Fiction | Issue 1 (April 2023)

Doctor Dungu

Esther Mubawa

Dr. Dungu sniffled, reached for a tissue, brought it to his nose, and sneezed into it. He then dropped the tissue onto a pile of the like resting on the roughly hewn dusty plank floor. 

“Pardon me,” he said to the woman sitting opposite him in a wooden chair, one similar to those found in the classrooms of rural schools, “but I have a cold.”

“Take care of yourself, doctor,” the woman said. 

“Thank you,” he said, “you’re very kind.” Dr. Dungu had on a white shirt, starched, and ironed, and black trousers that had a pronounced crease. Unlike other healers—and too many pastors—he never showed his wealth by wearing an expensive watch or ring that displayed a diamond or ruby. Those things weren’t who he was. 

“I’ve heard, doctor, you are a reliable healer,” the woman said.

“God works through me,” he said. “Tell me once more, what’s your name?”

“Mrs. Tembo,” the woman said. She was a robust woman, perhaps fifty, Dr. Dungu judged, much younger than himself, a witness to having born many children. Her bosom was large and sagged. Her bottom hung over the sides of the chair. Her eyes were weary and tired. Her legs were swollen. But she still attempted to strike the air of a young woman with spirit and energy by wearing a traditional Zimbabwean headscarf that had a pattern of blue squares and angular lines on a yellow background. The headscarf was folded in an origami kind of arrangement that had sharp creases, but it did not draw attention away from her weary eyes, which revealed the struggles she had faced during her life, as so many Zimbabweans did. 

Dr. Dungu forced a caring smile, but he feared, when the chair Mrs. Tembo was sitting on creaked, that it might give way and she would tumble onto the floor; he wouldn’t be able to lift her. Dr. Dungu’s lower back was frail and arthritic. He’d have to call on a neighbor to help him with her, and the neighbor would ask for a few dollars. Now and then Dr. Dungu had a son who lived in Harare send him a hundred or more Tramadol, a supply which was enough to relieve the pain in his back and down his legs for a month or so. He couldn’t risk going to a pharmacy in Dangamvura, even Mutare, just up the valley where the whites lived, to buy the narcotic. Someone might see him, tell others, even post a photo of him on a WhatsApp group entering a pharmacy. The photo would ruin him. He knew how fast talk in Dangamvura traveled. No longer would he be able attract those who sought out miracles. He couldn’t risk that. No. Unlike others, he would draw no pension.  

“Are you a believer?” Dr. Dungu asked.

“Oh, yes,” Mrs. Tembo said, “Oh, yes, doctor. I’m a believer.”

Dr Dungu smiled. He had a warm, kind smile and was aware of its persuasiveness. It was the smile of a grandfather who doted on his grandchildren. He himself not only had grandchildren but many great-grandchildren as well, from four different women and twenty-three sons and daughters. He had a shock of gray hair; his gray eyebrows burst out form the crown of bone over his eyes. His chin was stubbled with gray whiskers. His eyes, which were a bit clouded over by cataracts, drew people in as well, making others feel a degree of sympathy for him. When he stood he had to brace himself with a walking stick. It was made from a baobab tree, which made him look, when he walked, to be a sage. The ancient, well-worn wood of the tree, his gray hair, and his feebleness did not make his patients question his gift as a healer of their cancerous tumors and goiters, their kidney stones and arthritic knees; rather his appearance was Biblical. He had the appearance of a humble man of God, straight from the Old Testament, and he knew this. 

“How may I heal you?” he asked.

“My…,” Mrs. Tembo whispered. “Dr. Dungu. You see, the doctor at the hospital said…”

“There’s no need to explain to me what one of those doctors who practices white man’s medicine told you,” Dr. Dungu said. “Those doctors, they are out to keep their people down, don’t you see? They profit from their ways.”

“Yes, doctor. Yes,” Mrs. Tembo said, “I think so. That’s why Mrs. Chipoi advised me to come to you. We attend the same church, you see.” 

“The Kingdom of Eternal Prosperity?” Dr. Dungu said.

“Yes, doctor.”

“A new pastor, a man named Elijah Moyo, has taken up the Lord’s work there, after the passing of Pastor Nyabadza’s, has he not?”

“Yes, doctor. He’s a healer, he says, but a very young man.”

“Young healers, they lack the requisite experience.” 

“He is indeed young.”

“If only Pastor Nyabadza had come to me.” Dr. Dungu shook his head, looked upward at a water-stained white ceiling. He added, “But he’s in a better place now, with our Lord.”


“Coming to me, Mrs. Tembo, that was the correct decision, to heed Mrs. Chipoi’s counsel. More women should be as wise as you. They’d be with us today, happy in their homes, if they had. God rest their souls.”


