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They Want Their Doctor Back: the Howard Hospital Crisis

Douglas MacLellan | Zimbabwe

Nyachuru, Zimbabwe. November, 2012. Forbes and Gladys with two of their three children at home. Both are teachers and taking masters courses in international affairs.

Mashonaland Central, Zimbabwe, 2012. Dr. Paul Thistle, a beloved doctor is terminated after years of dedicated work, 'crushed' by The Salvation Army, his employer. His former patients now face a grim future of costly travel and more expensive treatments and medicines. It seems very few people will care. I do.

The Howard Hospital is a Salvation Army run facility located in rural Zimbabwe. Paul Thistle, a Canadian, was the Chief Medical Officer until November, 2012, when he was transferred then terminated for bringing up suspicions of missing donors' funds to his superiors. Thistle's removal will have a serious negative impact on this mostly poor, rural subsistence farming community: no surgeries; increased costs for medicines and transportation; reduced access to outreach programs.

I started a photo essay in 2001 after meeting Thistle in Toronto, Canada. I returned to Zimbabwe in 2006, 2008 and 2010.

This past November I visited with the intention to photograph those affected by this decision. Many are people I met and who I know.

I met a woman who fell down a mountain and broke her back seven years ago. She is paralyzed from the neck down and can barely talk. Yet she wanted me to take her picture. I noticed she was eating only boiled leaf greens--no fat. She was barely staying alive. Her sixteen year old daughter was her caretaker. The two of them have precious little and now that the outreach program, initiated by Thistle, doesn't work, she is in even more trouble.

I met a boy who fell and broke his arm above and below the elbow. Thistle would have repaired it for about $20. Instead the boy and his family had to travel to another mission hospital 2 and 1/2 hours away. They were charged $200, roughly the same amount they need for maize seed, fertilizer and other inputs. This family may starve in a few months.

There were more stories with each person interviewed affected in one way or another by Thistle's dismissal.

It was the saddest trip. There seemed to be hope in the past, that something was being done. Not enough but something. Now I see a bleak future.

I knew I would have limited access to subjects for this trip. I decided portraits, straight on portraits would best serve the story.

I had no idea how personal this visit would be. It is heart breaking to watch a slow motion wreck of the lives of people I know.

I channeled all those emotions in this exhibition of simple, direct, dark, warm toned portraits.

Douglas MacLellan
Windsor, Canada
06 December 2012

Dr. Paul Thistle now works at Karanda Mission Hospital, about one and half hours northeast of Howard Hospital. It is an even more remote and more poor area of Zimbabwe close to the Mozambique border. Pedrinah, his wife, and he stay at the hospital for most of the week then make a daunting drive to Harare to see their sons. (Driving in rural Zimbabwe can only be classified as daunting.)

Thistle has collected a sereis of photographs taken at and around Karanda hospital. I volunteered to host this collection in order to make his work better known and to provide images free of charge to those who may need to use them. While Paul may not get more known having this work on my websites, it does take one burden off his to do list.

If you wish to use a photo to help Thistle's good work at Karanda, send me an email request and I will make the arrangements. The gallery is here: https://douglasmaclellan.photoshelter.com/gallery/ZIMBABWE-and-CANADA-Thistle-Photo-Archive-2001-2017/G0000fPtiqYWTlu4/

Tina Ivany has written a book about Thistle's dismissal. I read it. I am quoted in it. I find it accurate. Proceeds from the book sales go to help people in Chiweshe, the area where Howard Hospital is located. You may purchase the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Cry-Chiweshe-Community-Abandoned-Wronged-ebook/dp/B072613M1C

You can always support Thistle's work. Paul is part of TEAM, an evangelical group. They have an easy to use donation system which I have used many times. Should you feel compelled to donate, use the link, make the donation and get a tax receipt. Go here: https://team.org/about/profile/932


My website has many images and galleries taken over the years in Zimbabwe. I started phootgraphing the Howard Hospital in 2001 and stopped after I too was "terminated" in 2012 due to my relationship with Thistle.

There is a new president of Zimbabwe (November 2017) and much hope that things will change. I hope for the better and I have my doubts based solely on the poor economic condition of the country. I am quite willing to be proven wrong, though.

Paul and I spoke recently (November 2017) and it is possible I may return to Zimbabwe in late 2018 or early 2019 to photograph at Karanda. I have serious considerations about doing this kind of work these days. Perhaps it is better that a Zimbabwean photographer continue the work. If so, how best may I support her? What is the photojournalistic role of a 58 year old white Canadian male in Zimbabwe these days? I am leaning more to using some of the proceeds from photography to support Paul.


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