Meet Africa’s first female Black neurosurgeon: Zimbabwe’s Dr Nozipo Maraire

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IN Harare, Zimbabwe, there lives Africa’s first Black female neurosurgeon, Dr. Nozipo Jacqueline Maraire, a humble yet highly inspirational and world-renowned medical practitioner, author, public speaker and board member for several organisations.

Medical practice is an intensively demanding profession, and very few practitioners manage to extend their influence beyond the hospital walls the way Dr. Nozipo Maraire has done. This was evident in that by the time she returned to Zimbabwe after thirty years of medical training and practice in the U.S., Dr. Nozipo landed many boardroom roles even as she ran a thriving neurosurgical practice, a clean energy entrepreneurship venture and multiple non-profit projects.

Dr. Mararire is also excellent with the pen as she is with the surgical knife. Her 1996 bestseller novel Zenzele: A Letter for My Daughter, received rare reviews by the New York Times and other global media publications.

Yet still, Dr. Maraire’s life is more than just about neurosurgeon and novels: she’s a lover of traditional African music particularly the Zimbabwean flavor of mbira, a dedicated philanthropist as well as mother and wife – all the multiple roles which she has juggled effortlessly for decades.

Dr. Nozipo is very passionate about life, women empowerment and the environment, and has dedicated part of her life and resources towards promoting climate friendly practices and clean energy alternatives.

Reacting to an article published by Scholarly Africa on another trailblazing African neurosurgeon Dr. Claire Karekezi of Rwanda, Dr. Nozipo says being a woman is an asset on its own.

Dr. Nozipo is very passionate about women empowerment

Growing up: Nozipo the young student

Born in 1964 in Mhangura in the then Rhodesia, the young Nozipo was only aged 5 when she began weighing her chances at being a medical doctor.

“I had only the vaguest notion of what a neurosurgeon did, but I just liked the idea because it sounded like the most difficult thing I could find to do,” she would recall nearly forty years later.

The dream wasn’t far-fetched really, considering that her mother was a pediatrician and her father figure was a college professor, banker and tobacco farmer all rolled into one. Nozipo became the apple that wouldn’t fall far from the tree.

The teenage Nozipo attended Dominican Convent High School in Harare, an elite school then populated with white puils. Nozipo, whose parents and grandparents were directly involved with Zimbabwe’s liberation war, was to recall many years later the torrid levels of racism the suffered in school.

“It was horrid at the all-white school. The air seethed with anger and hate,” said Dr. Nozipo, who then left the country as she turned 18.

Dr. Maraire said her parents were always raising money or collecting clothes for the revolutionary forces fighting to overthrow the government of Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith.

Between 1981 and 1983, Nozipo attended the UWC Atlantic College of Wales where she completed her International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme with exceptional grades.

An equivalent of the Zimbabwean A-Level, the International Baccalaureate is a two-year educational programme primarily aimed at preparing 16-to-19-year-olds for entry into university education.

With an academic brilliance which was second to none, Nozipo was accepted into the Harvard University in 1983, graduating a good five years later with a BA in Biology and Biological Sciences. She also founded the top university’s African Students Association, clearly setting her up as a future leader and lover of unity among people of diverse upbringings.

Dr. Nozipo Maraire’s academic and professional achievements can never be sufficiently covered in a single article, but suffice to say she graduated as a Doctor of Medicine, MD, from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City, in 1992.

Still with a quest for new challenges, Dr. Maraire enrolled with Yale University’s School of Medicine the very same year. Something was unique about Dr. Maraire as the Yale University neurosurgeons chose her, over 100 other candidates, for a single neurosurgery residency slot that was available then.

She did not disappoint and completed her neurosurgery training a whole six years later, a gruelling feat but worth every effort she put in.

Feeling ‘so full of neurosurgery’, Dr. Maraire decides to write a novel

According to Cleveland Clinic, neurosurgeon is a specially trained medical doctor who diagnoses and treats conditions that affect your nervous system — the brain, spinal cord and nerves. Neurosurgeons treat by performing surgery on the nervous system, but they can also provide non-surgical treatments.

Most neurosurgical residents would be happy just to learn their trade, help patients and see through their seven years of very long days and short nights. As for Dr. Nozipo Maraire, she had other things on her mind.

