Feature: China's "barefoot" African doctor to take TCM to Africa

Source: Xinhua| 2017-10-26 00:03:26|Editor: yan
Video PlayerClose

by Sudeshna Sarkar, Sui Lixi

BEIJING, Oct. 25 (Xinhua) -- If Diarra Boubacar did not have very good reflexes and a pair of sturdy legs, he might never have been able to distinguish himself as a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in China.

The 53-year-old still has a good laugh when he talks about his first day working as a doctor at a private hospital in Chengdu, the city in southwest China known for its panda museum and research base.

For three days, he didn't get a single patient. Then on the fourth, a matronly woman opened the door to his office, saw him - and ran away. "I had to run after her, saying I can help you with the problem," he said laughingly.

When she stopped, arrested by the sight of a foreigner speaking Chinese, he put on his best persuasive manner. "If I am not effective, I will not take any money from you," he promised her.

Reassured partly by that and partly by his Chinese, she came back, underwent treatment and felt better. "Finally, she started bringing her parents, her husband and they all became my patients," he reminisced.

Dr. Boubacar grew up in a small town in south-central Mali, a landlocked country in West Africa, which finds it challenging to provide affordable healthcare to its 18 million people, having suffered a series of conflicts following colonial rule by France.

From his father, Dr. Thiemoko Diarra, who worked with the International Committee of the Red Cross in his hometown, Dr. Boubacar learnt to build up trust with his patients and tried to be conscious of their payment capacity.

"When my father saw patients at home, he never took any fee from them," he said. "He would tell me, a doctor's job is to love his patients and serve his community."


Dr. Boubacar first came to China in 1984 on a student exchange program majoring in Chinese language and culture at Beijing Language and Culture University.

After the two-year course, he intended to enroll at Beijing Medical University but then switched to studying TCM at Guangzhou University of TCM, preferring to study something typical in China. The start, as he remembered, was very difficult.

"It's not like now when you have places in China where foreigners can go and (attend) class in English," he explained to Xinhua.

"I went to university with Chinese students (and) we did it in Chinese. So it was very, very hard for us. In the beginning we couldn't understand the teachers."

Since TCM is also related to Chinese history and culture, students have to study ancient Chinese literatures as most of the medical texts are written in ancient Chinese characters. "That's a subject even the Chinese find difficult; so think of me, a foreigner!" he said.

What inspired him to plod on was the similarities in TCM and traditional African medicine, such as using certain herbs to treat the same diseases and letting out blood.

However, the greatest challenge for him was to convince people that even though he was a "laowai" - a foreigner - he could still treat them effectively with TCM. Fortunately, his fluency in Chinese improved, which helped.

In 1997, he became the first foreigner to receive a doctoral degree in acupuncture from Chengdu University of TCM. The same year, he also got married.

He met his wife, Yang Mei, while attending a local church in Chengdu. Since then, his Chinese has further improved as well as his knowledge of Chinese culture. After 20 years of marriage, the proud couple has two children.

Dr. Boubacar said he is so well integrated into Chinese culture and society that every time he goes back home, his friends complain about his being "more Chinese than African!"

His philosophy is simple. Life is about living in harmony with friends, and it "doesn't matter whether here in China or in Africa."

Besides his work in a private sector, Dr. Boubacar has also been working with Medecins Sans Frontieres, the international medical humanitarian organization, going to underdeveloped villages to treat impoverished patients.

A major part of his work was to treat leprosy patients. In 1999, Dr. Boubacar participated in an HIV prevention and awareness project in Sichuan and southwest China's Yunnan Province, where he is based today.

"In the past few years, AIDS prevention and treatment has really improved in China and TCM is being used effectively to build up the immunity system," he told ChinAfrica magazine.


Due to his work in the community, where he has also been training village doctors in TCM, Dr. Boubacar is also known as "China's barefoot doctor" and the "African Norman Bethune."

Dr. Bethune was a Canadian frontline doctor who ran mobile hospitals in north China in the 1930s.

Dr. Boubacar's contribution has been recognized by the Chinese authorities. He has been awarded by the local government of Yunnan and hailed as one of China's top 10 humanitarian workers in a public vote organized by a Chinese TV channel. In 2013, he received a national award from Premier Li Keqiang.

Buoyed by his medical expertise, experience, and the connections that he has built up in China, he has a dream. For 10 years he had been dreaming the dream but finally, it is on solid ground.

"I want to have this big center," he described his vision. "I want to (build) not only a hospital but also an educational center where people can come and learn about Chinese medicine."

The center, besides combining a hospital and a teaching institution, will also have a facility for advanced research into both TCM and African herbal medicine. Dr. Boubacar has been networking with 15 African doctors studying in China and is hopeful they would be part of the project.

He is also looking for investors, in China and elsewhere. This dream, he says would not have been born if he had not come to China.

"All these years in China, I learned a lot," he said. "I am very thankful and grateful to my teachers ... Now I have got enough resources and enough knowledge. I will be able to go back to Africa and start this project."

He plans to start on a small scale and will be training doctors in Africa like he did in rural China. "If they learn TCM, they will be able to treat people in Africa in a very cheap and effective way," he said.

TCM has received global attention after the Chinese government's vigorous promotion, followed by Chinese pharmacologist Tu Youyou receiving the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2015 for her formulation of a cure for malaria from ancient Chinese medical texts.

The rise of TCM on the international stage inspires him. "Chinese medicine has become more and more well-known in the world. We have this new initiative. It's time now to do it," he said.


As an African who has embraced China, Dr. Boubacar has another dream. While he is promoting Chinese culture in Africa through TCM, he wants Chinese to learn more about Africa and African culture.

"I hope the Chinese can understand Africa (better) because China and Africa, we have a very long history together. We have been growing together," he said.

However, many Chinese, he said, do not still understand Africa. "Africa is not one country, it is 54 countries. Different countries have different customs," he said. "Many think Africa is only one country (full of) famine and war. We have more than that."