I didn't know you rolled like that," Nabil cracks.

Driving on the roads my heart pounds, not just because I'm in a New World now, but also because Ransam hauls serious ass while driving. With two lane long stretches of dark highway lit primarily by the night stars above, the area feels quiet and empty, and the peace is broken with occasional clusters of lights coming from houses or businesses.

"Ransam, you think I can get some of those big bills?" Nabil asks, referring to the standard fifty trillion dollar bill.

"Yes, I have them." Ransam replies.

"Well, we can do a trade off," Nabil says.

"That won't be necessary. You can have them," Ransam says.

"Why?" Nabil asks.

"Because they're useless." Ransam says.

And the Zim dollars are now, in fact, worth less than the paper they're printed on. Ransam explains that three weeks ago, in an effort to resuscitate a dying economy, President Mugabe let the people officially trade in foreign currency, primarily US dollars, rendering Zimbabwe into a totally cash economy, and leaving Zimbabwe dollars obsolete. Ransam begins talking about the now dilapidated state of the country, and reminisces back on the Harare that used to be just little more than a decade ago--once one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Ransam says. Lyndsay asks Ransam if he has a family. Ransam says he has a wife and four children, plus another ten children that live with him that are two of his wife's sibling's children. Her siblings died of of AIDS and Ransam and his wife decided to raise them. Fourteen children, and three of them, he says, have HIV themselves. The antiviral medicine makes it so you practically cannot even tell by looking at them they are sick. The poor, he says, are not so lucky when it comes to affording expensive medicine. The government reports 18% of the population is HIV positive here, Ransam says it's "more like 25%."

DAY 2

Morning? I'm not sure. It's still dark. A few roosters came to and started squawking, so I took my cue and followed suit, turning on my bedside lamp. For all the crazy jet lag, the hurtling of your body in a man made machine through time and space across Earth‐‐I slept like a stone. I sleep well in Africa.

Joining us in the morning at breakfast is Ransam's program support officer Verith Masa, a young, bright woman with enough bling in her teeth and ba donk a donk to be Missy Elliot's long lost sister. As we drive through the easternmost side of Harare, groups of men barely hang off the back of flatbed trucks, and Musasa trees pepper the side of the roads. Again, corn is growing on every shred of spare land--this is a new phenomenon in Zimbabwe, caused by the economy. Ian Mashingaidze, Director of Oxfam Southern Africa office, with strong features and a uproarious laugh, says about all the corn "Give a Zimbabwean corn porridge three bowls a day three hundred and sixty five days a year, he is a happy man." We pass by the Presidents' office, where many men in army camouflage with yellow berets and guns wait. And just across the street is the Central Reserve Bank, an elegant aquamarine colored building that is the tallest in all of Zimbabwe. Pulling up to the Oxfam headquarters, we meet Sefelipelo Bhebhe (what's up baybay:) a public health coordinator for Oxfam. Squeaky clean efficient, she quickly explains to our group that today we will be visiting the city of Kadoma, and hour and a half Southwest from Harare. There we will see what Oxfam, in association with their regional partner Practical Action, have being doing to help improve the water sanitation systems and treat cholera. Kadoma, it also turns out, is Ransam's hometown, and he would soon find himself experiencing an orgy of flashbacks. But more about that later.

As we pass farm after farm at Mach 5 with Ransam at the wheel, the endless fields of yellow corn and green swirling together to form a candy cane I wouldn't eat, Ransam explains that the farmland is largely responsible for the hobbled economy. In 2000, he says, Mugabe tried to pass a referendum that expanded executive power and granted him power to move lands as he saw fit. The voting public rejected the bill, yet much of the proposals of the referendum were nevertheless carried out. Much of the farmland that was redistributed was given to owners who lacked any vested interest or knowhow to farm it. And seeing land being stripped from people forced the international community, including the US, Britain, and the EU, to pull out any support they had been giving to Zimbabwe-- further causing any foreign investors interested in Zimbabwe to run for the hills. And since 40% of Zimbabwe's economy was directly dependent on farming--it only spiraled down further out of control.

