Life in Colour
by Doug MacLellan
MY work focuses on stories about people in trying circumstances. Generally I seek out people who like me enough to let me take a lot of often very private photos. In return I attempt to distribute the photos – their stories – as widely as possible.
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I met Dr Paul Thistle in November 2000 at a synagogue in Toronto, Canada. He was speaking about The Salvation Army’s Howard Hospital, Zimbabwe, and showed photos. He thought it was a medical crowd and included some gruesome slides of abscesses. Many in the crowd flinched at the sight. He proceeded anyway, noting their unease and defusing the situation with a pun. I thought it was a great show and told him afterwards that I’d visit him in Zimbabwe.
My first trip to Howard Hospital was in 2001. The hospital is approximately one and a half hours by car north of Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. I witnessed a poverty I hadn’t seen in previous Africa trips and quickly became acquainted with tuberculosis, HIV/Aids and death. It was also a run-up to a general election which influenced the situation dramatically. I saw Paul Thistle at work – he is an obstetrician-gynaecologist and Chief Medical Officer at Howard Hospital – met Pedrinah, his wife, and James, their firstborn son. Through it all, Paul was thoughtful, funny and effective in coping with a very challenging situation.
My work is about hope and coping. The first essay in 2001 [featured in the January–March 2003 issue of All the World] was photographed in black and white and is very emotional. It is also popular – an exhibition has toured in two continents and one published story was a runner-up in a national contest. More importantly, a considerable amount of money was raised and many medical professionals and interested people volunteered to visit Howard.
Paul requested a second visit and I agreed. We discussed at length what to photograph and what not to photograph. We were concerned about presenting the same old ‘Africa Horror Show’ we in the West often see. We were interested in showing more than what people looked like; we wanted to show relationships, coping, looking for hope. Colour is so important and something I noticed was obviously – and intentionally – missing from the first effort.
My second trip to Howard Hospital was in 2006. It felt as though I had not left. The place looked the same, if a bit more worn. I noticed something new: the effect – despair – brought on by the economic collapse of Zimbabwe. Vital medical supplies were limited or non-existent. There was no meat at the butchers. Bread showed up then disappeared. Even Coca-Cola was nowhere to be seen and there were 20 per cent less bubbles in what little beer could be found!
Doctors, the highest-paid individuals, were forgoing lunch. Nurses, selling chickens from their part-time income generation projects, were accepting whatever they could get, which was a loss in every event. People were sneaking corpses into the now-broken-down morgue. Several people confessed they would prefer to die as Heaven must surely be better than the present life on earth.
Hope was in short supply. Coping in challenging circumstances was at a maximum.
Paul and Pedrinah seemed not to be well either. Both found it a challenging time. Yet they kept at it, did the work, attended to the sick and found ways to get supplies. Truly, their faith was challenged – both said so directly.
It is still too early to tell if the new set of photos will prove to be as successful as the first. While the photography itself is good, most of the photos aren’t likely candidates to hang on someone’s living room wall. (Paul assures me the new pictures are having the desired results – I hope he is right.)
I sent Paul an email last night mentioning I was thinking of him, his family and the country – as I write this, it is election day in Zimbabwe. I don’t expect to hear back from him – most likely the power is out or the phone lines are down. Such is life in Zimbabwe today.
I don’t know the outcome of the election but I hope things improve. I will return for a third visit, this time concentrating on the catchment area – the 50-mile radius that contains 250,000 people – in an effort to see, get ocular proof, how people who are the patients and staff of Howard Hospital are coping under what is the most spectacular collapsing economy in the world today.
There is a lot of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘my’ in this report. I don’t work in a vacuum – I rely on the support, trust and goodwill of others. Thank you to Anna Galka, Alexandria MacLellan, the Thistles, Warren Viegas, Lionel Walsh, the Canadian volunteers to Howard, The Salvation Army, the Zimbabwe Embassy in Ottawa, Brian Masse MP, Ve’ahavta – the Jewish Canadian Relief organisation – and especially the many people I met in Zimbabwe who helped me in ways they cannot imagine. I only hope my version of their stories is accurate and ultimately helpful.
Paul Thistle will receive an honorary doctorate this June from the University of Windsor in Canada. He will never admit to deserving such a distinction – it’s always about serving other people. Paul, to me, is hope personified and is very deserving of any and all public accolades that come his way.
Elizabeth Mufuka pushes her twin sons, Tinashe and Tinotende, after Sunday service at the Salvation Army’s Calvary Citadel near Concession, Zimbabwe. The boys were conjoined at birth and separated in Toronto, Canada, thanks to remarkable international support and cooperation that brought the twins’ plight to the notice of Canada’s news reporters. The wheelchair is more for transport than need. Photo ©2007 Doug MacLellan.
Theine Mukau watches a group of nurses and student nurses attending a doctor’s round. This part of the children’s ward is for more-serious cases – almost all relating to HIV. Photo ©2007 Doug MacLellan.
Mothers and some of their children wait for a check-up at the mother child health centre at Howard Hospital. The check-up includes a physical examination as well as growth-chart plotting. Photo ©2007 Doug MacLellan.
Doug MacLellan is a freelance photographer based in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. He specialises in long-term photo essays of a social and cultural nature