Zimbabwe's Health System In Shambles, Individual Nurses Keep It Afloat (SLIDESHOW)

05/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By Sue Mbaya

I spent last week in Zimbabwe, a nation that has lost so much ground from a humanitarian perspective and yet still has so much potential. I saw real signs of hope during my visit. There were media reports of various delegations visiting to assess the country's progress. Previously opposed political parties were talking about the importance of reconciliation. Food commodities were plentiful on shelves in the stores. We even witnessed garbage disposal trucks making rounds for the first time in several years.

But my hope that Zimbabwe would some day return to sound macroeconomic fundamentals, rules of law and food security came not from all these outward signs, but from the will and tenacity of a 58-year-old nurse named Sekai.

Medical professionals like Sekai have kept Zimbabwe's devastated health system afloat for the past year--at times by their sheer will--amidst a massive cholera outbreak and ongoing hunger and malnutrition.

Sekai's name means laughter. Maybe that's what keeps her going, as she and her colleagues work 12-hour days, 7 days a week to treat cholera victims and other patients. Hundreds of her colleagues left the country years ago for better pay--or even any pay at all--and better lives somewhere else.

I asked her why she stays, why she hasn't left for the UK, Australia, or South Africa.

"If I also go what will happen to the patients?" she said. "I love my job and my heart goes out to those who are unwell. A few of us have to stay to look after our own and train a young generation of nurses."

Sekai is responsible for training new nurse recruits at Harare General hospital, one of the two main referral hospitals in the capital. Her days are full of frustrations most health care workers wouldn't dream of in developed nations.

Even paper is so scarce in the hospital that she told me staff write reports on any piece of scrap paper that they can find. Sekai keeps a sample form for every procedure so that her student nurses can at least see what the real forms are supposed to look like.

When Sekai teaches student nurses, she can't demonstrate the use of most machines because the majority of medical equipment is not functional. The elevators, installed back in 1958, no longer work. Nurses like Sekai have to manually carry patients up and down several flights of stairs. In the emergency department, trolleys to carry patients no longer have wheels or mattresses. Families have to bring in their own blankets and sheets because the hospital no longer has any linens to supply--oh, and the hospital's laundry machines don't work either.

My discussion with Sekai convinced me that while aid agencies like World Vision bring in significant amounts of humanitarian support, it is committed citizens like Sekai who truly keep a country going.

Most health care workers in Zimbabwe haven't been paid for the past several months, and many have been surviving on the same emergency food rations aid groups are providing to their patients. But teachers haven't fared much better--and the next generation is paying the price.

Near the end of my visit, I met Chantalle, a bright 18-year-old girl from a single-parent home. We talked about the aimlessness she saw in her unemployed brother and cousins, and her own prospects for further education and employment.

"I've learned nothing for two years," Chantalle said, as she told me how she had "lost" the last two years of schooling through unpredictable class closures, absenteeism of teachers who were frequently replaced by unqualified substitutes, the constant emotional stress from not having enough money for food, books, school fees or bus fare.

After two years of this pattern, Zimbabwe's qualified teachers have gradually begun to return to their deserted classrooms with the promise of consistent pay. But for Chantalle, the delay in the grading of her examinations has compromised her chances of beginning university this year. The hopelessness I saw in Chantalle's eyes reminded me that a thousand Sekais--on their own--can't take Zimbabwe into the future.

The tenacity and the resilience of the people of Zimbabwe is real, and it's inspiring. But Sekai, her medical colleagues, the country's teachers and other professionals are going to need real support to help young people like Chantalle who need a future. Sheer will can keep a country going, but it won't move it forward.