Medical School in Zimbabwe: A Bleak Island of Gold?

By Tendai K Saungweme

“When I grow up I want to become a doctor.” This was five year old Tendai when asked about his future career choice. Eighteen years later and now in medical school, I find myself drifting towards thoughts of worry, fearing the loss of control and walking in a tunnel whose light at the end seems not to be forthcoming early enough. Yearly I’m sending congratulatory graduation messages to friends and brothers of my age who have already completed this tertiary life and have moved on to the next chapter of making the “when I turn 25 dream “ a possibility. A dream in which most peers in my setting wish to own a good car, a beautiful home and think about settling down with the love of their lives.

I also find myself giving advice to my young brothers and sisters. I left them years back in high school when I moved to university. They completed high school and caught up with me in university. Eventually they finished school and were the ones to leave their “mentor” behind.

The long time spent in medical school also comes with advantages as you tend to get social credit. You find a lot of people thinking that because you are in medical school you know a lot and are probably going to be the next millionaire in the family in the next ten years or so. I wish it happened like that.

Often, my relatives introduce me to people with the degree that I am studying and not my name. Many people know me as “doc” instead of my real name. Whilst the respect is sweet, the fear to disappoint also comes along with it. You get the conviction that with so much praise, there is no room for making mistakes. Being human at this time can wait as you try to robotically program your life into the most perfect way. Also, being the first child in the family with a seemingly successful future, a lot of people feel the urge to show you the right way to live life so as to get the best outcome. Yes you are emancipated, but you also consider yourself an obedient child and it becomes very easy to get confused by people’s input into your life in ways that do not align with your dreams as a human being. My aunt already knows the right woman for me to marry. My older cousins already have a place where I should go and practice medicine.

I am currently studying at a time where an uneducated hustler makes more than a doctor. People deal in gadgets, gold panning, small scale retail businesses as well as forex trading. The knowledge that you are going to be graduating after 6 years of university and as a doctor will not be able to buy a car from your salary or take time to properly furnish your two bedroom apartment is very demotivating. Constantly hearing those that graduated before you saying “finish and join the suffering” makes it very difficult to finish a chapter in a pediatric textbook. In the early days when the enthusiasm was high, I actually used to do more than two chapters a day. This is not to say you will end up an incompetent doctor because one way or the other you will have to cover for the undone work or risk spending more years in the tunnel.

If you ask any medical student the reason they wanted to become a doctor during the enrollment interview, everyone will say words like “passion”, ”dream” and “the need to help other people.” Success in this career would mean sending a sick child and father back home live and well; but society has managed to paint a new picture of a successful doctor. When the new reality of the successful, prestigious doctor seems abstract in the near future to the almost graduating medical student, the mental distress kicks in.

Perhaps this is why I constantly find myself trying to find solutions to things that are not yet within my control. How am I going to buy a residential stand, build it, and buy a car with my meager salary? Miles Carter said it’s like being a BMX bike hanging out with a group of motorbikes. The comparison of where I am to where I am expected to be always gets me thinking I am not doing enough with my life on top of grappling with a degree that never gives you rest throughout the whole year, whose days are assumed to be 36 hours long for the student only. Mental turmoil becomes inevitable.

Amidst such, however, there are positives that the journey in medical school brings to my life. The long hours of bonding with friends during study, the new information acquisition that makes you able to offer medical advice to your aunt and relatives at home, who already call you a doctor by the way, and seeing a patient recovering to their original fitness. The joy of making a unique diagnosis that gets confirmed by a consultant and feeling that you are actually contributing to a team changing people’s lives. The chance of being a doctor before you are actually a doctor that medical student associations bring, together with the much needed opportunity to travel. All these and more make the journey worth the effort. At the end of the day, medical school has taught me character, hard work and the importance of discipline. With all three factors, I find myself on top of the situation.

In the end, time spent making progress on something is never time wasted. The goal is to assist a team that works to send patients home alive and well, regardless of their low socioeconomic status or hopeless situations. It’s a miracle, and we do that! Many children come to malnutrition bay severely wasted and underweight with a constellation of symptoms that indicate imminent death. Regardless of the low resource setting, they get treated and are sent back home with a chance at life. Being involved makes my life worth living. I am proud to be doing what I do, and would choose the same should I get a second life.


4 December, 2022