Unless you have been living in a cave the past month or so, you most likely have come across news

Howard hospital in Chiweshe

that Salvation Army‘s Dr. Paul Thistle who through his dedicated service for the past 16 years has endeared himself to the community of Chiweshe (Mashonaland Central) in particular, will be leaving Howard Hospital in a few days. [When this post was being prepared he was allegedly still in Zimbabwe and planning to leave on September 1st]

The exact circumstances surrounding his pending departure are unclear, and depending on who you choose to believe, he is either being re-deployed by the Salvation Army, or being transferred against his will to Canada, or as the people of Chiweshe choose to believe he is being kicked out for being such an honest guy trying hard to stop some good-for-nothing church leaders from dipping their filthy hands into the cookie jar (which incidentally he personally begged for from his native Canada).

And as with most things in Zimbabwe, it appears some are viewing this through a political prism with a theory which seems to have gained some traction in some quarters alleging that Vice President Joice Mujuru, who is a senior member of the church and incidentally also wields a lot of power politically, has something against Thistle.

Whether there is any truth to this is anyone’s guess, but Mujuru is a senior member of the Salvation Army and she happens to hail from the province in which Howard Hospital is located, the health institution which employed Dr Thistle.

We have seen her parade in the Salvation military uniform on TV for much less causes, and in this instance her silence on an issue so dear to so many in her province lends credence to the speculation that she didn’t like Thistle very much and probably couldn’t care less if he were to leave.

The Salvation Army, for its part, whatever salvation it represents, in all likelihood does not include the salvation of the people of Chiweshe and thousands of poor Zimbabweans who had come to rely on Thistle for care.

So another white Zimbabwean is being kicked out of the country unceremoniously, why should it be news?

The contribution of Paul Thistle to the nation of Zimbabwe can never be adequately captured in words. For 16 whole years, he served with honour and total dedication at Howard Hospital, providing high quality medical care to the nation’s poorest. He left the comfort of Canada where he was assured of a six figure annual salary and all the benefits of a developed society to settle in rural Chiweshe to offer his service to a people who needed it.

For 16 years, he lived among them sharing their pains; when everyone saw desolation, he chose to be a symbol of hope. He married among them; when our store shelves were empty, he got no bread; when bungling NOCZIM (National Oil Company of Zimbabwe) made sure the nation had no fuel, he learnt to park his vehicle and hope for better days.

I will mention three instances to illustrate why he was a man apart. Sometime in 2004, a set of conjoined twins was delivered at Howard Hospital. Their parents named them Tinotenda and Tinashe, names conveying their appreciation and belief in a God who provides ways even where we see none.

Such an occurrence in our public hospitals would attract a flood of visitors to see this rarity but in the end with no expertise for the complex operation needed to separate them, they would be condemned to a sorry death. Not under the watch of Thistle though. He got on the phone, mobilized, begged and badgered until the twins were flown to one of the world’s best children’s hospitals – Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and ultimately got life-saving surgery. To this day, Tinotenda and Tinashe are alive and will never forget how hard Thistle fought to save their lives.

When Zimbabweans, myself included, decided Chiweshe was too rural, too slow to spend the youthful days of our lives, he lived there, somehow managing to convince hundreds of fellow Canadians to devote months of service there as well. And when the government and the church told him they had no money for supplies, he independently begged for money from all who cared to listen.

Miraculously, even in the darkest of years when even the government could not keep its own hospitals like KuGomo open, Howard remained an oasis of hope. I distinctly remember working as a junior doctor at one of the nation’s largest referral hospitals in 2008.

According to media reports, twenty villagers were arrested after violent protests against Dr Paul Thistle's transfer

That year, when all that could go wrong did go wrong, we learnt that when we had patients we could not look after we would refer them to Howard and Karanda Mission Hospitals. It sounds unbelievable, but hospitals with hundreds of doctors ended up referring patients to a rural village in Chiweshe. And as patients would report back, it did not matter how far you came, or that they had not a dime to pay, Thistle and his team welcomed you and gave you the best of Howard’s renowned hospitality and clinical excellence.

When political violence engulfed our land in 2008, with militias marauding villages wielding pangas and machetes, Thistle would clean the wounds of the victims and nurse them back to health.

Just this past year in 2011, Paul Thistle and his Howard team got a pitiful USD 7,000 from government to cater for a community of 270,000. That’s right, our government in all its wisdom decided to allocate each of these people THREE cents for health care for the whole year.

