Netsanet Demeke, 47, warmly remembers Fidel Castro, the revolutionary hero and the man who ruled Cuba for five decades. She says she had a wonderful time in Fidel Castro’s Cuba when she went to study there and keeps a memory of a charismatic leader deeply rooted in his political ideals.
Netsanet, who has been working at the National Artificial Insemination Centre of the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture for the past 17 years, was 11 years old in 1979 when she left for Cuba to study along with thousands of orphan children all hoping for an education and a brighter future. This was the era of Castro’s internationalism, when Cuban soldiers were deployed to Africa and thousands of students from Ethiopia, Angola, Namibia arrived in the island to study free of charge. Around 4,000 Ethiopians went to Cuba in two batches, first getting to Assab port from Addis Ababa, which was the first major journey of their lives and another one month steerage travel to arrive in the Caribbean island. “From Assab to Yemen, then to Egypt, the Canary Islands and across the Atlantic to Cuba. I remember as it happened yesterday,” Netsanet says. The final destination was the la Isla de la Juventud (‘Isle of Youth’), where the Cuban government built 61 boarding schools on the island, each with a capacity for 500 pupils. Assembled from prefabricated slabs, they rose from the citrus groves in big blockish shapes that resembled space stations. Netsanet attended a school named after Mengistu Haile Mariam and they were given six months of Spanish language courses. She spent her formative years there, which had a profound impact on her coming of age. When not in class, they worked on fruit plantations and sometimes camped on beaches. They were given pocket money and attended weekly parties and carnivals once in a while. After finishing high school in the island, the young woman went to another town Bayamo to join university to pursue her veterinary science study. There she specialized in artificial insemination, a skill in demand in Ethiopia to improve the quality of livestock.
During her stay there, Netsanet remembers the easy-going, warm and friendly Cuban people and their gift for making people feel welcome and included. “It still brings tears to my eyes to think that with so little, they offered me so much,” she says. Fidel Castro also shared those traits. “He was a president yet accessible. He did things not like others. He was not scared of anything. He would drop in any time to our school and surprise us. He was a friendly soul with big smile,” Netsanet said. Netsanet said Castro was prepared to engage in a dialogue in public and he was a man who commanded the respect of the intellectuals and the masses. Netsanet returned to Ethiopia in 1990, a year before Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe. While the socialism project in her own country collapsed, she says she left Cuba in awe the people’s warm generosity, revolutionary idealism, and contagious cultural rhythm. She was moved by Castro’s commitment to provide housing and health care for all for all of his citizens.
After returning home, Netsanet got married to a veterinarian Dr.Deneke Hailemariam, had four kids, had a family and she decided to name her first son Fidel, after her youth-hood hero, Mr Castro.
(Netsanet in national Ethiopian dress with her teachers at Bayamo University.)
Netsanet first resumed her career in Asela, a town close to Adama where there was an artificial insemination laboratory established by the Cubans. A few years later she moved to Kaliti, where National Artificial Insemination Centre is located. Netsanet says there are many Cuban trained medical personnel injected in to the local health system, working as surgeons, dentists, paediatrician. “I can mention some of my friends. There is Dr Embete the famous dentist in Addis Ababa who runs her dental clinic around British embassy, Dr. Mulualem Gessesse, another famous paediatrician who worked at Yakatit hospital for many years and now runs a private clinic in Bole area, Dr. Billegn, director of the Paulos hospital. There are many of them. I know some who emigrated to Spain or the US.”