Dr. Dungu swiveled around on his broken-down office chair. One of the casters was missing. The chair wobbled. From a rip in an armrest, gray padding burst out like the innards of an abdominal wound.  

He looked with an expression of pride at the jars and bottles of various sizes and shapes, round, square, tear-dropped, that lined the shelves of a makeshift plank bookcase, the shelves of which tilted precariously to one side. The liquids inside these containers held herbs and roots, the entrails of toads and lizards, and the bodies of locusts and beetles. 

“And tell me, Mrs. Tembo, are you a believer?”

“Oh, doctor,” she replied, “how I have suffered. Praise the Lord. Yes, doctor. I’m a believer.”

Dr. Dungu placed a reassuring hand on Mrs. Tembo’s shoulder. “Shall we proceed?” he asked.

“Please, doctor. Please. I feel you healing powers. Please.”

“And what is it, your malady?”

The woman looked down, as if ashamed to speak. “It’s…”

“A woman’s malady, is it?”

“I’m afraid so, doctor. The doctors at the hospital, they told me—”

“No. Don’t mention them. They don’t understand the powers of a traditional healer.”

Mrs. Tembo stood, grasping her side, and was about to kneel, when Dr. Dungu said, “That won’t do, Mrs. Tembo. It’s God and your belief in traditional healers, not me, that you should thank.” 

She sat back down on the chair. It creaked under her weight.

“Your husband, his company is doing well?” Dr. Dungu asked.

“We are struggling, doctor. Oh, how we struggle. School fees these days.”

Dr. Dungu contemplated her answer, then said, “You brought the hundred dollars?”

She took from a leather wallet a wad of bills and counted them out, ten ones, five tens, and two twenties. She handed the bills to Dr. Dungu. He examined the bills, holding them up to a light coming in from a dinghy window. He handed her back one of the fives, saying, “The corner is torn from this one, sister. Do you happen to have another, one in better condition, before we begin?”

She shook her head. “I’m afraid not,” she answered. Her head shook nervously. She looked as if she might burst into tears.

Dr. Dungu placed a hand on her shoulder again. “You’ll bring a clean five and another hundred next week?” he said.

“I will,” she answered.

“My treatments, they require me to venture far into the bush for them. The cost of petrol these days.” He issued a sigh.

“Please, doctor, please.”

“I’ll make an exception for you this week,” Dr. Dungu said, “but next week…”

“I promise you, doctor.”

Dr. Dungu then rose and, steadying himself with his walking stick, shuffled over to the bookcase of bottles and jars and took a bottle from it that contained a white root. The liquid inside was a weak yellow. “This will do,” he said, as if to himself. He set the bottle down on his desk, which was chipped at the corners, and opened it. He then took a small glass from a drawer in his desk, one used for shots of whiskey, and poured a draught of the liquid into the glass. Mrs. Tembo had been bending forward over the chair, looking at him anxiously.

“It’s so little,” she said. 

“During the course of the procedure, a month or so, you will have consumed a sufficient quantity to rid yourself of the devil, for it is he, Satan, who is the cause of your malady. We must poison him.”

“Yes, doctor. Yes!”

“You believe?”

“I believe!”

“Before you drink this, it is necessary for me to ask our Father for his assistance. I do not work alone.”

Mrs. Tembo nodded her head. 

Dr. Dungu placed a hand on the headscarf, bowed Mrs. Tembo’s head over, and began to utter unintelligible words, sounds that were more closely associated with animals inhabiting the bush and birds in the surrounding mountains. And then after a while he lowered his hand and handed her the shot glass of yellow liquid. She grasped it with one hand, the other cupped under the glass as she brought it to her lips. She drank, gagged slightly, but managed to empty the glass of its liquid, and, after doing so, issued a slight groan. “My stomach, doctor. It pains me. It pains me!”

“A sign that the elixir is at work. Satan is clever, and for the one who is clever strong medicine is required to remove him.”

“May I have some water, please, doctor?”

Her eyes had watered. She removed a tissue from a ragged cotton handbag and blotted away the tears. 

Dr. Dungu took a bottle of Pick n Pay’s water into the shot glass. “Inflation these days,” he said, “the price of water.”

He handed her the glass of water. 

She drank it. 

“Another, doctor. I need another. My stomach! Oh, how it pains me,” Mrs. Tembo said.

“The devil is a formidable opponent,” he said. “Be strong. Be strong.” 

Dr. Dungu poured more water into the glass. Mrs. Tembo took the glass and drank the water.

“Feeling better?” he asked. “You must be feeling better.”

“A little,” Mrs. Tembo said. 

“If you don’t mind,” Dr. Dungu said. “My services are in high demand.”

“I understand, doctor.”

She stood, seemed to lose her balance, and once she had regained it, Dr. Dungu said, “I’ll be seeing you next week, Mrs. Tembo.”

