Saturday, June 14, 2008

African Adventure: An accident, a cyclone, and a man called Simon.

Up until 4.30 pm, it had been a perfect day, then it turned into one of the worst, one that has etched an indelible memory in my mind and one that brought tears into my eyes.

We were driving on the main two-lane road from Masvingo to Harare after an incredible day at the Great Zimbabwe ruins. The sun was shining and we had gone 72 hrs without rain, life was good and we were pushing on with Malawi just a week away. The worst of the weather form cyclone Eline was over with and I was thinking how lucky we were not to have been caught in the floods. In a recent e-mail, my father had commented that Mozambique was a disaster area and that Britain was pouring in millions of pounds of relief. Gena had constantly reminded us to be careful of the floods and to avoid Mozambique and eastern Zimbabwe. Given that the cyclone had made such big international news, I was amazed that we had heard almost nothing about the catastrophe in the news here and that we had been almost oblivious to its effects, except for the rain, despite being just a few hundred miles from the hardest hit areas.

We were driving at the usual 70-80 kph (=45-50 mph) on what was not a bad road, tarred, few potholes, and not too much traffic, just the odd pedestrian walking to who knows where, usually miles from the nearest village or town. I often wondered where these people who travel by foot, usually bear foot, come form or where they are going to; what they do when they are not walking; how they make a living; or where their families are.

Today I found out the answers to some of these things I wondered and came face to face with the vagaries of the catastrophe left by the cyclone.

It was 4.30 pm and we were just passing a guy walking barefoot on the other side of the road, nothing terribly unusual. In my rear view side mirror I noticed a Mercedes closing on us quickly, again nothing terribly unusual. As the Mercedes got closer, I wondered when it was going to pull out to overtake. It got closer still and then he pulled out sharply onto the other side of the road. Immediately he hit his brakes hard. He must have seen the pedestrian we had just passed and thought he was too close. As he broke he went into a skid and my eyes become fixed on the side rear view mirror. As he skidded, he veered off to the right, and slammed into the back of the pedestrian who had been walking so calmly on the side of the road. The pedestrian went over the bonnet up onto the windscreen and was tossed onto the grass bank. I slammed on our brakes, reversed back as fast as I could go, then dashed out over to the Mercedes and a body lying facedown in the grass. I can't describe what was going through my mind as I replayed what I had seen in the rearview mirror. At the same time, I tried to think how Gena who is in the medical profession, and my father, a former policeman would handle the situation. Then the body began to move and a bloody bewildered face turned and looked at me. The three people in the Mercedes were standing in almost disbelief, but just looked on. "Do you have a cell phone" I yelled. "No" they replied. "Where is the nearest hospital" I asked. "We don't know" they replied. I ran back to our car to get the map to see where the nearest town was. Just 20 kms up the road was a town called Mvuma that apparently had a hospital according to the drivers of another car that had just stopped. Although I could hear a voice in my mind tell me not to move him and to wait for an ambulance, that was a western voice speaking and we were in Africa. Ambulances are few are far here and might take hours to arrive. I told the three people in the Mercedes to drive the man as fast as they could to the hospital at Mvuma and that we would get there as fast as possible.

We arrived at the Mvuma police station about 30 mins later after taking digital pictures of the skid marks left on the road. The people in the Mercedes were giving a statement to the police and I also had to tell them my version of the what I saw. The guy they hit was already in the hospital next to the police station. Everyone around me was black and speaking in an African language I didn't understand. They then asked for my statement and I wrote down what I saw. I told the policeman I had taken digital pictures of the accident scene and he asked to see them. All we could do was give them a floppy disk with the images after showing him the pictures on the camera screen. I have no idea how they will view them again, as there were certainly no computers in this rural police station. As soon as I was finished with the police, I went next door to see the guy who was hit. Until then, he had been the person who was hit. I didn't know anything about him. I felt terrible for him, he had just been walking and now he was in hospital. Did he have a family? Someone must tell them where he was and that he was in hospital? The nurses acted as interpreters in the hospital which would have looked perfectly at home with Florence Nightingale caring for patients.

The man name is Simon Moyana and here is Simon's story. Simon lives in Chipinge in eastern Zimbabwe, close to the Mozambique border. All of his families worldly possessions were washed away in floods brought by cyclone Eline. He had nothing left. He decided to see his brother who was working in a prison near Chivhu. He had no money, had never owned a car, and had no shoes. He had to walk to find his brother. He had been walking for over a week and covered more than 400 km. At night he would sleep and try to find food, in the day he would walk. He said that it was lonely walking all that way. I felt terrible for him as he sat up in the hospital bed, still bewildered, with feet swollen from walking for miles on hot rough roads. Amazingly he was not obviously in pain or badly hurt form the accident, although nobody could tell really if he was hurt. There was no doctor at the hospital, he would be in tomorrow. I asked a nurse who would pay the hospital fees of just over Z$100 per night (=US$2.60). She said that the people in the Mercedes had left Z$300. I asked what would happen if he had to stay for 3 nights? They said that this could be a problem. This sickened me. The people who had put Simon in hospital had left only Z$300. They were wealthy even by US standards, they had to be to own a Mercedes in Zimbabwe, and it turns out that the driver was the director of a large company.

I put some money in a small plastic envelope, hopefully enough for food and transportation so Simon could finish what he set out to do, and put this in Simons front pocket. Still bewildered, he smiled at me. As I walked out of the hospital ward, the other patients and nurses clapped and gave a small cheer. I felt tears well up, and semi-choked, I asked the nurses to make sure he knew about the money and that it was for food and transport. I left the ward and went outside. My mind was a blizzard of emotions, but mostly I felt bad for Simon and angry at the events that caused him to be on the road at that time and in that place, so far form his family.

Out of respect for Simon, I didn't take any pictures. Below is one of the pictures of the skid marks I gave to the police.

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