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Cuban boost for rural health

Written by Hlengiwe Ngobese
A health co-operation agreement between South Africa and Cuba is helping to address South Africa’s shortage of rural doctors. KwaZulu-Natal Health MEC Sibongiseni Dhlomo (right) and student doctor Nhlanhla

Nhlanhla Khuzwayo, from an impoverished home in Ozwathini, KwaZulu-Natal, stood very little chance of becoming a doctor. However, his life has changed thanks to the Nelson Mandela Fidel Castro Training Programme.

The medical training programme seeks to address the shortage of doctors in the country by sending young aspirant doctors from poor communities for medical training at a Cuban university. Since the inception of the programme in 1996, 590 doctors have qualified and are now working in the rural communities from where they come.

Khuzwayo (22) is currently studying medicine in Cuba, and is more than halfway towards realising his dream of becoming a doctor. He is among 302 medical students who are currently being trained in Cuba.

In his fourth year of studying, Khuzwayo was recently back in South Africa for a debriefing session with Health MEC Sibongiseni Dhlomo. He also spent two weeks getting practical experience at Appelsbosch Hospital in his home province. 

“Studying to become a medical doctor is a great opportunity that I might not have had, had it not been for this programme. Studying in Cuba has made me realise how fortunate I’ve been to get this rare opportunity to study free of charge. I am very grateful to the provincial Department of Health,” he said.

Reflecting on the experience of doing his practicals at Appelsbosch, he said he initially felt apprehensive. “I was given my own consultation room and I thought I would sit and wait for the doctor. I was amazed when I was told that I’m the second doctor on call.”

He added that humility is a key part of being a doctor. “Respect everyone, because everyone respects a doctor.

“This programme is going to produce a large number of doctors. We are going to make a very big difference,” said Khuzwayo.

MEC Dhlomo said the success and impact of the partnership between South Africa and Cuba had drawn the attention of first world countries.

“The reason why governments in developing countries such as ours and the Angolans and many others hold Cuba in such high regard is because of the high quality of medical training that the Cubans offer.

“Their approach to healthcare is different in that it promotes disease prevention instead of focusing on cure, which is unsustainable.

“As a result, their health outcomes are excellent,” said MEC Dhlomo.