She recalls that her schedule at Yale University was airtight as she was on-call nearly every night. This, she did while also having to do complete research work. To escape from the gruelling study and the science of modern medical practice, Dr. Nozipo occasionally delved into the arts and began writing some stories.

She wrote a novel, Zenzele: A Letter for My Daughter, in 1995 and without an intention to have it published. It was simply her escape valve and liberty from busy hours spent spent in lecture halls, surgical theatre rooms and seeing patients on hospital beds.

Dr. Maraire later remarked that she felt “so full of neurosurgery” so much so that writing the novel was “like a release valve” that allowed her to escape into other worlds. To delve into that world, DNozipo borrowed the key to an empty computer room at the University hospital. At midnight or whenever her day finally ended, she would sneak in and type away at the computer.

Somehow, the novel was published in 1996 and surprisingly became a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year” and a Boston Globe bestseller. It has been published and translated into over 14 languages.

In the book, a dying mother, Amai Zenzele, writes a letter to her college-based daughter, passing onto her some age-old values and wisdom. Amai Zenzele also urges her daughter to preserve the strong aspects of their culture: respect for elders and a feeling of obligation to the community that raised her.

Dr. Nozipo described the book as an “emotionally biographical” account of her life away from home, while it also incorporates tales she heard from her grandmother, aunt and mother about the struggle for majority rule in Zimbabwe. It gave girls and young women a voice in the bigger scheme of things at a time a young independent Zimbabwean nation was reonfiguring its social architecture after nearly a century under colonial rule.

By completing her neurosurgery residency and graduating from the Yale University’s School of Medicine, Dr. Maraire made history. She became only the second woman to have completed neurosurgical training at Yale since its program began in 1925, and the first black female neurosurgeon on the African continent.

But as Dr. Nozipo celebrated her rather accidental literature success and completed her neurosurgical residency in June 1999, someone very dear to her died a few months later.

Dumisani Maraire exits Dr. Nozipo’s world

Dr. Nozipo Maraire grew up in the mbira-loving home of the late Abraham Dumisani “Dumi” Maraire, a prolific Chimurenga music performer and University lecturer. Dumi Ambassasor of the Zimbabwean mbira music to the world, and also the father to contemporary musician and prolific mbira strumming legend Chiwoniso Maraire (now late).

Dumi died of a stroke on 25 November 1999 in Harare, just as Nozipo was settling into her profession as a fully qualified neurosurgeon in the U.S.

Widely regarded as the finest master of the mbira music, Maraire was a professor in the University of Washington’s ethnomusicology department from 1968 to 1972. While living in the U.S. he proudly composed in his native Shona language, passionately singing, dancing and drumming the mbira and hypnotizing even Caucasian crowds into a trance.

Dr. Nozipo Maraire grew up in the mbira home of the late Abraham Dumisani “Dumi” Maraire, a prolific Chimurenga music performer, University lecturer and Ambassasor of the Zimbabwean mbira music to the world.

The mbira, a thumb piano made of hammered iron keys fixed to a wooden body, became known far and wide thanks to Dumi.

Dumi, who also developed an ethnomusicology program at the University of Zimbabwe where he taught in the 1980s, greatly impacted the lives of hundreds of his students, but moreso people like Dr. Nozipo Maraire who he groomed into giants in their chosen fields of specialty.

Dr. Nozipo Maraire the ‘cleaning lady’!

Living and working in the U.S. presented its own fair amount of challenges for Dr. Nozipo Maraire. Being a woman of colour who also happened to be one of the very few females in a male-dominated industry was never going to be smooth sailing.

She found her career path as satisfying as it was intellectually challenging. But it turned out that Dr. Maraire had subconsciously trained herself to see neurosurgeon as a game of initially working out the puzzle of what afflicts a patient: asking good questions, listening carefully, visualizing the neuroanatomy, doing research. She recognizes that the problems treated by neurosurgeons lie at the core of the patient’s identity.

She says: “You know you are going to do something that affects the patient’s body and, worse yet — in our case — their brain, which is at the center of how they function.

“If you affect someone’s memory, it affects their ability to interact with their children, to get around town, to find their way home, to remember what they left the house for. You almost have a dread when you first meet a patient because you know, initially, more than they do about how they will be affected.”

