Decades on, China's medical teams help resurrect public health in Africa
On a rainy morning ahead of the World Humanitarian Day, villagers gathered on the outskirts of the western Ethiopian city of Jimma to commemorate a Chinese doctor who was buried there after died in the country more than four decades ago.
The doctor, named Mei Gengnian, led the first Chinese medical aid team to Ethiopia in 1974. He served the local communities in Jimma and passed away in a car accident in 1975.
Local residents have kept him in dear memory by cleaning his tomb every year, and his living legacy is widely regarded as a core manifestation of the broadly celebrated cooperation between Ethiopia and China in public health.
Since 1963, some 220 million patients in 48 African countries have been treated by Chinese medical personnel as of 2018, according to the National Health Commission. Currently, 983 Chinese doctors are providing free medical services in 45 African countries.
A doctor examines a child on Chinese naval hospital ship Peace Ark in Mozambique, on December 9, 2017. [File Photo: VCG]
Woldie Idris, who was in his late 30s during the time of Mei's voluntary healthcare service, recalls the crowded funeral of the beloved Chinese doctor.
"The doctor's death was a devastating moment for the whole population of Jimma and its surroundings," Indris told Xinhua. "Thousands of people, including children and old people, were in deep grief while attending the funeral."
Mei's contributions are still highly regarded among locals, with the old generation passing on the late doctor's legacy.
Zewdie Haile, a notable member of the hilly China Tomb Village, is one of the second-generation voluntary protectors of Mei's tomb.
Haile was about three years old when Mei passed away. She inherited tomb cleaning and guarding work from her late father, who was a respected traditional leader in the forested town.
Over 44 years later, Mei is still fondly remembered, not only for his selfless service, but for his legacy that has kept bringing Chinese goodwill to the East African country, according to Haile.
Mintesenot Minale is one beneficiary of the Mei Gengnian scholarship, which is provided by Mei's foundation for medical students enrolled at the Jimma University.
"The doctor Mei foundation is a very good opportunity for students like me," Minale said. "With these new opportunities from the Chinese government, we can develop our potential and do better."
"Inspired by Mei's legacy, many Chinese people often come here and provide support for the whole community," Marcon Bashaye, a professor of sociology at the university, told Xinhua.
In April 2018, a new road was built in Jimma and the tiny China Tomb Village by China Communications Construction Company Ltd. and financed by the Chinese government.
Named after Mei, the new road is "a clear manifestation of the historic Ethiopia-China friendly relations," said Tan Jian, Chinese ambassador to Ethiopia, during the road's inauguration event, adding that China will further strengthen cooperation with Ethiopia as the country strives for middle-income status by 2025.
From one generation to next
Mei was among the thousands of Chinese doctors who have toiled to improve the public health across the African continent.
In 56 years, over 21,000 Chinese medical workers like Mei have been sent to Africa. Together with local government programs, they have been changing the continent's health conditions for better.
Some Chinese families have been providing medical aid in Africa for three generations. Lin Xiaojun's family is one of them.
On a one-year aid mission, Lin is a member of the 29th batch of Chinese teams to Tanzania's semi-autonomous Zanzibar archipelago. Although it was Lin's first visit to Zanzibar, the island and its people are not new to him.
"Working in Zanzibar as a medical team member is kind of a family tradition," said Lin, who arrived in Zanzibar in early July.
"My mother-in-law, Zhou Xiaoyu, came to work in Zanzibar in 1997 on a two-year aid mission, and her uncle, Zhou Zhiyao, came to Zanzibar two times in 1964 and 1977 with the Chinese medical team," said Lin.
For Lin, Zanzibar is not only an island, but where the memory of two generations in his family lives on.
Chinese medical teams work closely with local doctors and impart their medical expertise and skills, said Haji Mwita Haji, former head of Zanzibar Mnazi Mmoja Hospital, when commenting on Lin and his colleagues' work.
"Whenever we have problems and ask for their help, Chinese doctors never say no to our requests. They work round the clock to help our people," said Haji.
During her aid mission in the Guinean capital of Conakry last year, Zhang Lei, an obstetrician from Beijing, was deeply concerned about the poor maternity and childbirth care conditions in local communities.
Besides providing clinical services, she conducted a thorough assessment and helped local hospitals figure out what they need to improve maternity care and childbirth safety.
"In the future, we hope to help Guinea train more gynaecologists and obstetricians, so that all the babies there can be born safely and grow up healthily," said Zhang.
Chinese teams are also bringing advanced medical technologies to African countries to provide patients with an increasingly wide range of services, such as phacoemulsification and minimally invasive heart surgeries.
"I can now conduct a thorough clinical test and conduct an analysis of all types through the training I have acquired from the Chinese medical team," said Moses Senesie, a laboratory technician at the Sierra Leone-China Friendship Hospital in the town of Jui. The laboratory is now well-equipped to detect any viral disease, including Ebola.
"China has significantly contributed to Africa's ongoing combat against the Ebola outbreak as well as to the development of the Africa CDC," or the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said John Nkengasong, director of the young institution.
The Africa CDC, which was officially launched in January 2017 at the African Union (AU) headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, has been supporting at least nine AU member countries to effectively respond to 12 Ebola virus outbreaks.
In 2014, when the Ebola outbreak wreaked havoc in West Africa, China immediately sent some 1,200 medical workers and communicable disease experts to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to help overcome the crisis, in stark contrast to some countries which were primarily focused on evacuating their own citizens out of the Ebola-hit land.
As of 2018, some 280 million patients in 71 countries, including 48 countries in Africa, have been treated by 26,000 Chinese health workers, of whom 51 have died in the line of duty.
"The African people are good friends of the Chinese people," said Zhang. "We are willing to help improve the health of our African friends, as well as the capacity of our African colleagues, so as to help carry on the China-Africa friendship forever."