First Person

A journey to Zimbabwe with Emile Hirsch

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Miriam Aschkenasy and Oxfam Ambassador Emile Hirsch attend a community meeting in Mudzi, Zimbabwe. Photo: Nabil Elderkin / Oxfam America

In April, Oxfam Ambassador Emile Hirsch traveled to Zimbabwe with Oxfam’s Miriam Aschkenasy and Lyndsay Cruz to see first-hand Oxfam’s response to the cholera crisis that has hit the region.

Below, Aschkenasy, Oxfam’s public health specialist, writes about the second day of their five-day trip.

I am always so tired at the end of the day in Mudzi, a region in the northeast part of the country where Oxfam has been working on the cholera outbreak. After a two-hour car ride from Harare we arrived at the Pumpkin Hotel–the only hotel in this region. We settled in (Emile got the suite with the waterbed, and I got the one next door) and had some lunch: Eggs and sadza, a finely ground cornmeal boiled in water.

After lunch, we headed out to look at a bore hole–a narrow well drilled deep into the ground.  Mudzi has hundreds of them. They’re the source of drinking water for many people in this rural region. This one was a half-hour-drive away on a bumpy, dry road–and when we arrived, we found hundreds of community members waiting for us.

Sitting in two large groups, they had prepared a speech and gifts: beautiful hand-crafted baskets and several large bags of fresh peanuts tied in large burlap bags with “product of USA” stamped on their sides. These bags had been recycled from earlier food distributions. The villagers wanted to show their gratitude for the work Oxfam and our local partner, Single Parents Widow (er)s Support Network, or SPWSN, had done together: teaching communities about hygiene, providing them with basic goods like soap, and repairing their bore holes.

Emile confessed to me that he thought the word was “boar” hole. And why not? if you were not a water engineer or public health person or someone dependent on these holes for water, how would you know what they were?  It made me realize how little the developed world knows or understands about those who still fetch water by hand and don’t have access to flushing toilets–or even pit latrines.

Back at the meeting, Emile addressed the village, thanking them for their hospitality and acknowledging their strength as a people and as a community. He was nervous and I could tell he had really thought through what he wanted to tell his hosts.

That is why this trip is so important: To get the word out.  Yes, the number of cases of cholera might be less each week, but what about next year?  How do we stop an outbreak from happening again? This year in this village this outbreak left 25 orphans. This is a staggering number of children who have lost their stability–all because they and their families could not access clean water.

As we drove back to the Pumpkin Hotel, I thought again, with amazement, about how so much devastation can happen in such a beautiful setting, and how the people can keep going with such optimism and positive attitudes. I realized it had been an important day for Emile, too: He was beginning to understand the context of people’s lives, how they cope, and the importance of supporting them when their options run out.

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