By Phyllis Mbanje

She looks just like the ordinary woman next door with her multi-coloured veil twisted into a turban around her head and long flowing dress that is synonymous with most apostolic church members.

But 71-year-old self-trained midwife, Mbuya Esther Zinyoyo-Gwena is no ordinary woman.

Last November, she smashed headlines and remains an enigma after delivering 375 babies (in total) right in her small room in the populous suburb of Mbare in Harare. It was during one of the perennial strikes by healthcare workers and clinics were closed.

Her services were largely for free and done with the barest of labour, equipment and sundry.Her story is still talked about, will most certainly be repeated into future generations.
While many still debate on whether she should be called a heroine for the sterling work or a villain for operating outside the “safety and comfort of a medical facility”, the 375 babies owe their lives to this woman.

Medical professionals last year raised concerns over the unsafe and unhygienic methods used, but to her community and women who came to her in the throes of severe labour pains, she is a knight in shining armour.

First Lady Auxillia Mnangagwa paid her a visit in November 2019 and lauded her efforts. She left behind some provisions to help ease her voluntary work.

Mbuya Gwena was suddenly famous and the media descended on her humble dwellings to get a glimpse of her and the women she was helping.

Her story not only exposed the rot in the health sector which to date is still in shambles, but cast a dark shadow on maternal health, a critical pillar in the sector.

Poorly run and steaming out of funds, the health delivery system has remained in a sorry state with meagre funding and vain promises.

By December and early January, most hospitals were functional and authorities politely told Mbuya Gwena to direct the women to official health facilities.Many soon forgot about her and her story faded except for the families of the 375 babies.

It is almost a year now, the Weekly Digest tracked her down once again to understand her selfless acts.Warm and polite as always, Mbuya Gwena who is a widow with 10 children bares her soul and shares on what motivated her to take on such a huge burden.

“As a widow, I had been praying to the Lord because things were very difficult for me,” she recalls.A devout believer, Mbuya Gwena says she fasted for two weeks seeking redemption.
“I attended a church conference and that is where I met prophets who told me God had heard my prayer and answered me. They told me publicly that I was to help many pregnant women deliver their babies and that was my mission,” she said.

Mbuya Gwena said the multitudes gathered for the pilgrimage roared in agreement. Her fate was sealed.But there was just one complication. She was politically very active and was even a leader for the women’s league at district level.

“I never hesitated on my choice. It had been made already. So, I took the branded party T-shirts that I was supposed to distribute and my regalia and went to a party meeting,” she added.

Mbuya Gwena said she was unafraid and boldly stood up and told the leadership that she now had a different calling and could no longer save two masters.

“I explained that I could no longer carry out my party duties since I now had a divine calling to save my country through delivering babies,” she said.

Her request was well taken and she hung her political boots and never looked back.By November 12, she was already receiving women.

“It was a miracle and I just cannot explain it. Little known me, without any qualifications and only a few deliveries in the past was now attending to hundreds of women in my two roomed flat,” she added.

She shakes her head in wonder and gazes away into space. As the health professionals’ strike intensified, more women came and soon she had no more provisions.
“I was struggling to provide safely for these women with the little that I had. I am thankful for the provisions that the First Lady brought. There were blankets, food and other medical supplies like gloves.”

Mbuya Gwena says she is still amazed that the First Lady in all her splendour came into her humble home.“She hugged me and kissed me. I wanted to cry with joy. What an honour!”
However, Mbuya Gwena says she is still waiting for the certificate and an award that she was promised.

“The First Lady promised that there would be an event in Victoria Falls and I would be presented with a certificate for my work and also an award. She is an honourable person I know she will do it,” she said.

Meanwhile, Mbuya Gwena has once again found herself being called to perform deliveries following the almost three month-long strike by nurses.

“I had no choice and women came to me desperate. How could I turn them away when it is my calling? I have delivered 54 babies (since nurses went on strike in April this year) ,” she says proudly.

Her concern though is that she has run out of provisions like cotton wool and tries to make up by buying on her own. Keeping the lights on during the night has also impacted on her Zesa bills. But she remains steadfast in her work and dismisses these as petty hindrances.

With the current exorbitant maternity fees ranging from US$300 to over US$1 800, Mbuya Gwena will be receiving many babies.But what about COVID-19?
“The Lord protects me and these women. I am not even afraid because I know we are covered,” she said with conviction.

Delivering babies has given Mbuya Gwena a new status.

“When you are a widow, people look down on you, but my God remembered me and I am very happy and satisfied,” she smiles warmly.
lThis story was originally published by the Weekly Digest, an AMH publication

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