Title: The Pangolin Diary
Author: David Stanley
Publisher: Strategic Book Publishing and Rights Co.
Reviewer: David Foster, deputy director of nursing and midwifery advisor, Department of Health
What was it like?
Fortunately, the title of this book is explained in the preface: a pangolin is a scaly anteater and is a special animal in Zimbabwe. When you find one you must present it to the chief. The pangolin is the chief’s animal and giving one shows honour and respect. In this case the pangolin is a rough, dark wood carving and is presented to the author, Australian midwife David Stanley, by the student midwives he has been teaching at Murambinda Mission Hospital in the Buhera district of Zimbabwe.
What were the highlights?
This diary is a chronicle of his experiences of being a volunteer midwifery teacher in Zimbabwe in the mid-1990s. It is a charming and engaging way of explaining situations that are at times humorous, challenging and moving. Mr Stanley talks about his motivation to volunteer so far from home and his feelings of isolation and cultural difference, particularly in the early days, come across strongly. His unusualness as a man in midwifery seems to become swiftly irrelevant as his colleagues, the students and the women needing midwifery care look beyond his gender to his abilities and experience. Working in difficult circumstances demands team working and flexibility of all the staff and in time he extends his remit beyond teaching midwifery to become an ultra-sonographer and an anaesthetic nurse.
The diary is constructed, not of daily entries, but of vignettes of various people and situations which give a colourful insight into all the aspects of Mr Stanley’s daily life and the life of the hospital. The value of using the Shona language, the subtleties of conversation, connection and relationship-building in a new culture are clearly important. And at the times when he could not find the words, he used the professional tools of touch and expressive eyes to show he was concerned and cared. As part of the complexities of care it is also relevant to recognise that this was at a time of high incidences of HIV/AIDs and TB. For this reason, there was a special area of the hospital set aside for people seeking testing and counselling for these conditions called “Dananai”. Touchingly, dananai is the Shona word for unconditional love. As part of his role Mr Stanley had to set up a new curriculum. To help with this he consulted another Zimbabwean training school for advice to discover their curriculum was based on the all too familiar “Maggie Myles” (Myles Midwifery Textbook, the eleventh edition)!
Strengths & weaknesses:
With no sense of irony Mr Stanley explains that, at the time of the national midwifery exams, he wrote to the Zimbabwean Nurses Board to express his concern that the paper contained one or two spelling mistakes in each question. Although he admits to not generally good spelling himself, his book has not been well proof-read and is littered with spelling errors. Although they are an irritation and impede the flow of the text, it is worth reading beyond them.
Who should read it?
The diary appears to be aimed at a general readership. It has engaging insights into Zimbabwean culture and midwifery practice but midwives and anthropologists will crave more technical detail and analysis. But it is not a textbook, it is an open and poignant story of Mr Stanley’s experiences and the way Murambinda Hospital and the people in rural Zimbabwe touched his life.