“Yes, doctor,” she said. She made a few unsteady steps toward the front door, then, before going out into the harsh sunlight, turned and said, “Why, doctor, I do believe I feel that something is happening. I feel it!”

“Traditional medicines are not effective without the patient’s belief,” Dr. Dungu said.

“I do. I feel something.”

“Imagine how you’ll be feeling in another month or so,” he said. “Don’t forget that clean five.”

“I won’t doctor. I won’t.”

Mrs. Tembo made her way out the door and toward a blue Honda Fit. One of the taillights was broken, and a scrap of plastic served as the rear window. 

After she had driven off, Dr. Dungu returned to his desk and picked up the dollars and counted them once again. He put one five and three ones in his leather wallet and put the wallet away in a front pocket. There were always thieves about, eager to rob an old man. He now had enough money for a liter of Chibuku beer, dinner, and what he owed Lucy, who also referred patients to him. The remainder of the money he put away in a safe under one of the planks in the floor. 

He locked up his office, looked down at his shiny black Bata lace-ups, and walked down the street to the Liquor-Rama Sports Bar. It was in a complex of shops of cracked and water-stained concrete. As he walked, others greeted him and nodded their heads in deference. He entered the Liquor-Rama and handed over a dollar to a woman standing at a counter behind a wire screen.

“How is your cold, doctor?” she asked.

“I’m doing well. Very well.”

He sniffled. She handed him a square of toilet tissue from a roll on the counter.

“Thank you,” he said. He wiped his nose and tossed the tissue onto the well-worn concrete floor. 

The woman slid through a hole in the screen the liter of Chibuku beer.

He made his way over to a table that had a black Formica top. Gold specks in the table glittered, even in the dim light of the Liquor-Rama. He thought of his own cleverness and the U.S. dollars in his floor safe, grinned, and then twisted off the cap from the bottle of Chibuku. He took a couple of Tramadol from a plastic pillbox in a shirt pocket, emptied the Tramadol into a palm, and popped them into his mouth, drinking some of the Chibuku to help him get them down. He groaned with relief. It had been a long, painful day, having to listen to Mrs. Tembo and, before her, another woman talk as he braced himself from the pain he felt. He feared that no matter how many Tramadol he took, one day he might not be able to endure the pain in his back and down his legs. He might have to get around by wheelchair. He’d lose customers. But now, sitting, after a few Tramadol and some of the Chibuku, the pain had eased. He did not feel like the decrepit old man he knew he was becoming. 

As he drank, he watched men playing pool on a table that had worn out felt and beer-stained, gnarled cushions. A few were drunk, dancing to themselves to the sound of a Bob Marley song. One of the men near the pool table was holding a wad of dollars. Others were shouting for their man to make the shot he was lining up. Watching them, Dr. Dungu thought that gambling on another man was a foolish way to make money. He’d lived by his own wits all his life. He wasn’t going to risk losing money on a man who lacked the skill to defeat an opponent. These men were all drunken, blustering fools who, really, were very, very weak in spirit. 

Now, early in the evening, they would not come to sit with him, but they would after a few more hours, and a few more drinks to bolster their confidence. Everyone in Dangamvura knew of him, if not by sight, then by name. He had hired some high school students to plaster ads of his powers to solve almost all of a person’s worries and maladies on the remaining street-poles. Most, to his regret, had been knocked over by a drunken driver, or purposely felled to allow for thieves to rip out wires from the base, which they sold to scrap metal dealers. 


By a little past nine, Dr. Dungu had eaten a plate of sadza and fried chicken gizzards in a tomato soup that Lucy Kutara had prepared for him. She made a little money to support her four children by running a small grill under a fig tree outside the Liquor-Rama. Her husband had left for South Africa, hoping to find work there, and had met, and was now living with, another woman. Lucy preached told other women that Dr. Dungu had put an end to her menstrual cramps and removed a tumor—the work of the devil—from a sister’s breast. 

Then there were the men in the Liquor-Rama who, after they had emboldened themselves with cane spirits, sought his counsel. They confessed their inability to impregnate their wives or girlfriends and of their faltering potency. He told them all that he had a cure for whatever malady they suffered from. He told them that the traditional medicines he had were what African men required, not those imported from South Africa that had been manufactured from chemicals in a company’s laboratory, created by shrewd whites—and overly educated blacks—as a way of continuing Europeans’ colonial subjugation of Africans. And so many of these men did come to his office and were, because they believed, cured. When they asked, he even—for a slightly higher fee—gave them advice on how to find a second wife or how to rid themselves of a nagging first one. Now and then he was fortunate enough to loan them some U.S. dollars to help them make it through to the next payday, if they had spent too much on liquor or women, as many did. He knew a young girl named Phoebe who worked wonders with men, stringing them along for weeks, even months, the younger, more inexperienced ones. He paid her a percentage of the debt they owed him. 

