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  Home > Sino-African Relations > Cultural Exchange
A Chinese Medical Worker in Africa



Source: Guangxi News Net

Reported by: Lin Xuena

It is a special group of people and their stories in Africa are seldom told for being too far away from the spotlight.

He is a little known anesthetist sent by his home province of Guangxi as a member of the Chinese medical aid team to Africa, who wrote A Chinese Medical Worker in a Little Town of Africa, a literary reportage that won the 10th National Junma (Steed) Prize for Ethnic Minority Literature last September.


1. Away from Home for a Dream

Hiking along the verge of Sahara with a backpack, as described by the Taiwanese woman writer Sanmao, was once Zhong Risheng’s, an anesthetist from Guangxi Zhuang Nationality Autonomous Region, childhood dream.

30 years later, the tender years’ passion was almost worn out by the mundanity of the daily life and triviality of the working routine.

At a time when the dream was seemed to be increasingly childish and unreachable, fate came to knock at the door, in his heart.

April 2004, when the weather was transitioning from cold to warm, as Zhong, working at the Second People’s Hospital of Nanning, was preparing for a procedure in the operation room, the section chief rushed in and said, “I have just got words that an anesthetist is needed to work in Niger for two years. Being single, perhaps you could give it some thought.”

At 33, Zhong was seeing a girl and if he decided to go at that particular moment, the prospect of the romance would be very dim. Moreover, his greatest concern then was his mother who had been living with his elder brother at their ancestral home of Longzhou until the brother was killed in an accident recently. Being the only surviving son, what he was supposed to do? He called his sister and she hesitantly questioned, “What if something should ....?”


As the deadline for application was approaching, Zhong struggled in the depth of his mind, back and forth, with his long buried childhood dream . After a long inner-conflict, he decided to have a chat with his family. Following rounds of weighing and balancing, he handed in his application on the last day.

Zhong thus signed up to join the Chinese medical aid team to Africa and embarked on the most unforgettable journey in the early winter of 2004.


2. National Influence for a Sense of Mission

Where is Niger?

Zhong found that the “country of sunshine and heat” was located on the brim of Sahara, being one of the least developed countries in the world and the Zinder region he was headed to the most remote and backward of the country.

Following a protracted journey, the 11 members of the Chinese medical aid team arrived at the totally unfamiliar place. Their eyes were met with bleak streets and shabby allies, parallelly rampant were the scorching sun and endemics. Despite the fact that the Zinder Hospital was a national-class establishment, the equipment was kind of crude and out of dated and medical professionals and medicine were in severely short supply.

The month of March brings forth the feared Ramadan-Asia Monsoon when sandstorms would attack for about 2 months almost incessantly with sand grains brought by strong gales eclipsing the sun even during daytime. Several fellow team members fell victims to malaria and almost everyone was suffering from diarrhoea because of the mildewy rice they had to eat. Later, their diet changed to sweet potatoes and potatoes, and before long, constipation started to set in. The team members began losing weight for malnutrition. “I lost some 5 kilos or more,” Zhong recalls. Soon he had to find a hammer and nail to open a new hole on his belt and as he was at it, the others all came asking for help. “All of us ‘succeeded’ in shedding some weight!”

As hunger and diseases were part of life at the poverty stricken place, no one even knew that a greater disaster was looming up quietly.

They began hearing news of deaths of starvation from the nearby villages in April 2005. However, in the beginning, as infrastructure of communications was lacking, Zhong’s fellow team members and himself, who were busy with their routines in the operation room, merely found they had to deal with rapidly rising numbers of patients. Not until they heard the BBC news when they were eventually certain that the gravest famine in the history of Niger had taken place.

His team decided to go on a search and rescue mission for survivors in the villages. As they arrived in a village called Sirandaga (transliteration), they found it all quiet except for the howling birds on a leafless elm. All of a sudden, a villager burst out of his muddy hut and pleaded for help to save his dying child, seeing the approaching Chinese doctors. As they stepped into the hut, they found a baby girl huddling in the lap of her mother. Zhong and his colleagues raised about 20,000 West African francs among themselves to send the girl to the hospital immediately, as the impoverished family was penniless. Thanks to the timely intervention, the little girl survived.

 As they continued the search, the seriousness of the disaster began dawning on them. Despite the intense sun, the villages were shrouded under tragedies day in and day out, with 3.6 million people being affected by the famine and one fourth of the children under 5 years of age killed by malnutrition. Although the Chinese medical aid team did everything they could, including raising money for the children’s treatment, it was too little to save them all.

The Chinese doctors worked round the clock in the operation room during the famine and fellill one after another when the crisis was over. As the villagers learned of the dire situation, they brought whatever little was still left, peanuts and potatoes, to the Chinese medical team’s aid and refused to go until the food was accepted.


3. Meaning of Life for a Sense of Responsibility


In a sunny and warm afternoon of 2008, Danial, a British friend of Zhong’s, came to visit and Zhong told him about his Africa experience. Danial suggested, “You should write it down and your experience will make a good book.”

The friend’s advice struck a chord in Zhong’s heart. However, being a medicine professional, writing was seemed a bit far-fetched to him. Nonetheless, as he opened his diaries written in Africa, the scenes of his time there buried deep in his mind resurfaced with strong emotions.

Unforgettable was the scene of helping his African brethren with their harvest under the blistering West Africa sun;

The scene of the locals never laying a finger on the wild animals even in the bad famine;

The scene of little children dying in their mothers’ arms for the lack of water;


The scene of his fellow team members endeavoring to save the famine struck villagers with half-empty stomachs;

And the scene of ....

Zhong wrote a post in English with a couple of photos of the Chinese medical aid workers in Africa and sent it to Danial who relayed it onto a British website. The post was clicked some 130,000 times in a couple of days.

The online click volume, however, can never dwarf the fact that China has so far sent 20,029 medical workers to 67 African countries since 1963, who have altogether treated 240 million patients. Leaving their homes and families behind, several generations of Chinese doctors have endured heavy workloads and unbearable loneliness to serve in Africa with perseverance and won the hearts of the locals with sincerity and integrity. Away from Africa, nonetheless, all that is little known and often misperceived and misinterpreted in the West. For nearly 5 decades up by then, there was not a single book telling the true stories of the Chinese medical aid workers working and living in Africa. Driven by a swelling sense of responsibility, Zhong began recounting the first hand stories of Chinese medical aid workers and the book was finished in early 2010.

As the first literary reportage ever on the Chinese medical workers in Africa, A Chinese Medical Worker in a Small Town of Africa caught public attention immediately at home following publication. The winning of the Junma (Steed) Prize at the 10th National Awards for Ethnic Minority Literature in September 2012 is an actualization of the title page remarks that read, “This book is dedicated to all the Chinese medical aid workers in Africa”. It is an account of the tireless efforts the Chinese medical aid workers made in promoting public health and China-Africa friendship in Africa.

Two months prior to winning the Prize, Zhong embarked on yet another trip for Africa, in July 2012, and this time to Comoro Islands in East Africa on the Indian Ocean.

In 8 years’ time, Zhong has transformed himself from a bachelor to a father. Being a father now, his journey to Africa this time is no longer to fulfill a childhood dream but out of a sense of mission and responsibility. In his e-mail answering questions from this interviewer, he declares candidly, “Those years in Africa are the most unforgettable experience of my life, as they gave me new insights into the meaning of it. It has since ignited my care for that continent with a sense of gratitude and this is why I want to do something meaningful while I am still young.”


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