Dr. Mulualem Gessesse is one of the few doctors in Ethiopia who specialized in treating premature babies and recognised for her dedication and passion in changing the new-born care system in the country. While as an adolescent, Mulualem happened to be one of Ethiopian pupils who were granted scholarship to study at Cuba’s Isla de la Juventud, an island dedicated to education for students from socialist countries. In an interview with Ethiopia Observer, she shared her vivid memories of those students’ days. This is the second instalment of several articles.
I was born in 1964 in Addis Ababa in the Siddist Kilo neighbourhood. I was the second of seven children, born to a father who was a military sergeant and a health officer and a mother who was a housewife. My father died in the assignment in the war between Somalia and Ethiopia when I was 14. When I was in the 10th grade, in 1978, shortly after the death of my father, I was selected along with my three sisters and my brother to go to Cuba along with 2,500 young people to study at the boarding school on the Cuban Isla de la Juvenda. There were also Ethiopian teachers and their families. We were the first batches and we were drawn from different regions, different social class and age levels. Some of the kids were from orphanages. At times it was a challenge for the school to handle those unsettled little ones or those who came straight from street life. As for me, and my siblings, I was assigned in grade ten, my younger sister in grade eight, and my brother in six grade. Like most of theme, this was the first that we were away far from home. Everything was new, the culture, the food, the language, the heat. The main obstacle at the beginning had been the language barriers. I only spoke Amharic and little English. We were all given Spanish course for about six months, which helped us more or less to master the language. Also some practical lessons on how to use toilets, how to clean our teeth, how to eat their food. After the language and practical courses, I joined Mengistu Hailemarim School, one of the first schools built for Ethiopian students. There was another school placed by Cuba at Ethiopia’s disposal for the younger ones, called Karamara, named after the battlefield located between Harar and Jijiga where many Ethiopian and Cuban soldiers died. (Karamara remains an oft-invoked symbol of Ethio-Cuban solidarity.) Later, when the second batches arrived, two other schools were added, Kore and Sene schools, from the primary level up to middle high school (12th grade). We wore uniforms. There were dormitories for boys and girls. We slept in bunk beds in the dormitories. Mornings started with the wake-up bell. We had breakfast, lunch and dinner in the Dining Hall when the bell rang. We sang the Ethiopian national anthem. Daily happenings were announced from the podium as a way to energize and inform us. Some of us attended class in the morning others in the afternoon. The rest half day, we worked in worked in the plantation, carrying spade and hoes. We were not allowed to go to towns unless it was to seek assistance at higher hospitals. Some students used to run away to town, for which they were severely punished and some even sent back home. Many girls had been sent home after it became known they were pregnant. For my part, I have done well in my studies. I was still struggling with the loss of my father yet found special comfort in my bond with my some of classmates.
My experience living in this different place taught me that belonging had nothing to do with the labels with which I struggled, Ethiopian and Cuban. The experiences were components to my identity, a central part of my existence that changed as I matured and was influenced by the people and the place around me felt much affection for Cubans, having been made to feel welcome since my arrival.
As I completed high school, I joined the university in Havana to study medicine; though originally I was interested in studying engineering, my teachers made me study medicine instead because of its importance for the country. The most satisfying area has been the visits to doctor surgeries. They gave us the opportunity to relate to Cubans in the community, to discover what their everyday problems are. After studying for seven years, I became a general practitioner and returned to Ethiopia in 1986 to do my internship at Tikur Anbessa (Black Lion) and Yekatit 12. Around that time, I met her husband, Dr. Gemechis, while we were both working as interns. Immediately after graduation, we moved to Harar and we worked in the Army hospital in Bisidimo, Harar. Because the specialists were Cuban, I also served as interpreter at board meetings. After working there for five years, I returned to Addis and began to work at Yekatit 12 Hospital in 1990 where I continued to work for 10 years as a General Practitioner. I had always been especially interested in working with children and jumped at the opportunity to study paediatrics in Cuba again. It was a homecoming to me and to revisit my old memories. Returning to Havana fifteen years later, I thought the country might be replicating this strange moment in its history. Fidel Castro, holding out against all odds, was standing in his citadel; the Cuban people, caught inside his fortress, had to go along with him and wait for the future to reveal itself. Sub-specializing in neonatology, I studied for four years again, my former teacher giving me a quota, sparing me from paying 7,000 dollars per year. I came back home and restarted working in that field at Yekatit 12 Hospital for six years.
I feel that Cuba’s contribution to Ethiopia in various sectors is not well acknowledged and largely forgotten. The two country’s relation was very good until Mengistu declared mixed economy in 1990, opening political and economic liberalization and flow of arms and aid from Cuba and Soviet Union dwindled. Even the Cuban embassy in Addis Ababa was closed at some point. The relation with the current regime at the start was not sound either, though it improved years later. Those of us who studied there formed Ethio-Cuba Friendship Association several years ago and have been trying to bring to attention to government officials those aspects of history and to strengthen friendship and solidarity between the two peoples. In 2007, when the government of Ethiopia unveiled the Ethiopian and Cuban Friendship monument, we were extremely pleased.