Thursday, June 19, 2008

Field Visit to Zambia and Zimbabwe

With high rates of HIV/AIDS, child malnutrition, and maternal mortality, Africa faces great challenges in its task to free people from poverty. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest level of poverty of all the regions in the world. As a small donor, New Zealand is committed to making a difference to those in need. NZAID has developed a partnership programme with NGOs in Zambia and Zimbabwe focussed on maternal and child health, nutrition and related livelihoods. NZAID’s Education Advisor, Myra Harrison has recently returned from a field visit to Zambia and Zimbabwe and writes about her experience.

Zambia has recently recorded good progress in its macro-economy, due in part to the rising copper price, and has significant development partners assisting it. But the government acknowledges the difficulties they still encounter in providing services to very rural communities. NZAID was welcomed by government officials at provincial and district level in Luapula Province who were very knowledgeable about the maternal health challenges they face there, and glad that a neglected rural district would now receive some support.

I have worked in Zambia, and visited it many times, but had never been to Luapula which is in north-east Zambia. One of the surprises of this visit was the sheer wetness of Luapula: it contains about 80 percent of Zambia’s surface water. Lake Bengweulu is immense, and there are substantial wetlands and swamps that make logistics very hard.

Part of the new programme in Zambia focuses on reducing maternal mortality and child mortality. One way to achieve this is to support the district health services to provide antenatal care and the safe delivery of babies. My colleagues and I realised that there was provision for bicycle ambulances in the programme – but not for boats! This has been rectified since our visit to Luapula, and we have also suggested solar-powered lanterns for night-time deliveries, in response to a suggestion from traditional birth attendants who have to navigate to villages in the swamps and assist mothers whose babies arrive at night in pitch darkness.

The soil is very sandy and poor in Luapula, where the staple food is cassava. There was little evidence of vegetables or fruit growing, and neither is available to buy, which may be a contributing factor in the under-nutrition of children in the area. However, the main protein source is fish, which is found in abundance in the lake and swamps.

The challenges in Zimbabwe are immense and very different. We weren’t able to take photos in Harare for security reasons. However, the sights we saw in the Harare Children’s Hospital will remain with us. Small children and babies suffering severe malnutrition to the point of starvation, in a country that used to feed itself and have food to export, is very saddening. The devotion and professionalism of the matron and the few remaining nurses gives reassurance that the system could be reinvigorated.

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