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'Barefoot doctor' from Africa promotes TCM

China Daily | Updated: 2017-10-28 06:55

BEIJING - 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 practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine.

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 research base.

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

When she stopped - surprised at hearing a foreigner speaking Chinese - he used his best persuasive manner. "If I am not effective, I will not take any money from you," he said.

Reassured partly by that and partly by his Chinese, she came back, underwent treatment and felt better. "Eventually, she brought her parents and husband, and they all became my patients," he said.

Boubacar grew up in a small town in south-central Mali, a landlocked country in West Africa where it's a challenge to provide affordable healthcare to 18 million people. The country suffered a series of conflicts following colonial rule by France.

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 he switched to TCM studies at Guangzhou University of TCM, preferring to study something typical of Chinese culture. It was difficult at the beginning, he recalled.

"It's not like now. Now there are places in China where foreigners can go for classes in English," he said. "I attended the 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 literature, as most of the medical texts are written in old-style Chinese characters.

"That's a subject even the Chinese find difficult - so think of me, a foreigner," he smiled.

His greatest challenge 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, Boubacar became the first foreigner to receive a doctoral degree in acupuncture from Chengdu University of TCM. That same year, he also got married.

He met his wife, Yang Mei, while attending a church in Chengdu. Since then, his Chinese has further improved, as well as his knowledge of Chinese culture. The couple have been married 20 years and have two children.

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

Because of his work in the community, where he has been training village doctors in TCM, Boubacar has become known as "China's barefoot doctor".

Boubacar's contribution has been recognized by the Chinese authorities. He has been honored with awards by the local government of Yunnan and was 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 relationships he has forged in China, he has a big dream, which after 10 years appears to be on solid ground.

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

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