Don’t expect sushi, SA students in Cuba told

2013-03-03 10:00

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Dr Lincoln Sixishe always knew when there was fish on the menu in his Cuban dining hall.

The walls of the dormitories would tremble as students rushed to make sure they got precious fish with their daily rice and beans.

That’s why Sixishe says he’s well qualified to deliver a message to unhappy South African medical students in Cuba.

“Don’t compare yourself to tourists who eat sushi. You’re there to learn valuable skills so you can come back and serve your people. You will make your money and live the life you want once you’ve completed your studies and started working.”

Sixishe, who works at Leratong Hospital in Kagiso, west of Johannesburg, is the secretary-general of the Cuba Graduates’ Association, which represents local doctors trained in Cuba as part of the South Africa-Cuba medical programme.

For the past two weeks, South African medical students in Cuba have complained they are not getting enough food and the $200 (R1 813) monthly stipend they receive from the health department was too little.

A week ago, there were claims that 187 students were arrested after protesting outside the South African embassy in Havana to demand better food and more money.

But health ministry spokesperson Joe Maila ­dismissed this as baseless ­rumour and said the students’ demands were outrageous.

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande also criticised the students, saying their “sense of entitlement and lack of gratitude was unacceptable”.

Sixishe agreed: “They are being ungrateful because they are getting three meals a day and the stipend is more like an allowance to safeguard them.”

Another Cuban graduate, Dr Steve Pheeha, who returned in 2005, said: “The $200 is more than sufficient in Cuba as the standard of living is very low, unless of course students want to eat and live like tourists.”

But Phillip Seanago, who ­returned last year, said his fellow students should be cut some slack: “The situation has changed in Cuba and it is unfair for government to expect students to live on the same stipend that was given to students 15 years ago.”

The food servings, he said, had become smaller since the 2009 economic crisis.

“This has meant we have to supplement the food we get from the university and we spend at least $50 from our stipend for extra food. We also have to call home once or twice a month – a three-minute phone call costs about $20 – and we try to save the remainder so that we are able to send money home as most of us come from poor families,” he said.

But Pheeha disagreed.

“I don’t see why people should be calling home often because there is internet at the university and people can use Facebook to contact their families,” he said.

“The government gives students that money so they can safeguard themselves. If they choose to save for whatever reason, they should not complain about it being insufficient.”

Sixishe said that although times might have changed on the Caribbean island, “asking for a $500 increase on the stipend is way out of line”.

“I also studied in Cuba during difficult times, where the Russian government pulled out their support and we were left with no food. The university fed us the little it had, but we stomached it and told ourselves we were there to study and go back home to better the lives of our families,” he said.

During his time, students ate rice and beans for months because fish, chicken, beef or even the Cuban staple, pork, were unavailable. Not once “did we threaten to abandon our mission and come home”.

“Instead, whenever fish was served at the dining hall, walls of the dormitories would tremble and there would be celebrations in the corridors as everybody rushed to get their share, and it was worse if it was chicken or beef.”

Pheeha said that when he arrived in Cuba, the South African students had a “separate dining hall with a different menu”.

“Everybody knew South Africans were well off because even in our rooms we had furniture bought by the same $200 that has suddenly become too little for current students. We were the envy of other international students because none of them were receiving money from their governments.”

Seanago admitted South ­Africans were still considered better off.

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