The cholera outbreak is only the tip of the iceberg for the many challenges Zimbabwe faces. With only one doctor per 12,000 people, medical attention is scarce and difficult to come by. Largely because of the financial crisis, more than 4 million professionals have already left, a "brain crisis" as Ransam puts it. These are hard times, and Ransam calls them how he sees them. With a beard and rectangular professorial spectacles, and standing well over six feet, Ransam cuts quite a figure. And he has a notorious temper amongst some of the Oxfam staff--"You need to be there, yesterday" a young Oxfam worker recounts him sharply telling her. But the passion and even anger Ransam experiences are understandable and in many ways to me seem the fate of a man with true conscience; he is fully aware people's lives depend on him doing his job to the best of his abilities, and no matter how well one does their job, there will always be people whose lives can't be saved.

Approaching Kadoma, I roll down the window and close my eyes, letting the '70s Zimbabwean Afro Jazz Ransam has put on the CD player soak into my mind. As I open them I see a grimy green bus loaded to the tippy top with luggage tied down by ropes, whizz by, spitting enormous plumes of black smog out of its exhaust and leaving a little jet‐like trail behind it. There's no way that thing passed its smog check, I think to myself. But right now I've got other things on my mind--like my life. Ransam drives like Kurt Russell did in Death Wish.

Cruising into Kadoma, people mill about with the soft buzz of commerce. A yellow Labrador lazily walks out of the blazing sun to join a few other dogs. Inside the Practical Action headquarters we meet several workers, among them Alexio (legitimate T.I. identical twin) and Tendai, a nice young woman. They brief us before we go into the field about their water and sewage systems. As Alexio speaks I have to really struggle to contain my ADD because he looks so much like T.I. I just want him to bust into a freestyle. But instead he goes into mind-numbing detail about the reticulation systems they've developed with their boreholes, or drilled pumps. By constantly circulating the water, they keep it fresh and don't allow it to stagnate or grow bacteria like cholera. Tendai chimes in about how it's important to train communities themselves to learn how to not only fix their boreholes, but also how to keep sharp eyes out for any symptoms of cholera. Many of the townspeople, it turns out, were highly suspicious of the Practical Action staff when they began going door to door teach the people about these methods, and many of them even kicked them out of their houses, and warned all their neighbors to not listen to them. But when the outbreak went into full force, people changed their minds and quickly invited them back in. As a result, many of the 92,000 people of Kadoma are much more savvy about cholera, and very few cases are reported as of this moment.

A young girl with a tattered blue skirt skeptically looks me up and down as I step out of the SUV on one of the rocky dirt roads. We are visiting the lavatories for the town--due to condensed homes, sewage for each individual home is no longer available, and one large lavatory is now being built by a crew of about 12 men and women, all wearing white t‐shirts and long blue pants with big black rubber boots. Soon, they say, this new lavatory system will be available to use. But only thirty yards away, there is one of the already in-use public toilets. As I walked up to the concrete house‐like building, I notice a squishy, dark, dampness on the ground surrounding it for 15 feet in all directions. Bile started to creep up in my throat as my nostrils caught the smell of rotting feces and stagnated urine--the dampness was sewage. The moisture reflected the shimmering sun in some of the puddle like area, and it looked like it was moving. It was moving. All around the toilets were a sea of little white maggots, growing and wriggling around in the poop. I began to quietly gag, and couldn't believe that these were the sewage conditions that the people of Kadoma live in. Cholera could very well be living in any of that sewage--and it could only take a dog walking by, or a toddler wandering around, or a careless adult, to step in it and spread it, easily causing another outbreak.

"Can you feel the stench of the sewage in the air?" Ransam asks sadly. He then leans to me and puts his hand on my back and conspiratorially whispers, "This is where I lost my virginity." I look at the leaking sewage and maggots on the ground, and pray he used a condom.