Durban - It took Bheki Masango 10 years after completing matric to start studying medicine, but he did it. He is just one of many South Africans who were educated and trained in Cuba.
Masango captivated the audience as celebrations got underway in Durban on Friday to commemorate the 15th anniversary of South Africa and Cuba's health collaboration agreement.
"It took me 10 years after matric to go to medical school. It took a long time because we were so disadvantaged. But today I feel very proud to be a doctor and to have been selected and taken to Cuba," said Masango, who comes from Mpumalanga and was one of the first batch of students to graduate.
The proud doctor said "celebrating this baby" showed how far government has come in addressing the plight of the previously disadvantaged.
Masango said riding horses in a rural area and then getting onto a plane to arrive in another country for the first time was an unbelievable experience.
"People were negative about this programme. They said we would have to go there and as junior doctors, we would have to do heart surgery. They said all kind of things. But when we got there it was a very different experience.
"When we arrived, I was very surprised that the majority of the people were white and we have never had this kind of integration before," said Masango.
The young South Africans at the time were given six months to learn Spanish. Initially this terrified them, but Masango said the Cubans are wonderful and helpful people. A mere two months later, Masango was speaking Spanish.
Joking about what he thought would be a daunting prospect, he said: "In South Africa, it took us 12 years to learn English, and we are still struggling so the idea of learning Spanish in six months was terrifying."
Apart from medical training, Masango said Cubans taught him to truly value culture, history and his heroes.
"Cubans know their heroes. It made me realise how much we must appreciate and learn about (Nelson) Mandela, (Walter) Sisulu and (Oliver) Tambo. Sometimes I would get confused about which side our flag would go, so I learnt about these things," said Masango.
On the medical front, Masango was taken in by Cuban philosophy on medicine, which asks why treat when you can prevent.
"This concept is the pillar of primary health care. This teaching is the basis of their medicine. Forget about the machines. To be a doctor, [you have to] use your hands, senses and stethoscope and diagnose patients," said Masango.
He said that his teachers felt like parents because he was invited into their homes and got to share food and their lives with them.
"Our teachers assisted us even outside the classroom. Cuba embraced us."
There was fear when returning to South Africa, as Masango was worried about being integrated into the country again after so many years. Also, having been taught in Spanish, he would have to convert everything to English.
There was also the issue of negative attitudes towards doctors trained in Cuba or even those who didn't study at so-called prestigious medical schools in South Africa.
But actions spoke louder than words in Masango's case. He was able to impress during his internship at Medunsa following his training in Cuba.
"It doesn't matter which university you studied at. It depends on you and how well you practise medicine, how you connect with your patient. Let us stop complaining and start making a difference, even if it's a drop in the ocean, it has made a difference," said Masango.