Phyllis Kachere and Kudakwashe Gwabanayi
The Salvation Army in Zimbabwe has stuck to its guns and ejected Canadian doctor Paul Thistle from Howard Mission.
After months of haggling that culminated in a demonstration in Chiweshe last week, Dr Thistle will leave Zimbabwe later today aboard Air Emirates.
This follows a 48-hour ultimatum he was given by the church yesterday morning to leave the country.
By tomorrow morning, Dr Thistle will not be allowed to be in the country by the church.
The Salvation Army territorial commander, Commissioner Vinece Chigariro, exclusively told The Sunday Mail that Dr Thistle was leaving for the better of the church.
“The Salvation Army is an international organisation that operates within set principles and protocols. The church policies cannot be changed by an individual but by an authorised board.
“Before ordination, all officers of the church sign a covenant with God and make an undertaking to be loyal to the church leadership. Any transfer that is done is not questionable and should be saluted and respected,” said Comm Chigariro.
Responding to concerns that sick people needing care or emergency surgery were left stranded by the decision to eject Dr Thistle, Comm Chigariro said a replacement doctor has been found and would be reporting for duty at the hospital soon.
“Besides, Dr Thistle was working with two other Zimbabwean doctors at Howard, who are capable of running the institution. She said those needing surgery had been referred to Bindura Provincial Hospital with some transferred to Concession District Hospital.”
She would not, however, be drawn into saying what it is that they were unhappy with that the doctor did.
She said that while Dr Thistle had been given September 1 as his final date of departure, the violent disturbances that occurred during the week had forced the church to bring his departure forward.
The rushed decision has raised concerns over the welfare of Dr Thistle’s school-going children who have been learning in the country.
However, Dr Thistle is convinced that he has been ejected because of a struggle over control of funds.
Said Dr Thistle: “We went to the Territorial Headquarters for Zimbabwe today (yesterday). Commissioner Chigariro gave us 24 hours’ notice to pack and 48 hours to leave the country.
“As you might suspect, the root of the problem is finances, and control of funds. The Salvation Army leadership in Harare wants all donations/project money to pass through their bank account. To organisations such as Rotary, USAID and the Stephen Lewis Foundation, among many others, this is simply not necessary. Within the Salvation Army system, the funds do not arrive or arrive very late.
People are suffering today.”
He went on to say that there is also the issue of clinical governance of a major healthcare institution and witnessed theft of donated goods by Salvation Army officers. Most health care organisations, NGOs and Government do not understand why a pastor should be in charge of a hospital.
“Our disagreements have led to a personal vendetta by Commissioner Chigariro. There has been no stated reason for my transfer,” claimed Dr Thistle.
Dr Thistle, who has worked for the Chiweshe community for the past 17 years, will leave the country a bitter man after fighting hard to reverse his transfer, but to no avail.
Even with Mashonaland Central governor Advocate Martin Dinha in his corner, Dr Thistle was still given the marching orders by his superiors.
Cde Dinha late last week admitted there was little the Government could do with the church decision as they had their reasons.
“I have set up a task force and we had an amicable meeting to resolve the issue. There is little we can do, we sympathise (with the community), but the Salvation Army has its own rules and regulations that we cannot interfere with,” Cde Dinha said.
Meanwhile, in Canada, Brian Nichols, a Peterborough psychotherapist, who has been travelling to Howard at least twice a year for the past six years, bringing Dr Thistle cash and supplies from local fund-raising efforts, has started mobilising supporters in a letter-writing campaign to Salvation Army headquarters in Canada and abroad, looking to have the decision to transfer Thistle reversed.
“The emotion I’m feeling is mostly sadness, sadness that something so good can be destroyed, can be lost so quickly,” Nichols said.
Last year, Nichols joined fellow volunteers to host the first Helping Howard fund-raiser at Market Hall, which raised US$40 000 to build physicians’ accommodation at the hospital grounds.
Nichols fears as much as US$30 000 of that money may be “in question” as a result of Thistle’s departure and the poor state of the hospital’s finances.
But he says the people who will bear the brunt of Thistle’s absence will be the rural Zimbabweans who rely on Howard for affordable health care.
“Paul is totally integral to the operation of the hospital. I believe the hospital will collapse on his departure,” Nichols said.
“They as a family have been so committed, even during the darkest of times, believing that they are called by God to be there, so to be told that they are no longer going to be part of Howard Hospital, must be devastating.”
The hospital sees an average of 300 people a day and reaches 75 000 people through its in-patient and out-patient departments. About 2 500 babies are born at the hospital each year and thousands of patients rely on it for life-saving HIV treatment in a country with staggering infection rates.
Peterborough volunteer Jan Corley returned in April from a month-long visit to Howard and said she’s dismayed by the news of Dr Thistle’s transfer.
“He seemed so passionate in what he did, in wanting to help the people,” she said. “He never turned anybody away. It didn’t matter how much you had or how little you had, you knew you were welcome and you were going to get the best care possible.”
In the meantime, Howard Hospital’s doors will remain closed for non-emergencies, Dr Thistle wrote.