Strength, Resolve and a “Bedazzled Tuxedo”: Graduating Medical School in Zimbabwe

Adam Ackerman '14
Adam Ackerman ’14, at right, in the OR in Zimbabwe.

The graduating University of Zimbabwe (UZ) Medical School class completed the last of their academic requirements on Friday.  They endured two weeks of grueling exams that covered all aspects of clinical medicine.  The oral exams were especially feared.  Medicine is passed on in “the English tradition,” as they say here.  Although I’m not entirely clear on what this means, I think it has something to do with a fully intact hierarchy that doesn’t really exist any longer in the United States.  There is no “Dining with the Deans” in Zimbabwe.

Activity around the residence hall picked up on Thursday evening.  The medical students packed their belongings and congregated outside the front of the building to share exam horror stories and excitement about moving on to the next phase of their training.  Classmate Peter Cooch ’14 and I were surprised to receive an invitation to the graduation dinner.  We were told that the affair was formal.  This presented a minor problem.  When we were packing for our trip, neither of us realized that Zimbabweans dress extremely well.  Khakis and a dress shirt don’t quite cut it, but we were assured that we would be welcomed as we are, a common theme of this trip.

As expected, the students were impeccably dressed.  Men wore dark suits or even tuxedos.  One student in particular had on a flamboyantly bedazzled tuxedo that made Pete and I very envious.  J. Crew hasn’t forayed into the bedazzled men’s formalwear market, yet.  The women had on elegant cocktail dresses, and it was clear that hours of effort went into hair, nails, and makeup.

Adam Ackerman '14
uvmmedicine blogger Adam Ackerman ’14

Lengthy speeches including an especially long and sometimes unrefined oration by Zimbabwe’s Deputy Health Minister ensued.  Included in this 30 minute oration was the answer to the age-old question: why do women prefer old gynecologists?  Looking across the room, the collective student body was undulating with boredom and some embarrassment.

The graduation dinner was exactly what you would expect a similar event to be like in the U.S.; nice hotel, catered meal, speeches, awards, etc.  As the night went on, I began to understand that behind the formality of ceremony were real differences between this class and our own at UVM.  This May, we will reminisce about trials and tribulations of our four years.  I am certain they don’t compare.

The UZ Class of 2013 became physicians through one of the most tragically unstable moments in Zimbabwe’s history.  They reminisced and even laughed about the “0-0-1 rule” during their pre-clinical years.  Due to a devastating lack of food in the country, the students were only able to eat one meal a day for months of their training.   The consecutive zeroes indicated that there was to be nothing for breakfast or lunch.  No graduation dinner would be complete without mention of the anatomy lab.  This class, however, suffered through chronic water shortages.  They were often unable to wash their hands after a day of dissection.  These are just two examples, and certainly not the worst, of what this class faced.

Every medical student makes sacrifices and faces some form of adversity to become a doctor.  Whatever sacrifice I made to get to this point pales in comparison to the imposed hardships this entire class was forced to tolerate.  I honestly don’t know if I would have made it through under these circumstances.  It’s hard to imagine the daily inconvenience and uncertainty they faced, but the strength and resolve the class has shown is a common theme I’ve found in the more inhospitable corners of the world.  Whether it’s Haiti or Guatemala or Zimbabwe, people endure.  There always seems to be laughter, creativity, and kindness amidst tremendous struggle.  I wish that I could distill this observation down to some profound, insightful morsel.  Instead, something that we all already know is reinforced.  People everywhere are remarkable in their resilience and drive.

The evening ended with a raucous dance party complete with all the modern dance moves.  Grinding is a style of dance here, as is twerking.  Thankfully, I was able to hide behind my camera in the name of documentation.

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