For Emile Hirsch, Zimbabwe is a place of challenges—and hope

By Coco McCabe
Emile Hirsch and Alexio from Practical Action view the public latrines in Kadoma. These latrines are used by the entire village. Photo: Andrea Perera

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For Emile Hirsch, there’s more to being a film star than shining in the limelight. Celebrity status has given him the chance to bounce some of that shine onto troubled corners of the world—drawing attention to places like Zimbabwe, where a cholera epidemic last year took a terrible toll and poverty is so profound that families didn’t have the means to purchase even the simplest ingredient—sugar—to mix into a solution that would have made them well.

“Maybe certain people who wouldn’t normally pay attention, maybe they will,” said Hirsch after returning from a field visit with Oxfam America to its emergency programs in the southern African country in April, 2009. “It reminds me of how fortunate we are:  The tap water [at home] doesn’t taste like Evian, but at least I’m not going to get cholera.”

Not like the 98,592 people in Zimbabwe who contracted the deadly diarrheal disease when the collapse of water and sewer systems across the country led to one of the world’s largest recorded outbreaks. The outbreak left 4,288 people dead, and early on hit hard in Mudzi,  a rural region in the northeast corner of the country on the border with Mozambique where Hirsch spent four days.

For most people in Mudzi, tap water is a luxury beyond their reach. Instead, they trek with their empty water jugs to community wells drilled deep into the ground and outfitted with hand pumps. They fill the jugs and lug them home again—sometimes several kilometers away. But as Zimbabwe grappled with hyperinflation, many of Mudzi’s wells—known as boreholes—and other water systems across the country fell into disrepair. For their drinking water, people turned to different sources, like streams, that were easily contaminated, and cholera began to spread.

Though the outbreak is now over, what Hirsch saw and experienced as he traveled from the capital, Harare, to some of the most remote regions of the country have made him examine more closely the comforts of home.

“It really puts things into perspective,” said Hirsch, who starred in the lead role in Into the Wild and played a gay rights activist alongside Sean Penn in Milk. “There’s a lot we take for granted in the US. At a hospital in Mudzi, there was a fully functioning X-ray clinic with no chemicals to look at the X-ray, so that rendered it completely non-functional.”

This was not Hirsch’s first exposure to hardship in Africa. In June, 2008, he traveled with Oxfam America to the eastern provinces of Democratic Republic of Congo where years of conflict have ravaged the mostly rural region, leaving people destitute. But for Hirsch, Zimbabwe was different. It was a place not so far from his ken, a place more like home—particularly Harare, with its gardens, parks, and architecture, a city that Zimbabweans say was one of the most beautiful in the world 15 years ago. Because of that familiarity, Hirsch felt the country’s challenges with greater acuity.

“There are gas stations. Just no gas. Hospitals. But no supplies,” said Hirsch. “People in the US are talking about how the economy is really bad here. It is. But it’s nowhere near the level of Zimbabwe.”

Prep for the trip included loading himself up with stacks of small bills. Anything bigger than $20s wouldn’t have been easily exchangeable in a country where people have so little and credit cards don’t work. Hyperinflation had left the Zimbabwe’s currency virtually worthless: early in the year a newly minted 10-trillion bill wouldn’t even have been enough to buy a small bottle of drinking water.

“It’s ridiculous…when you look at a 10-trillion bill just to calculate that figure,” said Hirsch. “To be a cashier you have to have a calculus degree.”

Calculus or not, what most people do have is command of the English language—testament to the fact that Zimbabwe has one of the highest literacy rates of any country in Africa.

“Even in the remote villages, everyone can speak English,” said Hirsch, pointing out that he can’t do the reverse: speak their language, Shona. “It’s not necessarily fluent, but it’s basic English grammar.”

Education levels weren’t all that impressed Hirsch. He felt buoyed by a deep but steady optimism among the people he met.

“Zimbabweans have such a sense of purpose,” he said. “A very upbeat, forward-thinking way. The feeling I got is the country is about to change.” A new government of national unity, where power is now being shared by former political adversaries, may account for that course of hope. And the fact that it’s coupled with a new administration in the United States that may begin to look more favorably on Zimbabwe, has given Hirsh his own dose of hope.

It was a good feeling to fly home with—and just the right antidote for the inevitable stomach bug that gripped  Hirsch on the fifth day of the trip and stuck with him all the way back to California.

“Might have been the beef stew,” he said, shrugging off his discomfort—and sounding 100 percent ready for the next trip. “Absolutely I’d like to visit other places and do more.”