The first thing you notice is how small Blessing is. She looks like a 12-year girl, even though she’s 19. Then you pick up the distinctive smell of urine. She knows people can smell it and is on the defensive. She believes she is cursed; what’s more, so do her family and her community.
What Blessing suffers from is a condition that was once rare in Zimbabwe but is now increasing year on year. She has an obstetric fistula, caused by prolonged obstructed labour. When Blessing’s baby got stuck in her small pelvis, no amount of pushing could deliver the baby and there was no doctor or midwife to perform a Caesarian. The baby died and the tissues that separated the vagina from the bladder and rectum, starved of blood and compressed by the build-up of urine and faecal matter, began to break down leaving holes through which urine and faecal matter pass uncontrollably.
The trauma of losing her child, her first, is compounded by incontinence. Instead of love and support from friends and family for her gross misfortune, she is shunned.
The combination of sex organs and excretia make the issue doubly taboo; difficult enough for educated people to talk about let alone people from rural communities. With little understanding of the science, superstitious explanations prevail and the sufferer is deemed ‘cursed.’ Many live in a state of exile on the edge of villages where the chances of painful interactions are reduced.
Many factors contribute to the rise in the incidence of fistulas with some originating, predictably, with Zimbabwe’s recent economic woes. Clinics and hospitals are under-staffed and under-resourced with fistulas even occurring in major hospitals because a single midwife might be overseeing twenty births. Poor women have less means to travel to clinics anyway, and prolonged malnutrition stunts bone development meaning their pelvises are too small.
At the Queen of Hearts along the Enterprise Road, scrabble players are getting together to raise money to help. Reparative surgery costs at least $500 in one of Harare’s public hospitals and five times that figure privately. The first scrabble tournament, the result of an outreach by the Whinfield Charitable Trust, raised over $500, which went part of the way towards putting Blessing on the road to recovery.
The second Scrabble Night took place on the 26 June. Congratulation to Lisbeth, the champion who’s on her way to Leopard Rock: and also to runner-up Sally, high-game score winner, Angus, and top word-scorer, Jocelynne.
Every cent of the $10 entrance fee goes towards the operation expenses of a young woman like Blessing. Online contributions can be made here.
The next Scrabble Night will be at the end of July. Watch this space for details.