Defying religious beliefs to save lives

“Our church believes anointed water alone can heal the sick, but through the continuous education we received, I made up my mind [to become a community health promotion volunteer].”

By Joneck Gwatiwa and Byron Chapoterera
Gertrude Shumbayaonda (38) with her 3-year-old grandchild Kudzaishe Makono. She has helped to promote positive personal hygiene practices in her community.
UNICEF Zimbabwe/2018/Joneck Gwatiwa

30 May 2019

Gertrude Shumbayaonda’s church strongly disapproves of the use of modern medicine by its members. Nevertheless, Gertrude (38), a widow and mother of five, decided to defy this tenet of her religion by becoming a community health promotion volunteer and takes pride in sharing health and hygiene messages in her community.

A devout church-goer, it was never Gertrude’s plan to take on this task and it came with some risk, as the village head is also the leader of her church. However, her participation in UNICEF-supported health and hygiene promotion training, provided by the Ministry of Health and Child Care and the non-governmental organisation, Mercy Corps, persuaded her that it was the right thing to do.

She explained, “We were forbidden from participating in these voluntary activities as our church believes anointed water alone can heal the sick, but through the continuous education we received, I felt challenged and made up my mind to take up the role since this was the only chance hygiene education could reach people in our church. Because of our belief system, people in our church do not accept any form of teachings from people who are not from our faith.”

Fortunately, the village leader was open to Gertrude’s participation. “After receiving training, myself and the other two volunteers, we went straight to the village head and told him about it and he never objected until this day. Instead, we now have slots during gatherings where we talk about hygiene,” said Gertrude.

In response to the cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe in September 2018, Gertrude was also trained by Mercy Corps as one of 15 community health club facilitators to establish community health clubs in Buhera District’s ten affected Wards [district subdivisions].

Gertrude fetches water from a rehabilitated borehole in Murwira village, Buhera, Manicaland province, east Zimbabwe.
UNICEF Zimbabwe/2019/Joneck Gwatiwa
Gertrude fetches water from a rehabilitated borehole in Murwira village, Buhera, Manicaland province, east Zimbabwe.

“Ever since I started this voluntary work, I have seen a remarkable change,”

“Ever since I started this voluntary work, I have seen a remarkable change,” Gertrude said. “For example, we now have a toilet at every assembly point including at Mushandirapamwe [a community garden]. At our church, members contribute funds towards construction of the toilets and members take turns to clean up the toilets every single morning so that they remain clean all the time,” she added.

Villagers who did not have buckets, repurposed plastic containers to create ‘Chigubhu Gears’ (Tippy Taps): simple devices created to wash hands with running water.

Gertrude’s work has helped to transform the community. “I have seen change even among my children, especially the one in Grade 1,” recounts Gertrude. “If she does not find soap after using the toilet, you see her taking ashes to wash her hands.”

So that everyone has access to safe water Getrude maintain a supply for water purification tablets. “I make sure I always have enough [Aquatabs]. Every time I hear of a family that is fetching water from an unsafe source, I quickly rush to give them some so that they also drink clean water,” she said.

Gertrude and Belinda Murwira demonstrate how the ‘Chigubhu Gear’ (Tippy Tap) works
UNICEF Zimbabwe/2019/Joneck Gwatiwa
Gertrude and Belinda Murwira demonstrate how the ‘Chigubhu Gear’ (Tippy Tap) works

Gertrude’s role as community health promotion volunteer has contributed to her personal growth. She has increased her skill in public speaking, something that is often suppressed in her church because women are not allowed to assume leadership positions.

“Through working with people, I now have confidence in speaking at gatherings and people respond positively every time. When I check if they remember what I have taught them, they respond so well,” said Gertrude. Pointing in the direction of the toilet she says, “Even if you go behind that house, you will see the bucket where people wash hands after using the toilet.”