The Ride for Gutu Mission Hospital team includes cyclists, from left, Nick Scholtens, Tracy Robb, Wil Bartels, Wally Boonstra and Dr. Peter Agwa. Absent from the photo are team members Chi Mandivenga and Gary Aikema.
(Photo by Donald Muzofa)
(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, September 17, 2022)
Then there’s that boy on the beach. He’s the boy throwing starfish back into the ocean, one at a time. As far as the eye can see, starfish lay on the beach, dying. It’s overwhelming.
People walk past. “There are too many,” a passerby tells the boy. “You can’t make a difference.” The boy bends down, picks up another starfish, throws it back into the water and says, “Well, mister, I made a difference for that one.
It’s a telling image of mothers in developing nations, that is majority world nations, where birthing a child is like going off to distant shores of war. You might not return. Globally, about 300,000 women die annually in what should be life’s most joyous time.
With focused attention, that rate has declined about 40 per cent in a generation. But the decline has plateaued. And more than 800 mothers, often young women barely passed girlhood, still perish every day. By the time you read this, another one will be dead.
Into this picture comes Peter Agwa and his cycling friends. This week they bicycled to Ottawa, more than 500 km, to help mothers in Zimbabwe. They left Burlington on Monday to arrive at the Zimbabwean Embassy yesterday, Friday, before heading to Parliament Hill for welcomes from some local MPs.
That’s bicycling an average of 110 km daily. It’s no walk, or ride, in the park. Agwa, who directs the Burlington-based charitable organization EMAS Canada, and his friends, aren’t marathon cyclists as such. It was only 2019 when Agwa bought a modest Canadian Tire bike and began cycling again after many years.
But the idea for the epic ride to Ottawa for maternal care in Zimbabwe came after Agwa visited the African nation in 2015, then again in 2019 after Zimbabweans asked him to help with the hospital serving Gutu District in particular.
“What we saw was heartbreaking,” Agwa said. Gutu hospital serves a region of 250,000. Without training and supplies, it’s overwhelming. Death for any mother can arrive easily. Zimbabwe’s maternal death rate is more than 40 times Canada’s. Not two, or five, or 10, or 20 times. Forty times.
This is because while about one-in-ten deliveries anywhere worldwide requires emergency care, a skilled birth attendant and key birthing supplies aren’t easy to find in the world’s neediest places, especially in rural areas. Mothers often simply bleed to death.
In response, EMAS, through this Ottawa cycling trip, is asking for $45,000 in donations to run a November conference in Gutu to train health care workers in emergency maternal care. The larger need, says Agwa, is for a new hospital and maternity unit for $3.5 million. “That’s the dream.”
The cyclists include Nick Scholtens, Tracy Robb, Will Bartels, Wally Boonstra, and Chi Mandivenga. Each see something larger than themselves in this week’s ambitious ride. Mandivenga, a native of Zimbabwe whose mother was born at Gutu, put it aptly, “To whom much is given, much is required.”
EMAS – or Education, Medical Aid and Service – is a Christian charitable organization started in 1948 by physicians at Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital. It’s been directed by Agwa since 2015. He’s also reflective. “Like a famous king from long ago said, ‘I will not offer to God that which costs me nothing.’ ”
Born in Uganda, Agwa grew up in neighbouring Kenya where he practiced as a surgeon for 25 years before coming to Canada. He recalls his boyhood on the shores of Lake Victoria, in Kenya’s Homa Bay. His first bicycle was a red Raleigh gifted from his father for Agwa’s good school grades. “I was the only boy in the village to have a bike.”
Homa Bay, in a point of interest, is where Barack Obama Sr., father of former US President Barack Obama, grew up. Later, in Nairobi, the senior Obama and Agwa’s father became good friends.
You can learn more about the Gutu fundraiser, or make a donation, at www.emascanada.org/ride-for-gutu-mission-hospital