At the funeral of the late Dr Bonaya Godana, MP for North Horr and Kenya’s former minister of Foreign Affairs in 2006, the late Mutula Kilonzo, who would later serve as minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs said, “Few in the world would understand what it took for North Horr to produce a Godana.”
North Horr is home to the only real Kenyan desert, Chalbi, and with schools and hospitals hundreds of kilometres away, it was clear what Mutula meant.
How had a boy like Godana survived the odds to be not just his marginalised community’s first lawyer and PhD but one of Kenya’s most influential policymakers?
I was struck by similar thoughts as I watched, with a lump in my throat, the sight of Cuban doctors carrying their national flag, striding into airports in Italy and Spain, two countries currently hit hard by a high coronavirus death toll.
At the time of writing this column, the Italian Federation of Medical Professional Associations had confirmed the deaths of 66 medical workers. Spain’s emergency coordination centre said medical workers accounted for 12 per cent of its Covid-19 cases.
So just like North Horr produced Godana, I wondered what it takes, for a small country like Cuba known for its socialist ideology and subsequent isolation, trade embargoes and expulsions from world bodies to consistently produce large numbers of quality medical personnel and maintain a robust healthcare system and send doctors to more than 60 countries worldwide?
In addition, how has Cuba consistently enabled poor brilliant students from developing countries to receive valuable training in Cuban medical schools and become Dr Godana’s back home?
There is a history to it all. The Cuban Medical Internationalism programme sending out doctors and other medical personnel is grounded in what began as official policy to support anti colonial struggles.
As a result, Cuban doctors worked in Guinea Bissau, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s during their wars of independence and took the place of the French medics who left Algeria. Incidentally, Italy and Spain were both colonial powers with Spain at one point, Cuba’s colonial master.
Cuban doctors continue to play a humanitarian role and help improve the lives of especially vulnerable, impoverished and marginalised populations in rural areas or informal settlements, particularly during disasters. These disasters include hurricanes, earthquakes and mudslides.
Cuban medical personnel even stepped in to support Nelson Mandela’s fledgling government in its infancy at a time when white doctors were leaving South Africa in their numbers.
The World Health Organisation named Cuba as the country providing the largest number of medical personnel to the developing world, reaching the remotest corners of the earth, impacting millions of people, reducing infant and maternal mortality rates.
Kenya is a recent beneficiary, with Cuban doctors giving invaluable service in rural areas.
In considering the nature of disasters, Cuban doctors respond to, it’s clear they undoubtedly leave home with little expectation of going back to their families and country. In the line of duty, they often endanger themselves so as to save others, taking on some of the most dangerous situations in the world.
Indeed, we are first approaching a one-year anniversary—in April—when two Cuban doctors, Landy Rodriguez (surgeon) and Assel Herrera Correa (general medicine specialist), working in Mandera, Kenya, were kidnapped by Al- Shabab, the Jihadist group operating out of Somalia.
During the 2004 Tsunami which killed an estimated 230,000 people, Cuba’s medical staff were there, in their numbers, giving succour. Cuba also contributed the largest number of health staff, 460 doctors and nurses working under the auspices of the World Health Organisation to combat the horrible Ebola virus.
For governments seeking to place the needs of vulnerable people at the centre of a more inclusive healthcare system, this pandemic presents an opportunity to plan thoroughly for the future and ensure appropriate foundations to rectify identified weaknesses of today.
As we think about structures and equipment, we must of necessity think about how best to identify, train and improve on the working conditions of our healthcare providers, provide better incentives and recognition while working towards a doctor for every African village by 2030.
This pandemic has taught the world, in ways we have not seen in living memory, the importance of an integrated community healthcare approach promoting self-sufficiency while linking the health of each member of the society to others.
As we marvel on what it took for Cuba to produce such a versatile medical fraternity, it is important to ask, would it not be a fitting tribute for Cuban doctors, or more generally healthcare providers worldwide to be recognised through the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize?
Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism. Mukami Kimathi, Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides, [email protected]