I visited Zimbabwe a week before the swearing-in of the opposition leader as prime minister by his erstwhile enemy President Mugabe, which initiated the Unity Government. While there, I traveled to see Catholic Relief Services’ programs and express the solidarity of American Catholics with the bishops of this troubled country. I was accompanied by two CRS Board members: Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah, Georgia, and Constance Proctor, an attorney from Seattle.
The country is facing enormous problems due to terrible governance. The economy is at a standstill. The currency is worthless. Cholera, a disease rarely seen outside disaster situations, is rampant as city water systems have broken down. As of this writing, more than 70,000 people have been infected and over 3,500 have died. CRS is one of many aid groups working hard to relieve the suffering of Zimbabweans by providing food, health care and a variety of other services. The programs we support feed over 1.2 million people.
Let me share three scenes from our trip.
The first day, we went to a small clinic in the town of Murewa—about 40 miles east of the capital, Harare—where CRS provides food for the patients and helped to install a water purification system to combat an epidemic of cholera. CRS has donated and is installing seven more of these systems in missionary clinics throughout the country. The clinic we visited was being run by a doctor in his early 20s, assisted by an even younger woman, just barely out of medical school. The rampant hyperinflation in the country meant the staff was working for almost nothing. But they were doing the best they could for their patients, who were suffering maladies including HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis, and cholera.
The doctor explained to me that he had few medical supplies and little in the way of functioning equipment. Even their X-ray machine was broken, complicating the task of medical diagnosis. “We have to take a clinical approach,” the doctor told us. When I asked what that meant, he said he used his medical training to make his best guess about what was ailing his patients.
Earlier that day, we had visited a school where CRS provides a daily hot lunch of cornmeal and beans. More than 800 kids were there, and they presented a program of speeches, dances and songs that would make any parent proud. As the children lined up for lunch, holding plates they’d brought from home, some parents told me that this was the one solid meal they could rely on for their children.
The next day we dropped by a Missionaries of Charity home for the elderly in Harare, where CRS also provides food for the daily meals. I’ve been to Missionaries of Charity homes around the world, and this one was very much like the others I’ve seen. The sisters were serene and cheerful, the house was clean and orderly, and the residents were well cared for: living and dying with dignity.
These are just a few of the good works being done in Zimbabwe, and in more than 100 countries, on behalf of American Catholics through CRS. In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (“God Is Love”), Pope Benedict XVI wrote that “the Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word.” In Zimbabwe, I was gratified to see how American Catholics are extending our love in charity to these, our suffering brothers and sisters.