Even from the skies, Okavango’s poverty is clear

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Through the years, numerous poverty studies have regularly placed Okavango sub-district among the country’s worst affected. Despite the beauty and tourism wealth, the area has some of the country’s poorest citizens. During a tour of health facilities in the region recently, Mmegi Correspondent, BONIFACE KEAKABETSE found that Okavango’s troubles were clear, even from the air

MAUN: Health services facilities in the Okavango sub-district are in dire straits and in urgent need of attention, if the revelations made during a recent SADC military operation in the area are anything to go by.

Exercise Blue Okavango, carried out in July, was conducted to train SADC air forces and enhance their readiness to offer humanitarian services by air. Joining the media team covering the exericise, I had the opportunity to experience first-hand the much-talked about poverty in the sub-district as well as the poor health service delivery.

SADC air forces held a series of health outreach missions in the Okavango sub-district taking health services to a district whose communities are spread far apart, often in remote locations cut off from each other by the delta.

Okavango is probably the only district, which has villages fully surrounded by water and which are accessible only by boat and air.

Providing services that are basic elsewhere around the country such as health and education, is thus a daunting challenge for government. As a result, health infrastructure is in a deplorable state.

According to Okavango sub-district council chairperson, Mbahahauka Kambimba the delapidated Gumare Primary Hospital is overwhelmed with patients, being the only medical facility in the sub-district. Servicing a population of 61,510 (as at the 2011 census), the hospital has just 26 beds for general wards and eight for the maternity ward.

Government has started building a P45 million primary hospital at Shakawe, more than 100 kilometers from Gumare, in order to alleviate the situation. 

Donors have also responded to the plea for better healthcare, with businessman, Farouk Ismael donating a P2.5 million clinic in Kajaja across from the Okavango River.

The modern facility has a general consultation and maternity area.

However, the Okavango area still lags behind in health care.

Dr Steve Mushambiri, a youthful doctor from Zimbabwe participating in the SADC exercise, could not hide his surprise at the ‘backwardness’ of healthcare in the sub-district.

“One discovery I made is that the ratio of doctor to patient in this district is worrying, as there is an apparent shortage of doctors,” he told journalists.

“While the situation is similar to rural Zimbabwe, here it seems more serious.”

The SADC medical team soon found out the desperate need for improved healthcare in the district, when it began interacting with members of the community.

The health outreach was a way of thanking the communities where SADC conducted the training exercise.

The team set up shop and began offering HIV/AIDS tests and tests for Non-Communicable Diseases such as high blood pressure. SADC doctors and nurses also provided safe male circumcision and dental procedures. 

At Gumare, SADC medical team leader, Leatile Motsiane revealed that they were overwhelmed by the number of patients with dental complications.  “The majority of patients in this district have dental complications and say they have not received help for a long time,” he said.

A youthful beneficiary of the dental clinic could not hide her joy, saying the community had spent more than three years without getting help from Gumare Hospital.

“The hospital is always without the medication required by dentists for tooth extractions and other related procedures,” she said.

“We have been forced to travel more than 300 kilometres to Maun to receive dental help.”

The SADC team also conducted what is possibly the largest food air drop in the country’s history, distributing 150 tonnes of assorted food items to the poverty-ravaged sub-district.

Sitting in the helicopters, flying over to the other side of the panhandle, we were met by ragged children delirious at the sight and sound of approaching aircraft.

The situation resembled the war-torn villages frequently shown on international television networks.

The food items, which included Tsabana, Maluti, sorghum and cooking oil, were distributed in clinics and schools as part of the humanitarian training exercise.

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