The days in neurosurgery rooms and theatres had their highs and lows. Dr. Nozipo had mastered the art of letting things slide by without affecting her focus on the bigger picture: saving lives to which she swore the Hippocratic Oath.

With a few patients, she has had to overcome racial stereotypes. There was the patient who was on the phone when she entered his hospital room to introduce herself as his surgeon. The patient told the person on the other end, “Hold on. The cleaning lady just came in.”

But, according to accounts Dr. Nozipo Maraire gave to multiple publications in the U.S., she took it in her stride and focused on the positives. Dr. Maraire lost counts of how many times she proudly carried a patient’s optic tumor in a sterile cup, as she saved one life after another.

At the prime of her career, she left an impressionable footprint on the U.S. medical scene, particularly in Delaware, Ohio and Oregon. Dr. Maraire initiated several neurosurgery programs and sat on boards of key organizations that influence U.S. public health policy and impact millions not just in America, but across the world.

Love in London: Dr. Nozipo meets her sweetheart, Dr. Chiura

Even neurosurgeons need to love and to be loved, and Dr. Nozipo is not an exception.

One odd day in the 1990s, Zimbabwean urologist Allen Chiura, M.D., a practising medical doctor in Delaware, U.S., was traveling from Zimbabwe to Philadelphia, passing through London, the UK.

By some happenstance, Dr. Nozipo Maraire was flying from Ethiopia to New York, and also passing through London, on the very name day. And wait, that’s not all the coincidence yet.

The two medical doctors were childhood friends and both came from upper-class social circles in Zimbabwe. So when they surprisingly bumped into each other at the busy Heathrow Airport in London, it was more than a game of chance and statistical probability.

The two medical gurus immediately clicked as they found that their common busy lives as specialist medical practitioners gave them a deep understanding of each other.

As Dr. Nozipo was to say five years later, they have since gone on to enjoy each other’s companionship and love.

“We have shared a time not too many people have shared. We made sense to each other. Meeting Allen, it was like the whole house was open. Light came in,” says Dr. Maraire.

Indeed, the two lovebirds held their marriage ceremony back home in Zimbabwe. Dr. Nozipo reckoned that would “make it easier for me to transmit to my children what I most value in the Shona worldview: feeling linked to one’s ancestors”.

Dr. Maraire adds: “There’s a sense that you have the benefit of other spirits. You’re not so alone. There’s a sense of some continuum. That continuum is with you and maybe — who knows — gives you wisdom and insights.”

The two have celebrated two weddings since. The first one was in May 1998 in a traditional Shona kuroora where Chiura’s family paid a customary lobola, or dowry. Since Maraire came highly educated, the dowry must have been a hefty one which probably left gaping holes even in Chiura’s deep pockets.

Almost two decades later, Nozipo and Allen were married again in a large Roman Catholic-style wedding in Zimbabwe. The reception was attended by a strong 1,600 guests-list and was held at the botanical gardens in Harare.

Nozipo comes back to Zimbabwe to train more ‘Nozipos’

“Settling permanently in the United States is not even an option,” Dr. Nozipo Maraire told the Yale Medical journal soon after she qualified as a neurosurgeon.

She described in graphic detail that she felt a strong tie to her homeland the same way her parents felt when they lived with her in the U.S.

So strong was Dr. Maraire’s her determination to return home that even the Yale University neurosurgeons who chose her, over 100 other candidates, for a single slot in the residency program in 1992, saw it.

Speaking to a Yale University journal years later, Alain de Lotbinière, M.D. and associate professor of neurosurgery, explained why Dr. Maraire was chosen over the several dozens who were turned down.

“The committee immediately recognized that if we wanted to make a difference in the world, this is the person to take on. It was obvious that we had to take Dr. Maraire.

“She’s an exceptional individual. I don’t expect to train anyone else like her in my lifetime.”

The department’s chair, Dennis Spencer, M.D., admitted that, in his experience, surgeons trained at Yale are often unwilling to return to places that lack the sophisticated technology they have come to rely on in the United States, but Dr. Maraire was a different kettle of fish altogether.

“Her promise when we brought her into the program was that she would bring her training back to the people of Zimbabwe,” Dr. Spencer acknowledged.

“My promise to her was to make that dream happen and to continue to be a bridge between the United States and Zimbabwe.”

