Zimbabwe’s public health system is collapsing along with the economy, with some major hospitals suspending all non-emergency surgeries because painkillers are scarce. Some in this southern African country are turning to the growing number of peddlers of traditional medicines, many of them young men occupying street corners in the capital, Harare.
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“Faulty gear boxes, blown-out fuses . I can fix it all!” shouted Shepherd Mushore. He stood outside a now-closed garage, but he is no mechanic. He displayed tree barks, roots and leaves of all kinds. “Gear boxes and fuses” are his euphemisms for sexual matters.
“I can treat all types of diseases that you know. I am not a herb seller. I am an African doctor,” the 34-year-old Mushore told The Associated Press. His baseball cap and T-shirt were emblazoned with the US flag. The beads around his neck and skinny jeans completed the picture of a hip-hop wannabe, not a herbalist. Mushore admitted he is not trained in traditional medicine.
“I don’t have to. I get visions in my dreams,” he said. The Medicines Control Authority of Zimbabwe, the medicines regulatory body, said it was battling to control the “influx” of people selling herbs and other medicines.
“People need to be conscientious and try not to be so gullible,” said Richard Rukwata, the authority’s spokesman. “There all these inflated claims around a lot of these herbs and medicines that are being sold by lay persons. But members of the public, some of them actually believe that those things work.”
One of the people who believe they have found a cure on the streets is Zvisinei Nyamudeza. In quick succession, he gulped four small cups of syrup, a concoction of green and brown substances stored in dirty two-liter containers.
“He is my doctor,” Nyamudeza said, patting street herbalist Mushore on the back while downing the final cup. He caught a breath before Mushore handed him a bunch of fresh green leaves, which he chewed eagerly.
“I have been improving since I started coming here two months ago,” Nyamudeza said. “The leaves are for his stomach problems,” Mushore explained. “The syrup is just to boost his sexual performance and increase his sperm count. His gear box was down.”
The Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association, which keeps a register of certified herbalists in the country, said many of those selling herbs on the streets are not on its books. “They are mushrooming everywhere. Most of them are bogus,” said George Kandiero, president of the association.
Meanwhile, conditions at public hospitals, which serve the majority of the population, have plummeted. Many people cannot afford the fees charged at hospitals. Hospital authorities often have resorted to detaining patients, including mothers who have just delivered babies, until they pay. This had forced some to seek alternatives.
“They need $5 up front at the hospital, and then they will tell you they don’t have drugs,” said Nyamudeza, the herbalist’s customer. “I will have to buy from a private pharmacy. Here, I just pay $3 and I can drink my medicines without a hassle.”
Economic problems are pushing people toward street medicines, said Rukwata, the spokesman for the medicines regulatory body. “There are people who are seeking these solutions because they want to avoid the perceived high costs of our health delivery system,” Rukwata told The Associated Press. At one street-side stall, the most expensive items were “cancer drugs” that cost $2.50. The price was negotiable.
Nyasha Kwembeya said he travels to Bocha, his home village about 300 kilometers (185 miles) east of Harare, once a month to dig up the herbs which he then grinds into powder. “All my medicines are for a dollar, except for those ones that treat cancer,” the 25-year-old unregistered herbalist said.