GUTU DISTRICT, Masvingo Province, Zimbabwe – Waiting for her turn to see the nurse, Juliet Chasamuka, 34, looked weary. “I woke up early today, prepared my children for school, cleaned the house and fetched water, all before going for my check-up,” she said.
Six months pregnant with her fifth child, Chasamuka had traveled the 12 miles from her home in Zimbabwe’s Masvingo province to Mazuru Clinic by foot.
This is the closest clinic to where Chasamuka lives. It serves a population of 6,700 people, and each month, about 15 women deliver their babies at the clinic. Chasamuka gave birth to two of her children here – but under much worse conditions.
For those deliveries, the long walk was only one part of the problem. Until 2013, this clinic had no electricity; women were forced to bring their own kerosene lamps or candles to give birth by. They also had to bring large amounts of water for the post-delivery clean-up.
After giving birth to her first two children this way, Chasamuka had her next two children at home, where she was assisted by the village midwife. Fortunately, she did not experience any complications.
“The distance to reach the clinic as well as having to buy candles, a 20-liter container full of water, and razor blades to cut the umbilical cord – all this was very difficult,” she explained.
Ratiel Chikuvire, the head nurse at Mazuru Clinic, recalls the challenging deliveries he worked on in the days before electricity.
“The kerosene lamps would fill the whole maternity ward with smoke, causing the newborn babies and their mothers to cough,” he said, adding that it was difficult to suture women following childbirth using these feeble and short-lived light sources.
In Zimbabwe, the maternal mortality rate remains high, at 614 per 100,000 live births. The United Nations Population Fund has found that for every woman who dies due to pregnancy-related causes, another 20 to 50 suffer severe complications such as obstetric fistula. Complications during pregnancy and childbirth are leading causes of death and disability among women of reproductive age.
Chipo King, 29, who was five months pregnant with her fifth child when she spoke to this reporter, remembered that during her pre-electricity deliveries at Mazuru Clinic, it was difficult to communicate with her family back home, since she was unable to recharge her mobile phone.
“In the case of an emergency or being referred to a district hospital, it could be difficult to tell my family back home about such developments,” she said.
Today, the days of bringing candles and heavy containers of water to the clinic are just a bad memory. In 2013, the Rural Sustainable Energy Development (RuSED) project, led by Oxfam and Practical Action, outfitted the clinic with a 5,000-liter water tank that runs with a solar pump, meaning women no longer needed to bring their own water.
The same year, local women were able to raise $2,800 to buy a “solar suitcase” for the clinic by selling solar lanterns given to them by Oxfam. The suitcase contains an entire solar energy system, including a set of small solar panels that power strong lamps.
Chikuvire said that since the system was installed, the clinic has seen a 50 percent increase in expectant mothers coming in for prenatal care and deliveries.
“As staff, we can work effectively and efficiently,” he said. “Our torches and lights last up to 12 hours.”
According to Oxfam Zimbabwe, 75 percent of the rural population of Zimbabwe relies on unsustainable energy sources such as fuel, wood, cow dung, kerosene and agricultural waste.
“By providing affordable and sustainable energy services, rural communities can improve their food security, incomes, education and health, while at the same time protecting the environment on which they rely for a livelihood,” Conillius Muchecheti, an officer for Oxfam Zimbabwe, said.
The government of Zimbabwe has also made efforts to provide access to electricity through its Rural Electrification Fund. Johannes Nyamayedenga, a spokesperson for the fund, said the program provides grid, biogas and solar energy sources to help improve livelihoods in rural communities.
“Since 2002, we have electrified 852 rural health centers across the country, with 202 more rural health centers expected to be electrified by the end of 2018,” says Nyamayedenga. REF is primarily funded by a levy on all electricity consumers.
The upkeep of solar installations can prove challenging, especially in remote areas. In the case of the Mazuru Clinic and other clinics that received solar power via the RuSED project, village committees were set up to oversee the systems’ upkeep.
“People in the area contribute U.S. $1 each month towards the maintenance of the system, which helps to ensure that the project continues to benefit the community,” Muchecheti said.
Chikuvire initially received training to learn how to maintain the system, and has since trained four other staff members.
Chasamuka still faced a long walk to the clinic to deliver her fifth child, but she no longer had to bring her own supplies. She would be able to recharge her phone and keep her family back home updated on any developments.
For all that, she said she doesn’t mind paying $1 toward the upkeep of the solar energy system.
“If we don’t all pay, the burden falls more heavily on women.”