Bring your own disinfectant - the nightmare of giving birth in Zimbabwe's crumbling hospitals

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The Independent Online

"You'll have to take your own Dettol." It's not exactly what you want to be told about the hospital where you are planning to give birth. But then this is Zimbabwe, land of famine, political crisis and shortages of essentials.

I never intended to get pregnant. Not in Zimbabwe, where our sleep is already broken by fears of the knock in the night.

Thanks to President Robert Mugabe's disastrous economic policies and the effects of his chaotic land reform programme, 16 nappies cost more than a very good meal out. Supplies of fresh milk are erratic.

So it's Dettol, bedclothes and food I'll need to pack. And this is a private hospital we're talking about. Not the city-run ones where several babies have died this month because of a lack of oxygen, according to newspaper reports. There is no foreign currency to import oxygen cylinders.

Once the envy of the region, Zimbabwe's public health service is crumbling. A tub of aqueous lotion costs as much as an office cleaner's monthly wage. Inflation - now running at 456 per cent - is doing its worst. HIV and Aids kill an estimated 3,700 people a week. Non-emergency operations have been suspended in Bulawayo, the second city.

Zimbabwe needs 19,000 nurses: it has 10,000. There are four gynaecologist-obstetricians left in Harare, including one with whom I had an appointment. The army had to be brought in to man hospitals this week.

Nurses and doctors - like teachers, lawyers and judges - have joined the great trek out of the country in search of more money, the promise of pensions, and, in many cases, political freedom.

My husband has been instructed to store a can of fuel ahead of "the day". It's illegal, but everyone who can does it.

I am one of the lucky ones. We still have medical insurance, even if our monthly payments have gone through the roof. I am to have a scan - the one scan to which I am entitled. But there is no paper to print the photos. "This is Zimbabwe, I'm afraid," the doctor said.

There are other worries to contend with. Will the hospital, threatened by strikes over pay and mounting overheads, actually be open? What if there is a power cut and I need a Caesarean?

My thoughts turn to Zimbabwean women. Expecting a child is no guarantee of safety here. Pregnant women have been arrested at demonstrations. Last year Urginia Mauluka, a photographer for theDaily News, the country's only private newspaper, now shut down, a was forced to spend a night in police custody, separated from her newborn child. She has since fled the country.

My friends and I used to have discussions about having babies. We were going to achieve things and be somewhere before we had kids. For Zimbabwean women, there's no biological clock dilemma. Having children is a part of life.

Here, you get your baby out, strap it on your back -using two long towels, not one - and get on with things.

The problem is if you can't conceive. Childlessness can be an enormous disadvantage.

"You'd have been sent back by your in-laws by now [for not producing]", my friend Chipo giggled. That was a year ago.

What about names? Will we give our baby a local one? Zimbabwe has its own inventive way of naming. I could name my baby Happiness. Or Killer, like the head of the Cross Border Traders Association. Or Jealousy, like a prominent state-approved journalist. There's always the hopeful-sounding Psychology.

There are the gentler Shona names such as Chipo (gift) or Nyasha (grace) or Rugare (peace). I'd like my child - and other people -- to know that we value this country's culture, if not its leadership.

I have bought my two bottles of Dettol. Friends send me Babygros, pandering to my long-distance phone calls when I complain that my child won't have any clothes.

But spare a thought for the other mothers, tens of thousands of them, who have no access to private hospitals and cannot even afford the most basic of baby things.