Later on, that night, Dr. Dungu, after counseling a couple of drunken men, stumbled out of the Liquor-Rama and, tapping his way along the dusty road with his walking stick, felt his way back to his office and the room he had fashioned in the back, a flimsy shelter pieced together with wood scraps and sheets of galvanized metal. Now and then the beam of a car caught him in the swirling dust from the road and he had to stop. The lights from the car blinded him; he feared he might fall into a stream of sewage flowing along beside the road from a burst pipe that had not been repaired for more months than he could remember. 

He turned a corner around a tack shop that had a black tarp thrown over it, carefully crossed the sewage using his walking stick, to avoid soiling his shiny Bata lace-ups, and that was when he heard footsteps coming up from behind him. An ax-handle came down on the back of his neck. He stumbled and fell, his knees striking some stones; he rolled over onto his side. The jolt of the ax-handle to the back of his neck had caused such a penetrating shock of pain that he was about to issue a shriek like that of mongrel dog that had been stoned, when a hand seemingly the size of an iron skillet came down on his mouth, pressing his head into a patch of mud near the sewage. He lay there, his shoulders pinned to the cold, wet earth. 

He saw now a man looking down at him whose belly lay over the elastic waistband of his track pants. He had on a matching jersey. His head was covered by a black stocking cap. The man looked down at Dr. Dungu and smiled maliciously, the way a thief might upon coming upon an unsuspecting victim. He was holding the ax handle. 

“Take my money,” Dr. Dungu said.

Standing next to the fat man was another man who was a bit thinner and of a smaller stature. He knelt. He whispered into Dr. Dungu’s ear, “We don’t want your money.”

“I’m an old man,” Dr. Dungu said.

“You are indeed,” the smaller man said. “You’ve been in town long enough. Pastor Elijah only wants to send you his regards.” 

Dr. Dungu was able to make out now that the smaller man was wearing dark glasses set in a gold frame. In the lenses, Dr. Dungu saw the terrified look in his eyes. He could not hold the beer he had drunk and wet himself.

The two men howled. 

“Yes, you are an old man. A filthy old man,” the fat man said. 

“You understand,” the other said, “that Pastor Elijah is praying for your redemption?”

The fat man released the pressure of his hand on Dr. Dungu’s mouth, to allow him to roll his head from side to side. Yes, I understand, was Dr. Dungu’s silent response.


“Praise the Lord,” the fat man said, chuckling to himself.

The other said, “You’re possessed. I need to kick the devil out of you.” He stood and, with a shoe that was fashionably pointed at the toe, began to kick Dr. Dungu in the ribs, as the fat man pressed his hand down harder onto Dr. Dungu’s face, driving the back of his head into what was now a depression of sewage mud.  

“Give him something to drink,” the man who had been kicking Dr. Dungu said. 

The fat man took from his pocket a two hundred milliliter plastic bottle of Skippers cane spirits and handed it to his companion, who, once again, knelt. He twisted off the cap.

“Your elixir, doctor,” he said.

Dr. Dungu’s eyes bulged out.

The fat man took, but for a second, his large hand from Dr. Dungu’s face, only to use it to force open his mouth, a thumb on one side of his jaw, his forefinger on the other, and squeezing. The smaller man poured the cane spirits into Dr. Dungu’s mouth. Dr. Dungu gagged. He swallowed. The cane spirits burned his throat. And then he felt the spirits reach his stomach, where it mixed with the sadza, Chibuku beer, and Tramadol. 

The man dropped the now empty plastic bottle of Skippers down in the mud beside Dr. Dungu, stood, and kicked him one last time in the temple. “Pastor Elijah wishes you a peaceful night’s sleep,” he said. 

Blood began to trickle from Dr. Dungu’s ear. Lying there on his back, unable to even feel for his walking stick, Dr. Dungu looked up into the heavens. 

The two men had walked off. Dr. Dungu heard them laughing. And somewhere in the distance he heard, too, a dog barking, two cats fighting, the boom of someone playing rap music, a baby crying, and a woman shouting, “Get away from me! Just get away, you drunk!”

These sounds soon faded away as he lay on the cold earth, unable to stand; they were replaced by his awareness of the vast, endless spectacle of God’s work. He saw it all clearly now, in spite of his cataract-ridden eyes, as if the two men had delivered to him a miracle. He saw the gentle moon, the glistening stars, and the wonder of distant galaxies as he felt his flesh becoming as one with the consuming cold of this mortal Earth.

Esther Mubawa is the pen name for a Zimbabwe woman who works as a maid in Cape Town, South Africa. She is a single mother who writes about the lives of Shona women like her who have had to leave the country in order to make a living or those who have chosen to remain in Zimbabwe. She looks forward to writing more stories about the struggles of her sisters and the complexities of their lives both in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

The portrait is a sketch by her daughter.