Christchurch pharmacist caught up in African political conflict

TENSION: The main entrance to Kalene Mission Hospital in Zambia, where Christchurch Hospital pharmacist Geoff Stark previously worked before having to leave amid rising political tensions.

A Christchurch pharmacist has revealed he was smuggled out of Zambia with the help of New Zealand Government officials.

Geoff Stark was working as an interim hospital administrator at Kalene Mission Hospital in the remote north-west of the country when political tension led to resignations of the hospital’s administrator, executive director and the board chairman.

He decided to get out of the volatile southern African nation because of the risk of violence.

Mr Stark was initially blocked from leaving by a mass turnout of hospital supporters, who did not want him to go. But he was smuggled out in the backseat of a car during a thunderstorm, under a traditional chitenge cloth.

“In March, local politics around the on-going control of the hospital threatened to turn violent, prompting my departure,” he told the Canterbury District Health Board’s weekly newsletter.

Mr Stark works at Christchurch Hospital.

“It was a complex situation . . . I am thankful for the diplomatic intervention of consuls from New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the efforts of the Christian Missions in Many Lands Health Board members in enabling me to return safely to New Zealand.

“The police did not want a riot and so I was told to stay initially, but after hours of negotiating it was decided that I could leave and the chairman of the CMML Health Board would take my place at a meeting, which was held the following day.”

Mr Stark has worked in Zambia on and off for the past 20 years.

The political atmosphere in the southern African nation has been volatile since the United Party for National Development leader Hakainde Hichilema lost a disputed election in 2016, to President Edgar Lungu.

In March, there was an attempt to impeach Mr Lungu by the opposition party, accusing him of constitutional breaches.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade would not discuss Mr Stark’s case.

Mr Stark declined to talk to The Star.