IN 2013, Moses Chitiyo, then a 41-year-old vegetable vendor and his wife, Agnes, received the best news of their lives.
Doctors at Murehwa General Hospital in Mashonaland East advised them to expect twins from Agnes, then 25 year old.
Across the world, the chance to give birth to twins is mostly considered a blessing.
The couple received the news of their boys with joy.
And for months, they waited in anticipation.
However, after enduring a difficult pregnancy, the couple’s joy suddenly turned into anxiety.
During a routine trip to the health facility, Agnes received the most shocking news in her life.
Her much-anticipated twin boys were conjoined when they finally arrived on April 22 2014.
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They were joined from the chest to the upper abdomen and shared a liver.
However, in a first for Zimbabwe’s extensively run-down health delivery system, local surgeons successfully separated the twin babies, following months of planning and anxiety, among their parents and the medical team that would separate them.
Speaking to the media after the eight-hour surgery, Bothwell Mbuwayesango, who led the 50-member group that performed wonders at the state-run Harare Hospital in Harare, declared that the babies were fine and in high spirits.
Harare Hospital has since been renamed Sally Mugabe Central Hospital.
For Zimbabwe, one thing stands out.
Surgical separations have been successfully carried out for decades elsewhere.
But the country’s state hospitals lack the most basic necessities required to function well.
Drugs often run out, and vital equipment has been in short supply for over two decades.
This is why a shocked nation said Mbuwayesango and his team had performed a ‘Houdini act’ when they separated the boys.
Nine-years later, the twins have grown up.
They are all enrolled at Oliver Jury Primary School, where they are Grade 2 learners.
Oliver Jury is located in Goromonzi, Mashonaland East, their region of origin.
Educators said this week nothing separates the ‘miracle boys’ from any other child who was delivered normally.
In an interview following their birthday this week, Chitiyo, now a chef at the University of Zimbabwe, reminisced about that fateful year.
Zimbabwe’s oldest university gave him the job after realising he had little income to take care of the delicate twins when they arrived.
“The year 2014 will remain etched in our memories and hearts for life,” he said.
“It was a historical year for our country, family and more so the medical profession. We witnessed the birth and successful separation of our conjoined twins.
“Tapiwanashe and Kupakwashe Chitiyo, as they are now known, came into this world in an extraordinary way. It was a shocking experience for the family as we had not been prepared for such an experience. Despite the fact that Agnes had gone through several X-rays and ultrasonic scans, no one knew what lay in her womb until the point of delivery,” he said.
But there was something that had caught his eye.
He recalls that the twins’ pregnancy was ‘troublesome’ compared to two others before them.
His wife, now 34, had to be admitted at Murehwa General Hospital several times before delivery.
“When the phone call came through, all sorts of horrors raced through my mind,” Chitiyo noted this week.
“I happen to have a very wild and strong sense of imagination. To make matters worse, my wife and I were unemployed, surviving on a small fruit and veggie stall in rural Goromonzi. But to my amusement, the beautiful baby boys I met in their incubator at the then Harare Hospital, now Sally Mugabe, removed all fears and uncertainties. They were a marvel to look at, and right there I resolved to make sure they lived,” he added.
The birth was followed by two months of extensive tests and counselling of the parents.
“We faced a lot of mixed reactions from family and the broader community,” Chitiyo said this week.
“Some were sympathetic and others looked at us with suspicion. They feared we had black magic and all other forms of the dark world.
“This never made us lose focus of the task at hand. With only a few relatives by our side, we resorted to a life of prayer as a couple, and surely, God answered our prayers.”
The successful surgery, a first for Zimbabwe, made sensational news, locally and globally.
“Our local doctors worked wonders with minimum resources and under difficult conditions. We are forever grateful to the entire team,” Chitiyo said.
He said the post-operation period was also full of challenges as the twins had to remain under close observation for about six weeks.
In total, Agnes and their twins spent four months in the intensive care unit at the hospital.
“After being discharged, we had to take them for reviews every couple of weeks. Also, any sort of infection or sickness had to be attended to immediately,” Chitiyo said.
“Fortunately for us, the twins never developed any serious illness directly linked to their operation. Their main ailments to date have been colds and coughs. We try by all means to keep them warm and make sure they eat vitamin C rich fruits.”
It was sure a complicated medical issue.
Tapiwanashe and Kupakwashe’s wounds had to be dressed twice daily.
“We had to buy all the medication on our own for about two years for both of our boys,” he said.
“Then for another five years for Tapiwanashe.”
But by 2021, Tapiwanashe had fully recovered.
“Their medication was always top priority on our monthly budget. This meant forgoing a lot of essentials for their siblings. We could also not invest in any other venture or build a home. We can't even afford the price of an ordinary residential stand.
“They are doing well, particularly Kupakwashe. Tapiwanashe plays on emotional blackmail through his late healing and occasionally complains of not feeling well so he stays at home or he doesn't do his school work,” Chitiyo said with a chuckle.
He, however, said the family still faces a number of challenges as low-income earners.
They struggle to provide enough food, decent accommodation, clothing, blankets and to pay for their tuition on time.
“We try our best to manage effectively the little we have while the mother supplements our income with her fruit and vegetable stall at home,” he said.
“We are grateful to the then First Lady Amai Grace Mugabe for being the first and biggest donor towards their welfare.
“She provided clothes, toiletries, blankets, diapers and food supplements. We would also like to thank family members who have stood by us to date,” Chitiyo said, adding that several corporations had also made the past nine years more bearable for the family.
He further stated that: “Individuals including Simbaneuta Mudarikwa — former minister of state for Mashonaland East, musician Sulumani Chimbetu, my elder brother Laurance and his wife Vimbai, Thelma Swain and fellow church members at SDA Budiriro 2 also helped a lot.
“Most importantly, we are so grateful to my in-laws, the Mongoro family in Highfields, for giving us shelter and sharing the little resources they had with my family when the chips were down.”
Chitiyo also paid tribute to doctors, nurses and staff at Sally Mugabe’s Paediatric Hospital ICU for assisting the family.
He said the twins have grown to appreciate life's journey so far.
“We have some resource material we have kept for the twins such as newspapers, magazines, video news clips and also oral communication,” Chitiyo said.
“They feel happy to be independent bodies, and we have taught them to be humble so they blend in well with other local children.”
The twins, according to Chitiyo, want to be medical doctors so they give back what they gained, although these dreams vary each time.
“It's our duty as their parents to ensure they become the best of whatever they may choose to become, through proper education,” he said.
“We plan to become successful entrepreneurs as caterers, to afford to pay for their future requirements as a salaried income is way too low for the task ahead.
“A greater chunk of our earnings went towards (their upkeep). At times, we had to take loans to pay for bills and prescriptions,” Chitiyo said.
He said although the twins face stigma in the community, his family has chosen to live a quiet life.
“Occasionally we do meet someone who shouts about the twins, but we simply smile and carry on with our journey or task,” Chitiyo said.
“If we were to have the same experience once more, would we be willing to do it again? I say yes, and yes!!! But it wasn't an easy task.
Chitiyo believes that couples facing the same challenges should not lose focus. They should stay positive.
“Let God take charge, all you have to do is believe in Him, and He will never disappoint. But one has to also participate in the process, you have to be hardworking, dedicated and willing to forgo certain luxuries and comforts just to make it happen,” he said.
Chitiyo is correct because other cases of conjoined cases have not been successful.
Being doctors is a dream that still lives for Tapiwanashe and Kupakwashe whose parents are certain the twins will live full and prosperous lives.