“Sometimes it’s not till you see first-hand a situation where you are in a room with day-old babies struggling to breathe without incubators that you realise how well-off we really are,” admitted Donncha O’Callaghan during his five-day trip to Zimbabwe.
UNICEF Ireland Ambassador Donncha O’Callaghan went straight into camp with the Ireland squad on Sunday night upon his return from a five-day visit to Zimbabwe with UNICEF Ireland.
The Munster and Ireland second row,who was making his third trip with UNICEF, visited Zimbabwe to find out about the current situation for children in Zimbabwe and how the country’s troubles over the past decade has impacted on their well-being.
Despite all the challenges the country faces, Donncha left Zimbabwe feeling hopeful that the improved political stability and a recovering economy means that services for women and children are getting better but stressed that there remains an urgent need for more funding.
First stop for Donncha on his visit was to Harare General Hospital. Built over fifty years ago, the hospital for many years was a centre of excellence for health in sub-Saharan Africa , but the political and economic instability that Zimbabwe experienced over the past decade has resulted in a hospital that is now a run-down shadow of its former glory.
During a tour for the hospital, Donncha visited wards where 32 new-born infants and their mothers shared one room and Donncha watched on in shock, as a doctor shared oxygen amongst nine premature new-born babies on one table – as there were no bassinets or bed linen available.
Donncha also visited the labour ward of the hospital, where 30 expectant mothers were under the care of only two midwives.
The night before Donncha arrived, six babies did not survive past delivery and on average 30 new-born babies die a week at birth at the hospital.
A visibly disturbed Donncha said: “UNICEF is already supplying the hospital with all the basic medicines they need, as they do for the entire medical sector across Zimbabwe, but you can see how desperate the need here is for more bassinets and medical equipment for the babies, as well as more funding to train and pay for more midwives.
“I know times are hard at home but to be honest with you, we take so many things for granted.
“Sometimes it’s not till you see firsthand a situation where you are in a room with day-old babies struggling to breathe without incubators that you realise how well-off we really are. I shudder to think of what might have happened if my wife Jenny had to give birth to our daughter Sophie last year in such conditions.”
UNICEF Ireland has straight away launched an appeal to raise enough money to buy the 50 bassinets needed by Harare General Hospital.
The next visit for Donncha was to a rural hospital supported by UNICEF in Kunaka. Here he launched a new fundraising drive for UNICEF Ireland with its goal of supplying bicycles to health workers so they can reach the remotest communities with vital health services in a rural district of over 11,800 people.
Donncha met with several community health workers who spoke to him at length about their daily work and the challenges they face. Then Donncha toured the hospital, seeing for himself the specific services the hospital provides for women and children.
He was shown the routine testing that is now carried out for HIV as well as the various treatments and medicines the hospital provides for women and babies that test positive
Donncha met with two new mothers who had just given birth that morning and also watched as babies received routine vaccinations and check-ups.
“The women I’ve met here at Kunaka are incredible,” Donncha said when speaking about the visit.
“When they told me why they needed the bicycles for their work, it’s so that they can work harder, reach more families and do more work. They are pillars of their communities; counselling mothers and keeping a very watchful eye on families that are vulnerable to abuse.
“I hope my visit will make people in Ireland help UNICEF Ireland get these women more bicycles. They can be purchased for only 65 euro at www.unicef.ie.”
The second part of Donncha’s trip focused on education and how UNICEF is working to rebuild the fractured educational system in Zimbabwe, which was once the envy of much of Africa.
In the past year alone, UNICEF has delivered over 15 million text books – reaching every primary school across Zimbabwe with the next phase of 8.5 million textbooks to secondary schools commencing shortly.
Visiting the King Edward School in Harare, which has over 1,200 pupils enrolled, Donncha got some pre-season training in with the junior school’s rugby team to highlight the important role that sport plays in young people’s development.
Donncha coached the teenagers for a period and taught them some new training drills, before addressing the entire school during the Friday morning assembly.
During his talk, Donncha encouraged the students to focus on their studies but also reminded them about the importance of sport and exercise to their development and well-being.
Speaking about his visit to the King Edward’s school, the Corkman explained: “Three years ago, I met children who had left Zimbabwe and made it as far as Johannesburg in their quest to receive an education.
“I’ve often wondered what happened to the young people I met that day who told me of their dreams to become doctors, lawyers and teachers so that they could return to Zimbabwe and help rebuild their country.
“Meeting young people here today who have that same drive and commitment to their futures – in a school which struggles to have enough school books for its pupils and running water every day for its toilets and bathrooms – reminded me so much of the children I met in Johannesburg.
“The children here want to succeed in everything they do, whether it’s their studies or their sports.
“We must support UNICEF to ensure that we do all that we can to give these children every chance to succeed. The future of Zimbabwe depends on them and they are up to the task. We must help them.”
Speaking about the visit, Executive Director of UNICEF Ireland, Melanie Verwoerd, who accompanied Donncha on the trip, highlighted the commitment of UNICEF supporters in Ireland to Zimbabwe.
“Thanks to the generosity of people throughout Ireland, we have been supporting programmes in Zimbabwe for many years,” she said.
“For example two years ago, we helped stem Zimbabwe’s worst ever cholera epidemic that killed over 4,000 people and sickened over 100,000.
“It is important to stress that funds raised for UNICEF programmes do not go to the Government. We are very grateful to our Ambassador Donncha O’Callaghan for taking the time to see for himself what is happening in this remarkable country and for working with us to tell the story of a changing Zimbabwe.
“It is a country that for too long has been perceived only negatively throughout the world. It is a country that has gone through a tremendously difficult time – both politically and economically – but it has an opportunity now for a fresh start.
“With the right level of development support and assistance, social services for women and children can be restored.
“The challenges ahead for Zimbabwe are immense but the will of the people and of UNICEF is so strong in Zimbabwe. To stand by and not help the children living there is not an option, we have to continue to support them.”
To donate towards UNICEF Ireland’s continuing work in Zimbabwe, please visit www.unicef.ie.