NR Digital

Zimbabwe’s Trauma

by Helen Andrews

Robert Mugabe was a symptom

One of the more poignant moments in the story of African decolonization was the small riot staged in Havana by a group of Congolese teenagers who had been sent to Cuba to study medicine at the Castro government’s expense. They had been selected by the authorities in Brazzaville more for their political connections than their academic records, with the result that very few among the hundreds of prospective doctors and nurses who landed in Cuba in 1966 had any knowledge of basic science; some could barely read and write. Nevertheless, they expected to be turned into doctors with a minimum of delay, for there were fewer than ten civilian doctors in the whole of Congo-Brazzaville at the time and most of them were foreigners. Whatever it was that the Cubans told the Congolese to explain why their med-school studies could not possibly begin immediately, it did not go over well.

But what could the Cubans have said? How do you explain to a suspicious Congolese who thinks he is ready for medical school that he is not even ready for university? He thinks you are trying to cheat him or disrespect him, and he doesn’t much care that as a Communist anti-imperialist you are on his side. You might try catching him out with some basic questions such as “Can you tell me what blood does?” or “Read aloud from this textbook,” but he may well fail to see the relevance. The Congolese students had probably never seen a doctor perform anything more complicated than an injection or an amputation, and it is hardly self-evident that it should take much time or much reading to learn doctoring of that sort. To them it must have seemed that the Cubans were setting needless obstacles in their path, most likely for self-interested reasons.

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