‘Mandla’, the soccer doctor of Nkandla

2008-03-15 00:00

Rob Melvin is a “city boy” from London who “works hard and plays hard and likes the bright lights”. He’s just finished a six-month post at a remote South African hospital and, although he says he’s ready to move on, he’s extremely enthusiastic about his rural experience.

“I’ve had a magic time. It’s a fabulous place to work and I would highly recommend it to anyone. There’s so much to see and do both inside and outside of work that the experience is well worth the risk. I came for the experience, and the experience has been incredible.”

Melvin, who qualified in 2003, visited South Africa the year before while doing a six-month working holiday in Tanzania.

“I had a good idea as to the beauty of the country and the possibilities here and I was really keen to do it again.”

While studying for a diploma in Tropical Medicine in Liverpool at the beginning of 2007, he saw an advert for placements in SA and decided to follow it up. After contacting the organisation he was placed at Nkandla, a small district hospital with 212 beds.

His latest African experience, despite being short, has been marked by a deep connection with local people that has given him an enviably full, wide-ranging experience.

“I’ve tried to integrate myself as much as I can, being the only white person in a very black area.

I’ve been really welcomed and people have always made the effort and been really nice and open and friendly. People within the hospital, particularly the admin staff, are always welcoming me around for a beer in the evening or to watch the football or little things like that. I’ve been invited to their family homes on a couple of occasions, and it was a real privilege to go and meet community elders. Some of the nurses have become quite good friends and have involved me in various social activities, mainly parties. And I’ve never felt out of place or like I’m just the token white guy there.”

But it was Melvin’s ball skills that really helped him to connect. Soon after arriving at Nkandla, he joined some of the hospital staff in a soccer game. Afterwards, one of the players asked him to play in their team at a local stadium that evening.

“I was introduced in Zulu to all these other young lads, was thrown a kit and put on the pitch. It was an amazing experience — there’s me under the spotlights, running around, people watching, all getting drunk, I vaguely pick up that some of the abuse is coming my way, but it was just fabulous. And from there I’ve played with the team for the rest of the season.”

Melvin’s team won the local village league, and he’s been given the nickname Mandla (Power).

Nkandla Hospital is situated about 300 km north of Durban and serves a relatively sparcely populated region that contains about 100 000 people.

“It’s a rural village, with mainly non-permanent structures. The hospital is the biggest area of buildings. People walk everywhere because very few people can afford cars. It’s an absolutely stunningly beautiful mountainous area, quite unlike how you’d probably imagine Africa; it’s very green and it rains a lot. But it still has all the other things people imagine in Africa: young children playing by the roadside, people walking with big buckets on their heads, mud huts. So there’s that contrast: the incredible scenic beauty with the incredible poverty.”

In his six months at Nkandla, Melvin adapted surprisingly well to rural life.

“I’m going to miss the outdoor life, and the openness here. There are so few people that you can go for a period of time without seeing anyone. Growing up in London, I’ve never had that. That’s the wonderful thing about SA, you can go for a walk and just lose yourself and disappear, which is fabulous.

“The best part for me has been learning a little bit of Zulu and then being able to walk in most places I’ve visited and greet and be greeted by the locals there. You just can’t beat that. I guess growing up in London, people have got their heads down, they’ve got a focus, they’re going somewhere; it’s very individual, it’s very egocentric, and it’s not very friendly.”

He’s countered the potential monotony of rural life with frequent weekend trips around the province.

“I’ve been able to get out and experience as much of KwaZulu-Natal as I can. South Africa’s a beautiful country; there’s so much to see. I’ve put 10 000 km on my car in six months, but the reward is so worth it. I haven’t really had to think twice if people have suggested things.”

His best experience was tiger-shark diving without a cage at the Aliwal Shoal on the KwaZulu-Natal south coast.

It was while working in Nkandla that he realised he really enjoyed emergency medicine. When he leaves, he will move on to training post in Melbourne, Australia, to become an A&E specialist, a position he set up while at Nkandla. It’s now clear that the clinical experience will be extremely valuable.

“The professional experience that I’ve gained here has been amazing and will stand me in very good stead, particularly for a future in emergency medicine. Some of the trauma you see here and what you have at your disposal to deal with it is a real challenge.”

Melvin says the best part of working in South Africa is the sense of job satisfaction he gets here.

“You can make a difference to people who have very little, which is very rewarding. Often in the UK, people don’t know how lucky they are, so obviously you can help them, but it’s just to a very different degree.”

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