Despite the surprise of finding Gweru recently on a world map (in the absence of the likes of Harare and Bulawayo) the fact remains that Gweru is, in reality, a small town that feels like a large village. I’m certain that I could walk from one side to the other (and probably back again!) in the course of a lazy, uneventful morning. And it’s not just about the geography. Locals will often know the name, if not the face, of anyone you care to mention and they’ll probably know what they are doing too. Possibly even before the person in question does. Being a part of this small community means many things. Most recently, I realized that it means that an annual event like the Gweru Agricultural Show is a very big deal.
For many of the local businesses and organisations that would be representing themselves at the show, work started a long time ago. For me, it began early on the morning of the event itself, where, equipped with coffee, our talented communications officer, Patricia, and myself sorted and folded several hundred T-shirts adorned with various health messages. TB can be cured, even if you’re HIV positive. Stop child abuse. MSF is on the move against TB and HIV.
Later in the day, at our show stall inside a tent, we liberally distributed health information leaflets and encouragement, sound advice and condoms. As I took my turn manning the stall, a young teenager in a bottle-green school blazer approached the table, and I offered him the chance to win a pen in return for answering my questions correctly. What do you know about HIV? I asked. It’s a virus that attacks the CD4 positive T helper cells, came his reply. Clearly, I’m going to have to up my game, I thought. And hand over the pen….
Next, a gaggle of young girls arrived and after we had talked about TB, I asked if they had any questions. Yes, said one girl. If we are vaccinated against TB as babies, how come there is so much TB in Zimbabwe now? I was struck by the intelligence of the question, and it occurred to me that, perhaps, asking the right question is almost as important as having the right answer. Curiosity, in a world of taboos, misunderstandings and assumptions, rather than killing the cat, could actually save its life. There’s hope for the future, here, I thought. These kids are smart.
The excitement around the prizes spread quickly and groups of children soon littered the show ground, huddling around the pamphlets we had provided in order to be able to demonstrate sufficient knowledge to earn the much coveted pens and T-shirts. Our table was constantly surrounded by youngsters and adults. The older members of our audience were encouraged to get tested, sometimes being led over to the testing facility that MSF was supporting within the grounds. Know your status. It’s the first part of the battle.
With the younger ones, we searched for appropriate questions. One little girl almost stumped me. She came with her older siblings and she could barely see over the table. She was desperate for a pen. She solved my problem by spontaneously coughing in front of me, and instantly covering her mouth. More than simply a polite gesture in a country riddled with TB. This practical demonstration of good heath behaviour earned her the prize and she left happily.
At the end of the day, I took a short cut on the way home. As I walked through the waist-high grass, I heard the group of excited children before I saw them. Raised voices and laughter and shrill whistles. As I rounded the corner, they appeared like exclamation marks. Pink, neon sunglasses. Bright plastics beads. Bags of candy floss. They smiled and waved and I paused to smile and wave back. And so they went on their way. Hope for the future in tiger masks and tiaras. A vivid splash of colour against a winter landscape of khaki grey.