An Operation Called Hope
"Mangwanani, chiremba." Everyone on the Op Hope team is wearing a bright blue scrub suit designed by Katherine Heigl of Grey's Anatomy. Jennifer persuaded the actress to donate this wardrobe, which seems to merit the native Shona greeting of "Good morning, Doctor" for all of us. The reason for our uniformity is not cosmetic—it's so we can recognize each other down the long, unfamiliar corridors of the hospital. A number of patients and their parents have traveled eight or 10 or more hours, by bus or train or the back of a friendly farmer's truck to get here. For some, even the fare of a few dollars is an extravagance made possible only through a collection in their community. Several carry the sort of lined notebook I remember from grade school, containing their medical histories, but many have never seen a real doctor, and they've been told by a n'anga, the traditional village healer, that children with cleft defects should have been drowned at birth, that such afflictions are payback for some ancestral transgression. They sit on hard benches in an airless room with bars on the windows, the overflow standing in the hall, waiting to be screened by one of the Op Hope surgeons. They sit or stand without complaint or crying, certainly without Nintendos or iPods or other amusement to pass the time. Patience and civility are an ingrained part of their culture; complaining and assertiveness are considered inappropriate. Almost without exception, those who speak English smile broadly and say, "How are you? I am fine if you are fine."
We're fine, except for the palpable tension associated with traveling to a country in chaos. An election was held just a week before we got here, but Robert Mugabe (generally viewed as more despot than president) has refused to cede power, refused even to allow the release of voting results. Zimbabwe's economy is in free fall, with 80 percent unemployment and an official inflation rate of 165,000 percent—yes, all those zeros are correct. One U.S. dollar is worth 50 million Zim dollars the week we arrive; during our stay, the price of a newspaper goes up from $3 million to $20 million. Life expectancy is less than 44 years. Laws have been passed making it a crime to criticize the president and his policies, and we hear that a 16-year-old girl has been jailed for calling the octogenarian Mugabe an "old man." Most foreign journalists have been banned (I'm here under the radar), and opposition supporters have been killed. A few days before we left home, the front page of The New York Times had a photograph of men escaping across the border into South Africa by cutting through a barbed wire fence. We are all a little edgy, and the people here seem a little shocked to see us. But there is work to be done.