The village doctor who loves Zim

CHIWESHE - Working as a medical doctor is not something easy in a country like Zimbabwe.

Despite the high regard with which the job is held in other parts of the world, here it is treated just like any other thankless profession characterised by low pay, long working hours and above all poor working conditions.

And it is no surprise that some of the country’s best medical brains have left for greener pastures, while those remaining have either spent much of their time on strike or engaged in private practice where the fortunes are much better than at State hospitals.

But for Paul Thistle — a little known village doctor who became “famous” for being a rebel with a good cause — the local medical profession has been his true calling and one that came while he was in his native Canada.

And it has so far kept him in a couple of Zimbabwean rural areas for the past 20 years.

He has made friends — during the good and best times — in the remotest of areas in the country through his stethoscope.

It was no surprise when thousands of villagers last year braved teargas for the first time in their lives defending his right to remain part of the Chiweshe rural community and as one of them.

Dr Thistle was kicked out of Howard Hospital last year after he raised concern over funds donated to the hospital which in 2008 was one of the last such facilities that remained open at the height of political and economic problems.

For that he got a summary order to leave the country in just 24 hours and that raised the ire of the restive villagers who until now remain livid at the way their “friend” was treated.

He had the option to return to native Canada. But he has resurfaced at another rural outpost.

The Daily News travelled to Mt Darwin to meet him and find out why the village will always be his home for as long as he remains working in Zimbabwe. The welcoming remarks are in fluent Shona.

“Titambire, tinokuchingamidzai kuno kwedu kwevanhu verudzi rweKorekore (Welcome to our place of the Korekore)” he said in perfect Shona as he ushered us into his home at Karanda Mission Hospital, some 200 kilometres from Harare.

It is at this 100-bed hospital where Thistle, who is married to a Zimbabwean nurse, has found a new home.
After 20 years of service at Howard Mission Hospital, Thistle was asked to go back to his native Canada by his Salvation Army church but he has refused to bow to threats.

Remarkably at Karanda Mission Hospital where he is still working as a volunteer but now tipped to take over as the Chief Medical Officer, he discharges his duties in his trademark Salvation Army church attire of a white shirt and khaki pair of trousers though the hospital is run by the Evangelical Fellowship Church in Zimbabwe.

“I am a Salvationist and my job is to help the sick and I can do that from anywhere I can, this mission hospital included,” said Thistle.

As he took the Daily News crew for a walk around the hospital, one could not mistake his love for humanity.

He occasionally stopped to speak to locals bringing their sick relatives to the hospital.

“Hesi vakomana, ko rwizi rwakamira sei mazuvano? (Hi guys. How is the river these days?),” he asked a bemused group of locals.

While he seems to have put his troubles at Howard Mission Hospital behind him, many people from the area cannot forget him easily and some are trekking him to Karanda.

“I came here yesterday from Howard Mission Hospital because I have a problem with my intestines. I am due for an operation and I have heard how good Dr Thistle is with operations so I have come to make a booking with him,” Laura Nhidza from Chiweshe told the Daily News at Karanda Mission Hospital.

The hospital is not easily accessible because of bad roads and damaged bridges, which have been swept by the rains but never repaired in this Zanu PF stronghold.

Cephas Cheda from Chakari in Kadoma was one of the people we met.

He was returning to the hospital for a review of a hernia operation conducted late last year.

We ask him why he had travelled hundreds of kilometres from Kadoma to Mt Darwin for an operation which he could have had in his hometown or let alone in the capital Harare.

“I was in pain when I went to Parirenyatwa Hospital and I was told I needed an urgent hernia operation but they wanted $4 000 so I offered my herd of cattle as payment because I didn’t have that kind of money but everyone at the hospital thought I was crazy,” he said.

“One of the nurses there advised me to come here at Karanda Mission Hospital because it was a bit cheaper,” said Cheda.

“When I came here I was only asked to pay $300 and I was operated on and now I am fit again. Today I am here to see Dr Thistle for a review.”

Thistle’s popularity is not only among his patients.

As we were about to leave Karanda Mission Hospital we asked Thistle one of those questions that he had hoped we had not asked him.

It was about how he coped with the influx of suspected MDC supporters who were attacked during the June 2008 electoral violence to his Howard Mission Hospital seeking medical attention.

“You guys (journalists) got us into trouble. You used to come to the hospital and take pictures without our permission. I will tell the real story at the right moment but for now I would like to concentrate on treating the korekore people,” he said.

It was at Howard Mission Hospital where many victims of torture in June 2008 were treated and pictures of burnt backs and broken limps taken from the hospital beds shocked the world.

As we left Karanda Mission Hospital, Thistle had one more for us for the road.

“Ko moenda here tisina kusvusvura, chiregai tiite chisvusvuro (“You cannot go without eating, please let us prepare some food for you”),” he said. - Own Correspondent

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