In 2012, after 30 years of practice and learning in Wales, Canada, Jamaica and the U.S., Dr. Maraire brought all the accumulated knowledge, skills and wisdom back to her motherland Zimbabwe in 2012. In so doing, she not only lived to her promise to the Yale University neurosurgeons, but to her inner calling to serve her community as depicted in her Zenzele novel.

When she returned home, Dr. Maraire was only one of seven neurosurgeons in Zimbabwe (mostly expatriates), serving a population of 15 million people.

Dr. Maraire has been working on programs to improve medicine in Zimbabwe and to train “more Nozipos.” She has juggled her time betweenthe operating room, establishing her charity foundation, raising her four children and making decisions in the boardrooms.

Dr. Maraire says the medical field has brought her into many close encounters with death, and she recommends that people slow down and think who they want to be in life, as life is just but a passing phase which must be lived fully.

“I have a sense that at any time this moment could be cut short. As a result, I live more fully. Time is so precious.

“I don’t feel, ‘I can’t do that. Somebody else should do that’. Rather, I feel my lack of inhibition about tackling projects grows, in part, out of coming from the Third World, where fewer people have the education and the connections to get things done.

“If you have the opportunity to do something, you have to seize it.”

Dr. Maraire might have accomplished two of the goals she set in her early twenties — becoming a neurosurgeon and writing a book — but she speaks of some inherent frustration that she hasn’t accomplished more.

“The more you do, the more you feel needs to be done,” she says philosophically. “I feel a responsibility because I’ve had so much opportunity. I’ve had a privileged life.”

With technologies in the U.S. and Zimbabwe generations apart, Dr. Maraire chose not to complain about the gap but to work towards closing that yawning gap instead. She believes she can also adapt neurosurgical techniques in America to suit the limited equipment in Zimbabwe, while also sourcing equipment from her wide networks in the U.S.

Hers has been a life well lived. In 2010, Dr. Nozipo Maraire was named among the winners of the British Airways Entrepreneur Face to Face Award for her start-up Ecosurgica, which aims at providing affordable but cutting-edge health care in the SADC region.

Her return to Zimbabwe saw her immediately get appointed to various boards in both the private and civic society spaces. These include St. George’s College, Zimbabwe National Arts Council (as Chairperson), and Old Mutual Life Assurance Company (OMLAC).

Dr. Maraire has also been a selection committee member for the Rhodes and Beit scholarships and a trustee of the Tererai Trent Foundation. She is the founder of Cutting-Edge Neurosurgeon Inc., a web-based start-up.

When Covid-19 struck the world in late 2019, Dr. Maraire sprang to action and founded the Zimbabwe National Covid Action Trust (ZINCAT), which she chairs.

It is easy to conclude that with a life like this and a resume so rich in talent, achievement and experience, Dr. Nozipo Maraire defines herself by the accolades she has earned. Yet she doesn’t.

Dr. Maraire defines herself by how much she can be of service to the community, in honour of the age-old African principal of Ubuntu which means,”I am because we are” or “humanity towards others”.

Now living Harare with her husband Dr. Chiura, Dr. Nozipo is the perfect definition of an inspirational life that the young of the world can learn from.

To hear Dr. Nozipo Maraire speak in her own words what her life has been like, please listen to The Swan Dive podcast.

Only last week, June 2022, Dr. Maraire was back at Harvard University for her 35th reunion. She spoke about clean energy and the urgent need for the world to reduce reliance on carbon fuels to save the planet from the increasingly imminent dangers of floods, famines and extreme weather conditions.

Dr. Nozipo J. Maraire at Harvard University for her 35th reunion. She spoke about clean energy and the urgent need for the world to reduce reliance on carbon fuels. PHOTO: Nozipo Maraire, M.D. via LinkedIn

Her Mweya Green Energy start-up, based in Belgravia in Harare, is pioneering the use of carbon credits to finance development project in Africa. The company partners with businesses, farmers and remote rural communities to build clean water sources, power hospitals with solar, and source funding for clinics and small businesses.

This is yet another of plenty examples of Dr. Nozipo Maraire living true to the dictates of her 1996 book, further showing that she wrote it from the deepest of her hearts. If Dr. Nozipo Maraire’s life is not trailblazing and inspirational, then what is? – Scholarly Africa, 2022.


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