It was hugs and tears of joy as Zazi Zulu from Pietermaritzburg arrived back home to waiting family after six years of studying medicine in Cuba. Picture: DOCTOR NGCOBO, INLSA
Durban - The first of three groups of medical students returning home from Cuba were welcomed with songs, ululations and tears of joy by their families at the King Shaka International Airport on Sunday.

The cohort - 260 nationally - left to study medicine in 2012 and are part of almost 3000 South African students in the Department of Health’s Cuban doctor training programme.

Among the returning contingent is Zazi Zulu, who left his family in Pietermaritzburg when he was 17.

He said had it not been for the programme, he would not be returning home a Spanish- speaking, “almost-doctor” at just 23.

Among the waiting parents, was Thembisile Sibiya, who last saw her daughter Anele two years ago.

The uMlazi mother could not contain her excitement when she spotted Anele among the returning students at the airport.

Anele thanked her mother for inspiring her to pursue her dream to become a doctor.

Without formal employment, Anele’s mother made a living selling fruit and vegetables, but the death of her husband motivated her to go back to school at the age of 32.

“I eventually obtained my degree and became a teacher, but it was still tough and I had to work hard to educate my children,” she said.

She told The Mercury on Sunday that she was grateful to God for her accomplished daughters - accountant Gugu, commerce graduate Nonhlanhla, chemical engineer Xolile and soon-to-be doctor Anele for valuing education and working hard to make something of their lives.

The women are excited to spend the next few weeks together before Anele moves to the Eastern Cape for her final year.

The latest move will be an easier pill to swallow for her mother, who has not seen her daughter for almost two years.

While family support is vital to “survive” Cuba, Bernadine Pillay, 27, said the ­cameraderie among the students was what got them through.

“It was a long and rough journey and I’m glad to be home. It took a long time for me to get used to the Cuban culture and food, so I’m really looking forward to chicken curry today,” she said.

Her mother, Maya, and the rest of the family from Phoenix had an anxious wait at the airport as Bernadine was the last student to emerge.

Health MEC Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo said the group would spend the next 18 months completing their studies at universities in the country and be sent to health facilities in their districts of origin.

“Here, they will put on a white coat and stethoscope and start working as doctors, literally meaning that their communities will have access to more doctors than ever before,” he said.

The Mercury