They could have easily thrown a tantrum and done nothing like a lot of ministers I will not name, but Thistle being who he is made sure they saw 125,000 people and delivered 3,000 babies. How about that for a miracle? Jesus fed five thousand with two loaves and five fish but after 2000 years of inflation, Thistle fed, housed and offered modern medical care to 125,000 at five cents each!!

Howard was a leader in showing the world that it was possible to provide ARVs to rural villagers and that with dedication, even palliative care could be provided in villages. To this day, thousands still trek from far and wide to receive care at Howard. Hundreds drive from Harare to Howard for care and Thistle has welcomed them and provided them the excellent care Howard has become synonymous with.

The goal of Paul and the other staff at Howard Hospital is that all who desire can access treatment, be restored to full health and be returned to their communities as productive members of society. And he would have gladly continued to offer himself in this service; his wife would have loved to continue teaching midwifery to a generation of cadres who will impact millions until on August 4, for reasons we shall never fully understand, the Salvation Army decided it was time he left.

Understandably, he was pained and worried about the sustainability of the many projects he had started in Chiweshe. But ever the gentleman, he refuses to wash dirty linen in public and has chosen to keep quiet when asked why he is being kicked out. Angered beyond belief, the people of Chiweshe appealed to the powers that be to spare him. As the deadline approached, they sent emissaries to the Provincial Governor hoping perhaps government could save them and Thistle from this most evil of decisions.

A young Howard patient (Photo courtesy of the Short Term International Medical Missions Abroad)

In perhaps the only funny part of this whole ordeal, the Mashonaland Central governor is on record as saying “government does not interfere in the activities of the church.” I must confess, when I first read this, I laughed uncontrollably. Is he seriously living in Zimbabwe?

Everyone including the village idiot knows how hard the government fought to protect Nolbert Kunonga when he was excommunicated for insubordination by the Anglican Church. Taxpayers’ money was used to rent riot police to the Bishop; whole churches were closed and many harassed.

For unclear reasons, the church and government have chosen to ignore the wishes of the population. For those who have the means to seek care in lands afar, Thistle’s leaving is nothing, but for the poor who have been reduced to relying on the benevolence of dedicated men like Paul Thistle or seeking divination from latter day prophets, this is a big deal. After all, in one swoop, whoever is behind this is wiping away 50% of their choices.

And as someone who has grown to admire Paul Thistle, and knowing how peaceful and honest a man he is, I am pained he had to leave in such a manner.

When people as dedicated as Thistle have to endure the ignominy of being kicked out like common criminals for asking for transparency in the handling of donor funds he went to extreme lengths to seek; when the government does not have the common decency to say thank you to a man who sacrificed so much to give hope to so many of our citizens; when even the ministry of health does not see the importance of honoring the service of such giants as Thistle, they are communicating a message to the hundreds of young doctors the nation asks to serve in our districts, for a salary you pray your haters never find out, living in conditions you would not wish upon your enemies that commitment will never be cherished.

For as long as we allow this insensitive treatment of those who have served the nation so well, the young and educated will continue to vote with their feet and the nation will be poorer for it. Whatever the reasons, the manner we have allowed Dr. Thistle to be treated after all he gave us compels us to reflect and deliberate on how as a society we should treat those who choose to serve our nation.

A nation that reserves USD 300,000 golden handshakes for those who choose to have sex in public, wrapped in the national flag while uttering a few “patriotic” sentences, and a kick in the a** for those who choose to serve it selflessly for 16 years need not be surprised when they break all the bad records of this world.

Thistle is a humanitarian whose work speaks loudly for social justice. For the many of us who have been nurtured by Paul as a teacher, mentor, and distinguished physician they may kick him out but he will always remain in the deepest corners of our hearts.

In the hundreds of tweets and Facebook posts, through emails, and yes even through the villagers of Chiweshe overturning cars in disgust at how he has been treated, the true people of Zimbabwe are communicating a profound message of thank you to a son-in-law we have grown to love.

Go with God Dr. Thistle. May the dear Lord you served and continue to trust for providence continue to watch over your life in your next assignment. In thousands of homes in Zimbabwe, you will always be welcome and loved.

Having known Paul Thistle for many years, he taught me two very valuable lessons: first as a Christian you can minister through your works and second although we are all called to serve in different capacities, ultimately even the contributions of one man can leave the world a better place. There is no honor in how we treated him, but Paul Thistle will graduate from life with honour.

See related material

Salvation Army in Zimbabwe: transfering doctors is routine procedure

Video interview with Dr Thistle in Quicktime or Windows Media formats 

Video: Woman who travelled to Salvation Army’s Howard hospital for three hours about Dr. Paul Thistle 

Salvation Army doctor’s family back to Canada to fundraise for Howard Hospital